Dear Father Angelo,
On March 7th, 321 AD, Constantine issued a decree that declared that the first day of the week (the day of the Sun, Dies Solis) should be dedicated to rest:
“All judges and city people and the craftsmen shall rest upon the venerable day of the sun. Country people, however, may freely attend to the cultivation of the fields, because it frequently happens that no other days are better adapted for planting the grain in the furrows or the vines in trenches. So that the advantage given by heavenly providence may not for the occasion of a short time perish.”
Is this true?
Have we rejected the Sabbath? This thought haunts me. Thank you
1. Yes, the sabbath, understood as the weekly day of rest, was replaced by the day of the sun, which was the first day of the week.
The reason is simple: in Constantine’s times, the majority of his subjects were Christians.
2. From the beginning, Christians would gather for prayer and for the Eucharist on the day of the sun, since it was the day of remembrance of Christ’s resurrection.
In their language, it would no longer be called day of the sun, but rather day of the Lord.
This new name can already be found in Sacred Scripture regarding the day when Saint John received that Revelation that he would later write down in the book of the Apocalypse: “I, John, your brother and partner in hardships, in the kingdom and in perseverance in Jesus, was on the island of Patmos on account of the Word of God and of witness to Jesus; it was the Lord’s Day and I was in ecstasy, and I heard a loud voice behind me, like the sound of a trumpet, saying, ‘Write down in a book all that you see, and send it to the seven churches of Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea.’” (Apoc 1:9-11).
Day of the Lord is “Dominica dies” in Latin. That’s where the term domenica [Sunday in Italian] comes from.
3. The transition from Saturday to Sunday happened slowly and found its justification in the fact that Jesus’ resurrection happened on the first day after the sabbath and, with it, the new creation was inaugurated.
Saturday was still the general day of rest, since it was the weekly day off in the Roman Empire, the day of the sun (Sunday) was instead a working day.
However, Christians everywhere would gather on the day of the sun for prayer and for the Eucharist. They were persuaded that the Resurrected Christ wanted them to meet on this day specifically.
Moreover, all the evangelists attach a lot of importance to the fact that Christ resurrected people from the dead and met his disciples on the first day after the Sabbath. On a Sunday, He will appear again a week later (John 20:26).
How to reconcile work and worship?
4. Christians were forced to wake up before dawn in order not to miss work.
Pliny the Younger, governor of Bithynia, attests to this when he says that “on a stated day they had been accustomed to meet before daybreak and to recite a hymn among themselves to Christ, as though he were a god” (Epist., 10, 96, 7).
Tertullian as well recalls the coetus antelucani (meetings before daylight) (Apologeticum, 2, 6).
5. When, three hundred years later, Christians were granted freedom of worship and became the majority, Sunday became the official day of rest as well.
This happened in 321 as a result of the decree issued by Emperor Constantine, which you cited.
6. Constantine refers to it as the day of the sun.
Christians call it dominica (day of the Lord) in Latin. In Italian it’s domenica.
France and Spain, which speak a romance language, call it dimanche, domingo.
Anglophones and Germans, who weren’t evangelized until a few centuries later, kept calling it day of the sun (Sunday, Sontag). This is still the case today.
So, here’s the story of the transition from Saturday to Sunday.
I bless you, I recommend you to the Lord and wish you well.