Explaining the Mystery of the Sabbath and of the Lord’s Day
(And Referring to the Gospel of New Sunday)
By Saint Gregory Palamas
1. Today we keep the Feast of New Sunday, or rather we celebrate the inauguration of the New Lord’s Day. So our word today is intended to reveal a little more of the mystery of Sunday to your charity, as far as time allows. If this is a great and exalted mystery, and not even its more accessible aspects are easy for everyone to understand, we must give thanks to the Lord of all Who gave His name to this day, and Who, through His Coming in the flesh, bestowed on those who draw near to Him through faith things which are perhaps a little difficult for our mind and reason to grasp.
2. But heed the sense of my words, all of you. And if anyone is unable to understand everything, he will grasp the full meaning from the little he does understand, since the Holy Spirit’s teaching is a word of light. In Six days God not only made and adorned the whole visible world, He also created and brought to life the only creature with sense and a mind: man (Gen 1:1-27; 2:7). To him He granted dominion over all the animals and plants throughout the world (Gen 1:38). Then on the seventh day God rested from all His works, as we are taught by Moses (Gen 2:2), who was born later, but beheld the foundation of the world long before his time, or rather as the Holy Spirit in His love for mankind sounds in our ears and souls through Moses’ words. “And God”, it says, “blessed the seventh day and sanctified it” (Gen 2:3). Why did He bless and hallow that day on which He did nothing? For he did not bless and hallow the first day as the most highly exalted, which is why it was referred to by Moses as “one” and not as “first” (Gen 1:5 LXX), that day on which God brought forth everything out of nothing all at once, and illuminated it with new light, although He had not yet put it in due order, assigning everything to its place and kind. And if He did not bless and sanctify that first day, why not the following day, on which He established the great firmament, and stretched out around us the first heaven and after it the second? Then again, why did He not bless the day after that, or the ones following, during which the earth was formed by the waters drawing back and took all nature as its adornment, the heavens received the two great lights for eyes, and the birds and sea creatures took their being from the waters by divine command, each after their kind?
3. If we leave those days to one side, why did God not bless the sixth day on which He not only drew out of the earth the living souls of reptiles and cattle, but also demonstrated a work worthy of His own Counsel? He crowned the whole of Creation, brought together into unity the senses and the mind, greatest of all, put Himself within His creature through His divine grace, and showed man as a living being upon earth in His own image and likeness, capable of knowing Him. So why did He not bless and sanctify that day instead of the seventh, which was a day of inaction? As I want to explain the matter and offer a solution to the problem, I must first, for the sake of the more learned among you gathered here, refute those who have not given a good explanation. There are some, such as Josephus and Philo and their followers, who revere the number seven calling it “unbegotten” (a prime number), and also “virgin” as it does not “beget”, or multiply, like, in their opinion, the divinity. For they cannot understand that when God begot the Son He did not set aside virginity, but begot Him without union, variation or passion. Those who contend that these properties of the number seven are the reason why only the seventh day was given God’s blessing misrepresent not only God, denying His Fatherhood, but also the number seven itself. Every number originates from units, and since seven is a number it is not “unbegotten”. They say, however, that it is not the product of any factors greater than unity, but being unbegotten does not mean not being the product of many, but not being the product of anything at all, which is not the case with the number seven.
4. Furthermore, if the seventh day was blessed because of the properties of that number, it would be much better if the first day had received the blessings, especially as Moses referred to it as “one day”. For the number one is completely unbegotten. They object, however, that it produces other numbers and is a factor of every number, including the numbers up to ten, whereas seven is not the factor of any number between one and ten, and is therefore “virgin”. Let us say for the sake of argument that to be virgin means not to beget, although this is not necessarily so. If something produces not small but large numbers then clearly the more it produces the further it is from virginity. Nw when seven is multiplied or added it does not generate any of the numbers from one to ten, but it does produce many numbers greater than ten. So how can we call it “virgin”? But slipping away from our grasp, these people ascend, as it were, to the moon and the orbits of the stars, of which they say there are seven. The point out that the moon becomes a half moon in seven days and a full moon in a further seven, and wanes in the same manner. For they fail to realize that if the number seven is honorable for such reasons, the other numbers are no less so, especially the first number of all. The whole visible world is one, and so are the heavens, or at most two. There is one sun in the universe and one moon, not to mention that all things were framed by the one God Who is before all and through all and above all (cf. Eph 4:6; Col 1:16-17; Rom 9:5), proclaiming the true unity to all who understand aright.
5. If the stars and their orbits are all spherical and the universe encircles them, this circle has two components: a point and a line, and without these two nothing visible could exist. So two is the number most useful and necessary to the world. However, just as there are not only lines and planes in the universe, so the number three exists, I shall not even mention this number’s other advantages. On the other hand, since each of the objects we have mentioned is not just a circle but a solid sphere, they could not exist without the number four, as they have to have another dimension, so four is equally worthy. Similar arguments can be put forward for five, and above all for six. For this is the first of the perfect numbers equal to the sum of its divisors, which is why the world was completed on the sixth day.
