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Why Christians Are Not Permitted to Arrange Amusements on the Eves of Sundays and Feast Days

by Archbishop Averky of Blessed Memory

How strange and painful it is for modern Christians that many of them do not understand the full blameworthiness of arranging amusements on Saturday nights! How can one talk about Christianity or the Christianization of life if such a simple, seemingly obvious truth does not get through to the consciousness of the representatives of modern atheistic and unchurched society. For those who are still capable of learning, we offer the following historical note.

"And the evening and the morning were the first day" (Genesis 1:5)—this is how far back into antiquity—to the first day of the creation of the world—one can trace the origin of the Church's custom of considering the next day to begin with the evening of the day before. Of just as ancient an origin are our holidays which the Lord Himself, the Creator of the world and of man, commanded us to "sanctify": "And God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it" (Genesis 2:3). This "seventh day", sanctified by God Himself at the dawn of human history, was again commanded to be kept holy 1600 years before Christ's birth on the solemn day of the giving of the law at Sinai. This command made up the special fourth commandment of the Law of God, proclaimed in this way: "Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work: But the seventh day is the sabbath of the Lord thy God" (Exodus 20:8-10). The sanctity of this seventh day—the sabbath in the Old Testament, the celebration of which always began from the evening of the preceding day, was protected by fear of death: "You shall keep the sabbath therefore; for it is holy unto you: every one that defileth it shall surely be put to death" (Exodus 31:14).

In place of the Old Testament sabbath, in the New Testament the day following the sabbath, the "Day of the Lord" or the "day of resurrection," came to be celebrated the Christians, because in that day the Lord Jesus Christ rose from the dead and, having conquered hell, freed us from the power of the devil and eternal death. The beginning of its observation, as is testified to by the Sacred Scriptures and the most ancient monuments of Christian literature, goes back to the first days of Christianity. For us Christians this day is a day of bright joy, of paschal joy, the Pascha of the Lord which we celebrated weekly. For in this day the Lord appeared to His disciples assembled together, and "the disciples were glad, when they saw the Lord" (John 20:20). "After eight days," i.e. once again in the very same day of the week, the Apostles again were assembled together, and again the Lord appeared to them, renewing their joy (John 20:26). Seven weeks later, on the day of Pentecost, which occurred again on the same day, the Apostles, following an already established custom, assembled for prayer in the upper room on Zion, and this day became for them the day of a glorious new triumph: the Lord sent down on them the Holy Spirit, Who from that time has constantly abided in the Church (Acts 2:1-4). From that time, as is clearly seen in the book of the Acts of the Apostles, the "day of the Lord" became an especially honored day for all Christians. Following the example of the Old Testament sabbath and because, according to the Church's belief, the Lord rose at midnight, the celebration of that day began on Saturday evening, continued all night, and was completed in the morning by the "breaking of bread," i.e., by performing the greatest Christian mystery, the Eucharist, by Communion of the Body and Blood of Christ (Acts 20:7-11), which was received by all the faithful who were present. It is from this that our public Divine service which is called the "all night vigil" took its origin; it should last the whole night from Saturday to Sunday and it is only because of our laziness and carelessness that it is now being shortened more and more. We find indications of such a public night prayer of the Christians even in the Acts of the Holy Apostles. Thus, when they were locked in prison the Apostles Paul and Silas praised God at midnight (Acts 16:25). The whole first Christian community in Jerusalem assembled at night for prayer (Acts 12:12). The Christian community in Troas assembled on "the first day of the week", i.e. on Sunday, for prayer in the evening and spent the whole night "until dawn" in prayer and hearing the instruction of the holy Apostle Paul, completing this prayer assembly with the "breaking of bread," i.e. communion of the Body and Blood of Christ (Acts 20 :7-11). Such ancient monuments of Christian literature as the Epistle of St. Barnabas, the epistles of St. Ignatius the God-Bearer, the works of St. Justin the Philosopher, Theophilus of Antioch, Irenaeus of Lyons, Melito of Sardis, and many others also speak of this celebration of Sunday. The great father of the Church St. John Chrysostom and the very famous teacher Origen unanimously testify that all-night vigils on the eve of Sundays trace their origin from the time of the Apostles and were established by the holy Apostles themselves. Also worthy of note is the non-Christian testimony which has come to us the well-known letter of the pro-consul of Bithynia, Pliny the Younger, to the Emperor Trajan. In it Pliny writes that the Christians assemble in the established day, before sunset, and sing hymns to Christ as God. According to the testimony of many holy Fathers and Christian writers of the first centuries of Christianity, all-night vigils were not held just on the eve of Sundays, but also on the eve of feasts of the Lord and Mother of God, and of days dedicated to the memory of the holy martyrs. We find clear indications of the contents of these all-night vigils in the book of Apostolic Constitutions (19th chapter of book V). "From the evening until the cock crows," it says, "remain in watching, prayer, and supplications to God, reading until cock crow the law, the prophets, and psalms, and after reading the Gospel, offer the people a sermon." St. Cassian and St. Basil the Great testify that the all-night vigil included the night and morning service and ended "after cockcrow."

That is how the first Christians met Sundays and feast days. For them the night before Sunday, the night before a feast was a holy night, the whole of which they spent in prayer, preparing themselves to receive the great mystery of communion of the Body and Blood of Christ in the morning. In this nighttime prayerful preparation and in them performing the Divine Liturgy in the morning there was, in fact, contained the celebration of the given memorial day sanctified by the Church.

Can one then after this consider the person a Christian who spends the holy night before a feast of the given memorial day sanctified by the Church.

Of course not, for such a person, by breaking his communion in prayer with the Church on this holy night, thereby voluntarily cuts himself off from the body of the Church. This is why in the past those who missed three Sunday services in a row without a serious reason were completely excommunicated from the Church as worthless, dead members. It is thus even more inadmissible for Christians to organize on this holy night parties and amusements which are in their very essence improper and out of place at a time when the thoughts and hearts of Christians should be directed toward God. Besides the fact that they might distract Christians from attending the services of the feasts, the act of organizing them itself in these days and hours which are sacred for Christians is insulting to a believing conscience and is a blasphemous outrage in its canonical rules, which are obligatory for all Christians, strictly forbids any sort of public entertainment and popular amusements in those days when they would interfere with attendance at holidays divine services.*

There are few who know that in earlier, pre-revolutionary Russia the sanctity of Sundays and holy days was protected not only by ecclesiastical, but also by civil laws. