This Sunday Won’t Feel as Special as Last Sunday — but It Doesn’t Have to Be That Way
“Sunday is a time for reflection, silence, cultivation of the mind, and meditation which furthers the growth of the Christian interior life.” (CCC 2186)
Did last Sunday have a different “feel” to it? A different “flavor?” Simply put, was there something “different” about it?
Last Sunday was also Independence Day, the Fourth of July. While federal rules allow for observance of the nation’s feast on the adjacent Monday (or Friday if the Fourth is a Saturday), Americans still have enough of an historical sense to act like the Fourth of July should be commemorated on … well … July 4.
But my focus is not on history but Sunday. The coincidence of Sunday and Independence Day gave last Sunday a different “feel,” in part because a lot of the typical commercial activity to which we have grown inured on Sundays was closed. Many businesses that operate on Sundays didn’t, and those that did generally limited their hours “so that our employees can observe the Fourth.”
That’s a good thing.
But it also shows us how eroded our sense of “Sunday” has become.
Once upon a time — within the lifetime of many readers — the feel of last Sunday was the feel of every Sunday. Growing up in New Jersey in the 1960s and 1970s, just a few stores in my hometown were open: Miller’s Bakery, where we could pick up some bread after Mass, Mike’s or Mizerak’s, where we could get the Sunday papers.
But the main street was shuttered, as were the then-few malls on the landscape. We went to Mass in the morning, dad made breakfast, we’d read the “funnies” (the comics section in the New Jersey Star-Ledger) and the rest of the paper, then go out in the afternoon for a drive. If we took our widowed aunt to the cemetery, there was sometimes a stop at a roadside ice cream stand, and if we drove down to see my sister at college in Trenton, there might be a hot dog back along Route 1, but that was about it. You came home, made sure your homework was done for Monday morning, watched some TV, then went to bed.
Lest anybody think these are the long lost ruminations of a nostalgic old man, let me add more recent experience.
I lived in Bern, Switzerland, from 2008 to 2011. Sunday there had the same “feel” it did as a kid in New Jersey.
One of the most beautiful customs in Bern is the Sonneneinleitung, the “invitation of Sunday.” On Saturday evening, usually around 7pm, all the church bells of Bern started ringing to “invite” the arrival of Sunday. It reminds us that Sunday is different and … religious.
Now I know that Switzerland is about as secularized as most of Western Europe, and the Church in Switzerland features some of the same issues that the Church in Germany does. That said, the fact that this custom still endured said something about the gases still fueling local culture.
The Sonneneinleitung was preceded by more practical features. By about 5pm on Saturday afternoon, most businesses are closing up and planning to stay closed until Monday. That’s not just the stores in downtown Bern. Go out on the highway and “big box” stores like IKEA or the Swiss equivalent of Home Depot were also wrapping up business.
On Sundays, a few shops providing basic staples (mom-and-pop grocery stores, bakeries) were allowed to be open Sunday mornings (until about 1 pm). After that, if you wanted groceries, you could get staples (bread, milk) at gas stations or in one shop operating at the main railroad station. In the country’s capital!
Places that did open on Sundays (mostly restaurants) generally then had to observe “Quiet Mondays,” i.e., close on Monday to give their employees a day off.
It was always paradoxical to me that Sundays were so observed in Protestant Bern when — let me admit — in the neighboring Catholic canton of Fribourg, the commercial landscape was not dissimilar to today’s America.
My point is that there were still places in the world where Sunday has a qualitatively different “feel.” And they are not all in inaccessible pockets of “flyover country.”
The feel of last Sunday occurred, of course, not out of religious motives but because Independence Day is one of the few holidays (alongside Christmas and most of Thanksgiving) that are primarily days of rest, not commercial activity. Our consumptive passions are bent to other ends on those few days.
That’s noteworthy because a case can be made that we increasingly do not know how to celebrate as a people. Other civil holidays – Washington’s Birthday or Labor Day — have little social tradition in common apart from sales. Veteran’s and Memorial Days may generate parades but generally lack greater social observance. Columbus Day is progressively being effaced by the woke in favor of “Indigenous Peoples’ Day.” Martin Luther King’s birthday is a blend of sales and some thought about ideals of human equality (increasingly been coopted by the woke in favor of focusing on America’s flaws), while the evolution of newly-minted “Juneteenth” remains to be seen. The Fourth is one of the few remaining holidays marking an achievement rather than an aspiration of which we can be justly proud.
The Fourth is a feast we celebrate by reflection. We celebrate with fireworks and hot dogs and parades and family get-togethers, too, but somewhere in the background contemplation of what happened in 1776 continues to animate the holiday.
That came out last Sunday, when America slowed down and closed down on the Fourth.
I mention this contemplative aspect because — as I have said — I fear it is an aspect of us as a people that is being progressively lost. You really can’t “contemplate alone” (at least not well), as the contemplative evisceration of most of our other national holidays suggests. The Fourth still retains aspects of it, as does Thanksgiving (albeit increasingly under pressure). I’d suggest the loss of that contemplative dimension impoverishes us.
Once upon a time Christians regularly returned to that contemplative aspect on a weekly basis. Not just Catholics but Christians at large recognized that man does not live for work alone, and that even the Lord rested on the seventh day. That gave Sunday a qualitatively different feel and it reminded people that “rest” was for something deeper than breaking up the lifestyle that starts every “manic Monday.”
The privatization of religion, which for a long time has been construed by some elites as the disinfection of public life and culture from the influences of its religious roots, has also created the oxymoron of “privatized contemplation.” Regular, systematic, and socially-expected times of contemplation — times to focus on life in ways other than making or spending money — is increasingly an alien concept. Some even think it abridges their “rights.”
The remaining gases of our cultural past still treat Sundays as somehow something different, but we’re hard pressed to explain why but for the residue of that past. But if we don’t see a positive value in that break in time, if the only reason we can justify it is out of a sense of sentimental nostalgia or the leftovers of historical fumes, we’re in real danger.
Let’s consider how last Sunday was different. Let’s consider how Catholics should try to make every Sunday like last Sunday. And let’s invite our fellow citizens to see the values at stake.
We Catholics can start by consciously embracing the contemplative dimension of Sunday. Let’s not shop on Sundays. Let’s not patronize online businesses. Let’s dedicate the day to faith (now that most civil and ecclesiastical restrictions on Sunday Mass are repealed) and family. Let’s learn the divine and human beauty of this side of life … and share it with others.
Let’s not wait for another such Sunday until July 4, 2027 — the next Fourth of July on a Sunday.