6. Those who hold the number seven in honour for reasons such as these unwittingly honour not just that number but absolutely all of them, since each of them has no lack of similar things which can be said in its favour. Numbers were created by God along with everything else, and everything created by God is good and very good, as the Creator Himself bore witness through Moses (Gen 1:31). So whatever aspect of numbers you subject to scrutiny you will find good and very good, wonderfully proportioned within itself and in relation to others. But it was not simply their numerical order, which distinguished one day from another. In no way did Moses describe God as admiring the products of numbers, but as approving the things He Himself brought forth day by day. Not even the seventh day is praiseworthy because of its number. So now let us tell you why it was that God particularly blessed and hallowed that day, using Moses’ words as our starting-point. “And God rested”, he says, “on the seventh day from all his work which he had made” (Gen 2:20. Then he adds that “God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it”, and immediately goes no to refer to the reason for this blessing, repeating, “because that in it God had rested from all his works which he had begun to make” (Gen 2:3 LXX). So there were certain of God’s works which he had neither begun to make nor ceased from making, as the Lord Himself revealed to us, saying, “My Father worketh hitherto, and I work” (John 5:17).
7. God wanted to impart to us a strong awareness of works of this kind, and to demonstrate that they are more to be sought after than any works perceptible to the senses. So He blessed and sanctified the seventh day, on which He ceased making the visible Creation, so that this day might be like an ascent, by means of rest, from things below to those better things above. To quote the great Dionysius, God, “in His superabundant goodness, goest out of Himself and transcending all things comes down into all things, in accordance with His ecstatic, supraessential power which is inseparable from Him. Condescending in His love for man, as He willed and as was fitting, He made this visible world of ours. Then on the seventh day He went up again, as behooved God, to His own heights, which He had not left, and showed that His rest on that day was still more blessed than what had gone before. In this way He taught us to seek to enter, as far as we are able, into that rest, which is contemplation according to the mind, and ascent to God by that means. The Apostle too explicitly urges us towards this rest. Having referred to God’s words through the Psalmist about the Jewish race, “Unto whom I sware in my wrath that they should not enter into my rest” (Ps 95:11), he continues, “He spake in a certain place of the seventh day on this wise, And God did rest the seventh day from all his works” (Heb 4:4). A little further on he writes, “Let us labour therefore to enter into that rest” (Heb 4:11). For anyone who enters into it, rests from his works as God did from His.
8. Do you desire to learn more exactly what this rest is, and how we too can enter into it? If we find out which works God did not begin because they were without beginning, we shall better comprehend both this rest and how to enter into it. What are these works? The Psalmist and Prophet gives us the first part of the answer when he writes of God, “The works of his are verity and judgment” (Ps 111:7). The knowledge of things that exist and the foreknowledge of things to come are a work of God without beginning, and it would not be wrong to refer to this as verity. Judgment and providence are an unceasing work of God without beginning, for everything that exists required both judgment and providence even before it came into being, since it had to be produced, and once in existence had to be prevented from ceasing to be after a time. It had either, in some cases, eventually to change for its own good or the good of all, or else, in other cases, to remain unchanged. Another of God’s works without beginning is the process of returning to Himself, which is motivated by the contemplation of Himself, which had no starting point.
9. If you observe carefully and intelligently, you will find many things, which fall into the same category as these divine activities. If, brethren, each of us sets aside our continuous, troublesome, worldly cares and the works associated with them, and sits listening to the Spirit’s teaching, firstly he will be praised by the Lord, Who did not approve of Martha because she was troubled by many cares, even though her efforts were for His sake. On the other hand, He said that Mary, who sat listening at His fee, had “Chosen the good part, which shall not be taken from Her” (Luke 10:41-42).
10. Do you see what unceasing work means? When you receive into your mind these words of the Spirit’s teaching, meditate upon them and prefer them in your soul’s reasoning to every other passionate and worldly thought, ordering your life according to them for the sake of your salvation, then you too will have verity and judgment as your work, speaking the truth in your heart, as the Psalmist and Prophet says (cf. Ps 15:2). If you raise your mind above every thought, however good, and turn it wholly towards itself, by means of constant attention ad unceasing prayer, you too will truly enter into the divine rest and obtain the blessing of the seventh day. You will see yourself, and through yourself you will be carried up to the vision of God. For, as it is said, the end of prayer is to be caught up towards the Lord. This is one of the reasons for the blessing of the seventh day, which Moses indicated through the Law by commanding that the seventh day be a day of rest – but only of rest from works which benefit the body, it it is a day of activity in the works proper to the soul.
