Without Sunday We Cannot Live - Holy Thursday, 24 March 2016

Holy Thursday, 24 March 2016

Pope Benedict XVI’s first trip outside of Rome after his election to the papacy was to the Italian Eucharistic Congress in Bari, on 29 May 2005, The Solemnity of Corpus Christi, the same date on which it will fall this year.  Part of his homily was based on the theme of the Congress, “Without Sunday we cannot live.”  Here is some of what he said:

The chosen theme - "Without Sunday we cannot live" - takes us back to the year 304, when the Emperor, Diocletian forbade Christians, on pain of death, from possessing the Scriptures, from gathering on Sundays to celebrate the Eucharist and from building places in which to hold their assemblies.

In Abitene, a small village in present-day Tunisia, 49 Christians were taken by surprise one Sunday while they were celebrating the Eucharist, gathered in the house of Octavius Felix, thereby defying the imperial prohibitions. They were arrested and taken to Carthage to be interrogated by the Proconsul Anulinus.

Significant among other things is the answer a certain Emeritus gave to the Proconsul who asked him why on earth they had disobeyed the Emperor's severe orders. He replied: "Sine dominico non possumus": that is, we cannot live without joining together on Sunday to celebrate the Eucharist. We would lack the strength to face our daily problems and not to succumb.

After atrocious tortures, these 49 martyrs of Abitene were killed. Thus, they confirmed their faith with bloodshed. They died, but they were victorious: today we remember them in the glory of the Risen Christ.

"Sine dominico non possumus" has three strands of meaning: without the Lord’s Day they could not survive; without the Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist, they could not survive; and without the resurrected and lordly Christ they could not live.  All three of course are interwoven.

And I’d like to push the translation to an even sharper point, for the Latin "Sine dominico non possumus" could most literally be translated, “without Sunday we cannot.”  That is, without the Lord’s Day, without the Eucharist, without the resurrected and lordly One we are impossible; we cannot and do not exist at all.  We do not exist as the Church; we cannot live as the human beings God has called us to be.  We cannot . . . .   We are not . . . .

The Eucharist, as the Second Vatican Council put it, is the source and summit of the Church’s life.  We draw our being from God who created us and from God with us in Christ – most totally with us in the Eucharist.  It enables us to be who we are.

I presume that you will have noticed by now that this is not actually Sunday.  And that is worth noting.  The activity which makes Sunday, the Lord’s Day, unique was instituted on a Thursday – although it was after sundown, so it’s really already Friday.  We tell time like the Jews.

The institution of the Eucharist is tied therefore at the beginning to the death of Christ, the sacrifice that he will offer.  Only in the context of what is about to happen do his words at the table about his Body broken and his blood shed make any sense.   

But just as importantly, the Eucharist is tied also to the Day of Resurrection.  To put it very simply, if Christ’s sacrifice had not been followed by his resurrection on the first day of the week, there would be no Holy Thursday, no Good Friday – only a mostly forgotten victim of Roman justice.

But God did raise him from the dead – on the first day of the week – so that day became from the beginning until now the principal day on which the Church gathered to celebrate the presence of the risen Christ in the Eucharist.

This Solemn Thursday celebration of the Eucharist does not then obscure the centrality of Sunday any more than weekday masses do.  It points us directly toward the resurrection, the event that makes Sunday the center of our lives.  Thus, it is that from now until the first Mass of the resurrection at the Easter Vigil, the liturgies elide one into another – there are no benedictions or dismissals.  The paschal mystery, Christ’s Passover from death to life, is a single dramatic action it begins on this night of his betrayal and concludes with the glory of the resurrection.

So it would be correct to say without these days we are not possible.  God in his mercy, through faith and the Sacraments, has joined us to the great drama of salvation.  We are created for eternal life and the route is opened for us by Jesus’ death and resurrection.   Our biological limits do not assign us our destiny.  Sunday does, for it is the day of resurrection.  The Son of God took human flesh and dwelt among us.  He comes to us now in his Body and Blood so that we might be joined to him and go where he has gone.  The world is not destined for nothingness but for the Kingdom of God.  Jesus is coming back in judgment and in mercy.

In the last line of Dante’s Divine Comedy, when the poet at last enjoys the vision of God, he ventures to describe God as “the love that moves the sun and the other stars.”

What Dante saw in heaven we encounter in its earthly expression during these days.  The triune love that moves the sun and the other stars took our flesh, absorbed our sin, and died our death.  That same love ‘gives himself with his own hand’ in the wonderful language of Thomas Aquinas’ great Eucharist hymn that we shall sing during the procession with the Eucharist.  We adore the Eucharist because we adore the love which has poured this blessing upon us.

That same triune love raised Jesus’ from the dead.  Thus culminates the whole story of God’s love for sinful humanity.  And so the institution of the Sacrament on this night binds us to the events of Sunday, without which we cannot live.

Therefore, Christians like those of Abitene, of whom the pope emeritus spoke, have died rather than abandon faith in Jesus, rather than abandon the Eucharistic Christ.   For this reason Stephen and James died, early in the Book of Acts.  Martyrs died rather than submit to supposedly Christian kings in the Middle Ages and in the effort to carry the Gospel to the ends of the earth.  And they have died in our times in unprecedented numbers, especially at the hands of Communists, Fascists, and Islamists, up to this very moment. 

The martyrs chose to die because they could not live without the Eucharist.  We stand accused whenever we minimize the importance of the Sunday celebration or lose our sense of awe and reference.  But when we do recognize that we cannot live without it, our hearts experience and our lives will reflect that burning, suffering love that moves the sun and the other stars.

May 24, 2016 - 11:37pm

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