Dr. Sashinungla Pongen
Many people were caught by surprise the morning of January 10, 2019, when good citizens of Dimapur glanced at the newspapers that carried the news of the eventful declaration of the closure of shops and other business activities carried out on Sundays to mark the day as Holy. Apparently, citizens of all walks of life, most remarkably Christians paused over the news and begin to ask questions of all sorts concerning the whats, whys and the hows of the observation of Sunday and people’s attitudes about solemnly observe it.
Situated between the debate of the religious and spiritual implications of Sunday and the growing political scenario of the resurgence of nationalism and the uncertainties it holds, the dreadful story of Christianity during the French Revolution (1789-1799) calls to mind. History has great stories for us to reflect on and think of what we possibly can learn to our advantage. The French Revolution paved the way for a new trend of nationalism. Under the leadership of the French National Assembly (1789-1792), church properties including lands were taken away. The state declared a Civil Constitution for the clergy which required church administration to be subordinate to the state (Keeet, 360). Besides the poor being sponsored and schools financed, the church leaders were to be salaried instead of receiving tithes. It seemingly sounds wonderful but had to face consequences. Under Maximilien Robespierre (1758-1794), King and queen, bishops and priests, were among the many thousands killed. It was followed by de-christianization. A new calendar was introduced which completely eliminated Sunday.
In France, the purpose of abolishing Christian calendar (Gregorian calendar) was to deprive of all Christian events and dismissed Christian worship in the churches to introduce non-Christian worship. Sunday was no longer to be a “special” day or a “holy” day; and therefore, not a holiday! Church leaders, instead of being salaried, had to abandon their ministry or be persecuted if they remain faithful to the call of Christian ministry. The life of the church and society was deeply shattered and many bishops and clergy fled the country in the eighteenth century (Edwards, 380).
What summons up on my mind on listening and reflecting on the current debate is to get back to the basics of the Christian tradition and find the significance of Sunday for a believer in Christ. This new order that shattered Christian faith in France matters, as it reminds Naga Christians that if we are not aware of the signs of times through spiritual discernment, Naga Christianity might be spiritually surrendered to the earthly worldly-wise powers that lure us. Whether to observe Sunday as a day of rest or not depends on a person’s religious and spiritual conviction, as expressed by many writers already.
What is crucial for the church and the believers is to understand the place of Sunday in Christian Calendar. This article humbly attempts to explain that the Lord’s Day or Sunday is the heart or the foundation of the Christian Calendar; here lies the core content of Christian belief. True observance of the significance of the Lord’s Day will give spiritual directions for a believer towards spiritual growth and attainment of Christian maturity. To this end, we shall try to answer the following questions: 1) What is Church Year or Christian Calendar? 2) Why are the Naga Baptist Christians unaware or do not practice the full content of the Church Year? 3) What is the meaning and significance of the Lord’s Day/Sunday in the life of a Christian? An attempt to trace back to the history of Christian tradition in light of Scriptural teaching may enhance our understanding.
WHAT IS CHURCH YEAR OR CHRISTIAN CALENDAR?
The expressions Church Year, Christian Calendar, Liturgical Calendar, or Lectionary Year are often interchangeably used to mean the observance of the annual cycle of festivals, seasons and days centered on the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It includes commemoration of Jesus’s “virtues as exhibited in the lives of the saints.” For the early Christians, the most important truth on which their faith anchored was the fact that God revealed Himself in history in the person and work of Jesus of Nazareth. They believed that Jesus’ promise of the new age has been fulfilled with His resurrection on “the first day of the week,” a Jewish expression known as Sunday in Roman calendar, distinct from Jewish Sabbath (Mathew 28:1; Mark 16:2; Luke 24:1; John 20:1).
The strength of this power of resurrection which re-created unshakable faith among the followers of Jesus paved the way to celebrate the life of Christ on a weekly basis on Sunday. In it, the early Christians saw a new Christian conception of time— “Kairos-God’s time or opportune moment” as is used in “redeeming the time” in Ephesians 5:16 and Colossians 4:5—through which all the rest “Chronos-human’s time,” find its meaning. In other words, early Christians could understand that in the fullness of God’s time, Christ was revealed to them as the savior of the world. Christ was ascended into heaven to prepare a place for all the believers and that He will return to judge the death and the living in His own time (2 Timothy 4:1-2; 1 Peter 4:1-8; Matthew 24:36-44). Looking forward to that Day of the Lord, early Christians practiced organizing of time for worship and doing good to neighbours. This practice has deeply influenced in “shaping Christian memories” which naturally led to development of the Church Year (Hickman, 17).