11. Another reason why that day was blessed is that He Who formed this world in six days foresaw that man would turn towards evil and would, as a result, go back to the ground, descend to Hades and be imprisoned there, and this whole world would grow old and useless because of man, but would be renewed by God becoming man. This renewal was effected when God incarnate descended into hades through death and declared there on the Sabbath the recall of souls. It was because He foresaw that this would happen on the Sabbath tht He rightly deemed it the only day worthy to be blessed. However, although this work was secretly made ready on the seventh day, the Sabbath, everything was clearly brought to light and accomplished when the body too had been summoned to immortality through the Lord’s Resurrection on the eighth day. This is why we call it the Lord’s Day. As Friday, the day of preparation, stands in relation to the Sabbath, so is the Sabbath in comparison with Sunday, which is obviously superior to it. As perfection and reality surpass beginning, pattern and shadow, so is Sunday mover excellent and honourable, because on it the exceedingly blessed work was finished, and on it we await the General Resurrection of all, the perfect entry of the saints into the divine rest and dissolution of the world into its elements.
12. Whatever is said in praise of the seventh day applies even more to the eighth, for the latter fulfills the former. It was Moses who unwittingly first ascribed honour to the eighth day, the Lord’s Day. The Jubilee year (Lev 25: 8ff), which Moses regarded as a year of forgiveness and named accordingly, was not counted among the “weeks of years” under the Law, but came after them all, and was an eighth year proclaimed after the last of these seven year periods. Moses did the same with regard to periods of seven weeks. However, the Lawgiver did not only introduce in this hidden way the dignity of this eighth day, which we call the Lord’s Day because it is dedicated to the Lord’s Resurrection, but also on the Feast name “Trumpets” referred to the eighth day as the “final solemn assembly” (cf. Lev 23:36 LXX, Num 29:35), meaning the completion and fulfillment of all the feasts. At that point he clearly said that the eighth day too would be called holy for us, proclaiming in advance how divine, glorious and august Sunday was to be after everything pertaining to the Law had passed away.
13. Moses esteemed the seventh day because it led into the truly honourable eighth day. Just as the Law given through him is honorable in so far as it leads to Christ (cf. Gal 3:24), so the seventh day is honourable because it leads into the eighth day on which the Lord’s Resurrection took place. The eighth day come next aftere the seventh, and if you look carefully you will find that after the seventh day, when are are told that all the dead from past ages were resurrected, on the eighth day Christ rose. Not only was Christ’s Resurrection accomplished on the eighth day, but it was both the eighth day in relation to the day before, and also the first day in relation to the hoped-for Resurrection, the rising again, of all men in Christ, That is why Christ is hymned as “the firstfruits of them that slept” 91 Cor 15:20) and “the first begotten of the dead” (Rev 1:5). In the same way, Sunday is not just the day eighth in order after the preceding days, but the first of the days that come after. So it becomes in its turn the New Day, the first of all days, which we call the Lord’s Day, and which Moses referred to not as the first day but as “one day” (Gen 1:5 LXX), being exalted above the others and the prelude of the one day without evening of the age to come.
14. You will understand how much better Sunday is than other feast days from what follows. Every other festival comes round once a year, the the Lord’s Day comes round four times every month, and this frequent recurrence makes the whole year a year of true remission for us, a year acceptable to the Lord (cf. Isa 61:2). It was in order to teach us to celebrate it in practice at the end of each week that the Lord first appeared to the disciples inside the house while Thomas was absent (John 20: 19-24). He proved He was alive and give them peace. By His breathing upon them He renewed the divine breath given in the beginning (Gen 2:7), and endowed them with the grace of the Holy Spirit, imbuing them with divine power to bind and loose sins. He made the sharers in the exercise of His heavenly lordship, saying to the, “receive ye the Holy Spirit: Whosesoever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whosesoever sins ye retain, they are retained” (John 20:22-23).
15. The Lord granted them this power and grace when He appeared to them on the very day of His Resurrection, obviously a Sunday. Then, letting the intervening days of the week elapse, He appeared in the same manner and in the same house, on the eighth day, the Sunday we celebrate today, to inaugurate His festival and to bring the hesitant Thomas to faith. According to the Saviour’s beloved Evangelist and disciple, “After eight days again his disciples were within, and Thomas with them: then came Jesus, the doors being shut, and stood in the midst, and said, Peace be unto you” (John 20:26).
16. You will see that it was Sunday when the disciples assembled and the Lord came to them. On Sunday He approached them for the first time as they were gathered together and eight days later, when Sunday came round again, He appeared to their assembly. Christ’s Church continually reflects these gatherings by holding it meetings mostly on Sundays, and we come among you and preach what pertains to salvation and lead you towards piety and a godly way of life.
