In an earlier post I called the Sunday evening Mass the “Last Chance Mass”, and said that for the most part, people who attend this mass do so because it lets them engage in leisure on Saturday night without having to worry about getting up for Mass on Sunday morning. Now, if I were a big and prominent blogger this comment would have immediately brought about protests from people calling me out for my lack of compassion towards people who can’t avoid working Saturday nights or Sunday mornings, etc. The fact that I acknowledged them immediately afterwards wouldn’t have made a difference.
Over the weeks I have come to a better appreciation and understanding for this preference of the Church for Mass on Sunday morning. Back in Sydney I was spoilt for Mass – I could choose not only the time I attended (from about six slots on a typical weekend), but also the parish and even the priest. It’s practically a super sacramental smorgasbord. On the other hand, here in Japan if a town has a church at all it’s lucky to have Mass more than once a week, the usual being the Saturday vigil and Sunday morning. Kofu is bigger than a typical town, and has Masses in other languages too (see “Five Priests!“). This means that if you’re like me and don’t care what language it’s in as long as it’s valid, you can choose from two to four masses each weekend – still spoiled, but there’s nothing after 3 pm.
Here’s the difference. In Kofu I have to either attend Mass on Saturday night, or Sunday morning to get one in Japanese. If I sleep in on Sunday, and there isn’t a “foreign” Mass that week (be it Korean, Spanish, “English” or Portuguese) then by my own negligence I have failed to attend Mass, and therefore commit a mortal sin (violation of the Sabbath). It’s taken some getting used to, and I’ve failed a couple of times, but I have become increasingly aware of the gravity of this obligation. If I really want to keep my obligation to attend Mass, I need to get used to waking up on Sunday mornings, or attending Mass on Saturday – either way, I won’t be out socialising on Saturday night, because I have a standing appointment with the Lord of Creation to uphold.
Do you see where this is taking us? If we aren’t as spoiled for choice with Sunday Masses, and we take the third commandment seriously, then we are forced to maintain a stricter self-discipline not just on Sunday but Saturday too.
Adding to this is the nature of the Vigil itself. Most Catholics don’t really understand why we have Mass on Saturdays that count for Sunday, but as long as it “counts” they’re satisfied. Fine. However, people who read the Creation in Genesis (chapter 1) will notice that when God begins, there is darkness. Read on:
Genesis I:i-v [RSV-CE]
1 IN the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.
2 The earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters.
3 And God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light.
4 And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness.
5 God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, one day.
I personally prefer “the first day”, but that’s how the RSV has it. Notice the progression “…there was evening, and there was morning, one day”. The evening precedes the daylight in the cosmic calendar, because first there was darkness, then God brought forth light. The Jews carried this reckoning through their own understanding of time, which is why they were in a hurry to take the criminals down on the day of Christ’s passion. Passover began at sundown, and it would defile the feast to have criminals dying outside the city walls.
Catholics are often surprised to learn that we continue this understanding in our own tradition – Christ’s Passion began after dark, at the Last Supper. It lasted through the night with his trial by the Sanhedrin, persisted through the morning with his examination by Pontius Pilate, his scourging and carrying of the Cross to Calvary, his hanging on the cross and final expiration at about 3pm. That one day (which began the night before) ended around 6pm at sunset, at which time Christ’s empty body was already sealed in the tomb. The second day of the Sacred Triduum begins here, its silence observed from the evening of Good Friday to sunset on Holy Saturday. The third day we all know is Easter, which begins mother of all liturgies, the Great Vigil of Easter.
The Great Vigil is so named because just as every Sunday is a little Easter, so too every Sunday begins with a vigil on Saturday night. Observers of the Divine Office (the Liturgy of the Hours) begin Sunday when they recite the First Vespers of Sunday as evening prayer on Saturday nights.
After learning all this, who could possibly see Saturday night as anything but the proper time to dispose oneself to Sunday glory? Truly keeping the Sabbath demands us observe it as keenly as the Jews, who cease all work at sunset on Friday and attend synagogue for prayer. Unlike the Jews, we are not called to celebrate the Mass on both Saturday and Sunday evenings – rather, we recall the timeless mystery of Christ’s resurrection once each Sunday, for that one Sunday which transcends the universe itself.
I don’t know how priests or bishops would go about encouraging the laity to start taking Sunday observance more seriously. The obvious start is avoiding work on Saturday evenings or Sunday, and encouraging social outings on Friday rather than Saturday nights. As for phasing out evening Masses for Sunday (both vigil and “last chance”), it’s really a pastoral decision. My only comment on that is to recall Canon 528:
Code of Canon Law (English)
Can. 528 §1. A pastor is obliged to make provision so that the word of God is proclaimed in its entirety to those living in the parish; for this reason, he is to take care that the lay members of the Christian faithful are instructed in the truths of the faith, especially by giving a homily on Sundays and holy days of obligation and by offering catechetical instruction. He is to foster works through which the spirit of the gospel is promoted, even in what pertains to social justice. He is to have particular care for the Catholic education of children and youth. He is to make every effort, even with the collaboration of the Christian faithful, so that the message of the gospel comes also to those who have ceased the practice of their religion or do not profess the true faith.
I have heard that Canons 528-529 are usually read as a pair, and are regarded as amongst the most beautiful in the code. The first duty of the pastor is to cultivate the practice of the True Faith in his flock, especially by catechesis (eg via well-prepared homilies) and the worthy offering of the Liturgy. The offering of the faithful must be worthily given too, and that requires prayerful preparation.