Upon conversion of Roman Emperor Constantine, the “Edict of Milan 313 CE” gives Christians freedom of religious practice. In 321 CE, Constantine legislated that Sundays would be set apart as “a day of rest, a legal holiday.” It implied cessation from all work that day with an exception that farmers could work if necessary (Hinson, 20). However, Constantine did not adopt Sunday as the Lord’s Day. Sunday in Roman calendar was actually the second day of the week, the day of the Unconquered Sun—Sol Invictus. Interestingly, Roman Christian historian Eusebius interpreted this legislation as a “concession” to Christians. However, the evidence of a literal application of the Sabbath law to Sunday is seen only in the sixth century as indicated in the church laws and civil laws of the Frankish kingdoms.This eventually developed into Sabbatarian sentiments in British Puritanism. The Puritans (a group English Protestants of the 16th and 17th centuries who desired to purify the church of England from within)greatly influenced the Lord’s Day theology for about 300 years until the debate on modernism and fundamentalism disturbed the 20th century Christianity. However, Constantine’s decree led to a connection between Sunday and Sabbath rest that was not in the piety of the early Christians. Constantine did mediate the serious controversy dividing Christians as to when to celebrate Easter—on a Sunday or on a Jewish Sabbath. With his intervention, the Easter Sunday was fixed on the Sunday after Nissan 14 (approximate secular date March –April) in 325 CE. Therefore, we can say that Constantine helped Sundays find its way into the Christian Calendar.
Consequently, Christian Calendar elaborated as the authority’s favour for Christianity grew. Advent, which marks the opening of Church Year, followed by Christmas and Epiphany(commemoration of the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles through the three wise men) forms the first cycle. Ash Wednesday (signifieshuman need for repentance reminding“you are dust; and to dust you shall return.” Genesis 3:19. NRSV) which begins the Lent (40 days excluding Sundays), wrapping up with the Holy week with Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday (commemoration of the Last Supper), Good Friday and Easter, leading to Pentecost forms the second cycle.The rest 33 or 34 Sundays are known as Ordinary Time in Church Year. Many Protestant churches including Baptist churches dedicate Sundays to religious, charitable and other important themes pertaining to community life for the benefit of the congregations. In fact, we see a steady expansion of the events in Christian calendar throughout the nineteenth and the twentieth centuries.
For instance, in our current Naga Baptist calendar too, we have Christian Home Week, Father’s Day, Mother’s Day, Youth Sunday, Senior Citizen Sunday, Social Concerns Sunday, etc., some of which are twenty-first century additions. Perhaps, revisiting the cycles of the Church Year may instruct us to recreate more meaningful and insightful content of Christian worship and enrich our daily walk with Christ. Furthermore, Christian teaching which is vital to “discipling” believers, and yet, popularly identified as lacking among Naga Baptists, can be taken care of by intentionally revisiting the tradition of the Church Year. Church Year can be modified by the ecclesiastical law which enables churches the right to organize their own church calendar depending on the pastoral needs of the congregations for spiritual edification.
If SO, WHY ARE THE NAGA CHRISTIANS UNAWARE OF THE FULL CONTENT OF THE CHURCH YEAR?
In the historyof Church Year, Protestant reformers made the most remarkable revision during the 16th century Reformation. Unlike the other Protestant churches who kept a modified form of Church Year, Puritans, from whom the Separatists (a group separated from Puritans and set up their own congregations) emerged, had rejected the Church Year completely, except the observation of Sundays. What we need to remember is that Baptists came into being through the English Separatists John Smyth (1570-1612) and Thomas Helwys (1550-1616), to whom our American Baptist missionary forebears trace their origin. History records that most early Baptists rejected Church Year to the point of refusing to celebrate Christmas and other Christian festivals. As a matter of fact, many North American Baptists continued to “uphold the principle that every Lord’s Day (Sunday) was just like any other day” similar to that of the early Christian piety (Aaron,199). Whereas, other Baptists strictly observed Sunday as a day of rest and worship holding the Sabbatarian view; a few others maintain the Church Year and more formal liturgy as purposeful for their congregations’ spiritual growth.