17. Let no one out of laziness or continuous worldly occupations miss these holy Sunday gatherings, which God Himself handed down to us, lest he be justly abandoned by God and suffer like Thomas, who did not come at the right time. If you are detained and do not attend on one occasion, make up for it the next time, bringing yourself to Christ’s Church. Otherwise you may remain uncured, suffering from unbelief in your soul because of deeds or words, and failing to approach Christ’s surgery to receive, like the divine Thomas, holy healing. There exist not only thoughts and words of faith but also deeds and acts of faith – “Shew me”, it says, “thy faith by thy works” (cf. Jas 2:18) – and if someone abandons these and is completely distanced from the Church of Christ and given over wholly to worthless pursuits, his faith is dead, or non-existent, and he himself has become dead through sin.
18. But are some of you puzzled that Christ could enter when the doors were shut, sine He had a body? Apparently you are unaware that spiritual things must be compared with spiritual and understood on their own terms, as the holy Apostle says (cf. 1 Cor 2:13). Christ did not spoil the womb of the Virgin who bore Him in the flesh. He did not undo the sign of virginity when He was born, but kept them intact, even though at that time His Body was subject to suffering and death. So it is not at all surprising if now that He had immortalized the humanity He had assumed and His Body was no longer subject to death, He could enter through closed doors. However, as He undoubtedly had a body free from suffering and death, how was it that on His Side and His Hands He had marks of wounds and holes from the nails? For the Evangelist tells us that the Lord said to Thomas, “Reach hither thy finger, and behold my hands; and reach hither thy hand, and thrust it into my side: and be not faithless, but believing” (John 20:27). Why did He have scars? It would be impossible for a mortal, suffering body to display marks of wounds and nails and to remain healthy and sound. On the other hand, an immortal body without suffering can show the scars and wounds it suffered to anyone at will, and nevertheless continue free from suffering and death.
19. This enables me to understand something else: that those who have suffered for Christ are adorned for ever with their wounds. Windows in a house do not make it less safe and are not something ugly but a necessary decoration for a building, to let in light and allow those within to look out. In the same way, the body’s sufferings for Christ’s sake and the resultant wounds become for those who bear them windows to let in the light without evening. And when that light shines forth they will be recognizable by the divine beauty and radiance of their wounds and not by their ugliness. Their scars will not be obliterated when suffering comes to an end, in so far as they procure immortality.
20. Christ’s Body held within it the Found of divine light, which shone forth spiritually to enlighten the mind of him who hesitated, so that Thomas cried out at once, with perfect theology, “My Lord and my God” (John 20:28). The Lord said to him, “Because thou has seen me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed” (John 20; 29), showing that those who saw the Lord with their own eyes are not in greater glory than those who have been brought through them to faith in Him. He did not say “yet believe” but “yet have believed”, because with the divine power of foreknowledge whereby He saw everything before it happened, future events were like present facts.
21. I shall tell you, in your charity, something, which has just occurred to me. I notice that Thomas lost his faith when he was absent, but when he was together with the believers his faith did not in any way fall short. So I have the idea that if only a sinner will flee the company of immoral men and associate with the just, he will never be found lacking in righteousness or the resultant salvation of his soul. It seems to me that the Psalmist and Prophet was hinting at this when he called blessed the man who avoided sitting with the scornful and being their companion (cf. Ps 1:1). Another prophet writes, “Thou shalt not follow the multitude to do evil (Exod 23:2), and the author of Proverbs says, “Where sinners gather, the fire breaks out” (Ecclus 16:6), “but he that walketh with wise men shall be wise” (Prov 13:20).
22. So let us, brethren, meet together and often come to God’s Church, where all who are truly godly are present and never stay away. When each of you enters the church, look for the more godly of those within, whom you can recognize just by seeing how they stand in attentive silence. Watch for those who are more pious and God-fearing than the rest, and go and attach yourself to them, and attend upon God with them. When you come out after the dismissal on the Lord’s Day and are at leisure from earthly work for the sake of Him Whose day it is, carefully search to see if there is an imitator of the Apostles who mostly stays indoors, longing for God with silent prayer, psalmody and other suitable practices. Approach such a person and enter his small room with faith as though you were entering a heavenly place containing the Spirit’s sanctifying power. Sit down beside him and stay with him as long as possible. Talk to him about God and divine matters, asking questions, humbly learning and appealing for help through prayer. If you do this, I know for sure that Christ will invisibly come to you, give peace within the thinking part of your soul, increase your faith, strengthen your steadfastness, and in due time set you among His chosen in the heavenly kingdom.
23. May we all attain to this in Him Who has now died and risen for us and afterwards will come in glory, Christ the King of the Ages, to Whom belongs glory unto the ages of ages. Amen.
From. Saint Gregory Palamas The Homilies, "Homily 17", Christopher Veniamin trans., Monastery of St. John the Baptist (Essex, England) Mount Thabor Publishing 2009.
Read this homily in pdf format here.