Remarkably, after the American Baptist organized a forum to discuss worship related issue in 1989 under the theme “Liturgy and Life,” Baptists have begun to adapt and borrow liturgy and lectionaries from other denominations which is testified as strengthening the Christian faith and worship life (Aaron, 221-222). Although the attitude of complete rejection of the Church Year no longer uniformly practiced among the Baptists today, it explains why the masses of the Naga Baptist Christians are not fully aware of the content of the Church Year. Nonetheless, what Naga Baptists have picked up from the Church Year, perhaps unintentionally, is apparently the use of liturgical colours on special Sundays and seasons. It refers to the use of specific colours for apparels and hangings (decorations) within the context of Christian worship which may help highlight moods appropriate to a season and special occasion. If liturgical colours have compellingly attracted us, can we dare not care the inner core beauty and significance of the Church Year, that is, “the Lord’s Day”?
WHAT IS THE MEANING AND SIGNIFICANCE OF THE LORD’S DAY OR SUNDAY IN THE LIFE OF A CHRISTIAN?
First,before the first evidence of Christmas celebration in Rome in 336 CE, undoubtedly there was Sunday. Sunday or the Lord’s Day was observed in memory of Jesus’ resurrection. It boldly signifies Christ’s victoryover the power of sin and death (1Corinthians 15: 54-57). The divine purpose is that the whole creation including humankind, might be redeemed from the destructive powers of this world that entices us towards eternal punishment (Romans 8:22; Colossians 1:19, 20; Matthew 25:46). For the Naga Christians such destructive powers can be identified in the presence of corruption, which Governor R.N. Ravi pointed out as “pathological.” (Tinakali Sumi, “Ravi’s Vision to Transform Nagaland,” Nagaland Post, August 22, 2019)
One can name such powers in the form of materialism, tribalism, complacency, absenteeism from work, and you name it. Despite the presence of all these ugly truths, the Good News is: in the power of resurrected Christ, we have the assurance of forgiveness of sins and transformation of life at both individual and corporate levels, which makes the Lord’s Day significant.
Second, the resurrection of Jesus from the dead on the first day of the week is the foundation of the Christian belief. It is clearly explained by Paul in I Corinthians 15:14ff, where it says: “And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless, and so is your faith…. But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead… And as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be alive.” This resurrection power gives believers a “lively hope” in Christ (I Peter 1:3). This is the reason why, when apostles were still aliveSunday was known to be considered as the normative time for acts of Christian worship upon which Christian Calendar is anchored.
Third, is there anything we can learn from the earliest Christians concerning the significance of the Lord’s Day? The most complete description of early Christian worship on the Lord’s Day is found in the work of Justin Martyr (c. 100 CE-c. 165 CE), an early Church Father. Justin relates the significance of Sunday assembly with creation and redemption. It implies the realization of the newness of life in Christ for believers. Justin narrates how the gathering begins with reading of “the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets…as long as the time permits” (Ferguson, 12). It means that these readings have provided essential opportunity for the common people to become familiar with the Bible. To the contemporary time-conscious Naga Christian worshippers today, are we missing out the essential benefit of reading the Bible?
In a worship service, the leader then delivers an expository sermon based on the reading of the day, and made a practical moral application. Our popular existing preaching types are dominantly topical, reflective and quite often, pep talks that stimulate us. However, it is timewe need to appreciate the value of expository sermons with which early Christians nurture their faith. Moreover, Justin tells us that “all rise together and send up prayers” which was done as a sign of joy and boldness. Standing on the Lord’s Day for prayer signifies that a person had special privileges to come to God through Christ freely. In one of the early Christian documents called Didache (Didache14:1 The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles), which is believed to bemost undisputable document, records about the “divinely instituted day of the Lord.” It explains how the Eucharist—“thanksgiving meal” also known as “Christian sacrifice”(which eventually came to be known as the Lord’s Supper) was conducted every Sunday. It was followed by confession of one’s “failings”[sins] that their “sacrifice may be pure.” (Milavec, 35) The practice of Christian confession of sins accompanied by the meal on Sunday was no ordinary significance to the early Christians. It implies “oblations [offerings], but not those of irrational animals of incense [animal offerings], but of spiritual praises, gloryings … and doing good to our neighbours.” (Ferguson, 14).
What implication can we derive from this when many Christians today are confused due to complete dependence on another person’s faith (Prayer Warriors and Prayer Centers) than one’s own genuine faith in the resurrected power of Jesus Christ?
In the worship, after the leader pronounced prayers and thanksgiving and congregational hearty “Amen,” followed by salutation to each other, the bread and wine were served to the baptized members of the church (the deacons carry some to those who were absent). At the end of the service, members contributed voluntarily both in cash and kind to help orphans, widows, sick, prisoners, and strangers. Such description of authentic worship and works of charity in the midst of unwanted hoarding habit (almost turning into a culture unconsciously) of the Nagas make us to ponder as to whether our early Christian forebears had taught the Naga Christians anything about this.
• While we popularly talk about Sunday closure in our context, the more significant questions becomes how do we serve each other? How do we share resources in times of need? How do we help one another?
Fourth, indeed, Naga church history gives us the evidence that the earliest of American Baptist missionaries Edward Winter Clark (1830-1913) and his wife Mary Mead Clark (1832-1924) had taught the significance of the Lord’s Day and the need to imitate the footsteps of early Christians. Myrecent archival research on Naga Church history led to the rediscovery of the “Catechism” employed by Clarks. This Catechism is a manual of Baptist Christianbeliefs in the form of questions and answers. It was usedto nurture faith and practice among the first generation Naga Baptist Christians. To be sure about what our forebears have taught to the earliest Christians, here is the original content:
What do we find the first Christians doing on the Lord’s day?
They met for public worship, heard preaching, took the Lord’s Supper, and gave money for religious objects. I Cor.16:2; Acts 20:7.
Ought we to keep the Lord’s day as the Sabbath?
Yes, we ought to keep the Lord’s day as a day of rest and holy employments.
Ought we to keep the Lord’s day as the first Christians did?
Yes, we ought to keep the Lord’s day as a day for public worship, with Bible study and preaching, for religious gifts and ordinances, and for doing good in every way.(Broadus, 36-37; Archival Collection, BIM, American Baptist Historical Society, Atlanta, GA.)
It is apparent that the teaching on the Lord’s Day imparted by our missionaries was mainly based on the practice of the apostolic Christianity which is evidently seen in the answers to the first and third questions of the Catechism. The answer to the second question with the affirmative “Yes” can be puzzling as to whether it implies a literal application of the Sabbath law. A couple of evidences to interpret this: Naga Church historian,Joshua Lorin’s article,Sabbath Conversation: The Early Naga Christians, asserts that “Sabbath principles existed but not necessarily in rigid practice during Clark’s Molungyimsen era.”(Joshua Lorin, “Sabbath Conversations: The Early Naga Christians,” The Morung Express, August 11, 2019)
Second, Clark was a North American Baptist which held the view that “every Lord’s Day (Sunday) was like any other day” as cited above. Therefore, Clark’s teaching is evidently more similar to the early Christian devotion than the strict Sabbath law.
Sunday is one of the “distinctive traits” of Christianity from its very beginning. However, contrary to how the early Christians understood Sunday worship, majority of Naga Christians are seen to be more attracted by festive Sundays and seasons, such as, Christmas, New Year’s Day, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, and other outward activity oriented Sundays than the ordinary Sundays. This is distinctly supported by the extraordinary flocking of people to the church unlike the usual Sundays. One who does not arrive in the church an hour and a half early before the starting of worship, is unlikely to get a seat inside the church. Needless to say, you got to be 45 minutes early if you want a seat on the outside yard of the church on such occasion, at least in my local congregation. This occasionally prompted me to go to other churches on the so-called special Sundays. While people flocking to church on special occasions for worship is not bad in itself, does it say something about our deeper spiritual reality?Have we truly gotten the meaning of Sunday and its significance? If some Sunday celebrations are valued more than the victory Christ had won over sin and its power, so that, believers might live Christ-like lives through the resurrected power of the Holy Spirit, can we be missing out something essential to our spiritual growth?
To sum up, we have ascertained that the Church Year celebrates the significance of the Lord’s Day because Christ’s resurrection is the basis of our core Christian belief. Whoever confesses the Lordship of Jesus Christ over one’s life may have abundant life here and hereafter. Second, we have discovered that revisiting church year can lead to spiritual formation in the lives of the believers as it reminds us of the redeeming work of Christ. Third, Sunday is significant because this specific day in a week is a provision the church can preach the gospel and teach the believers and seekers about the basic Christian beliefs and practices through engagement in Christian worship.The disruption of church year in French history reminds us the value of Sunday.The Significance of the Lord’s Day is realized when our weekly Sunday worship often seen as a mere repetitive act turns into a blessed repetition. This makes us live and relive the new life in Christ Jesus every day.
Dr. Sashinungla Pongen is an Associate Professor of Christian History at Oriental Theological Seminary, Dimapur
This is the thirteenth article of the Sabbath/Sunday Series, an initiative of Oriental Theological Seminary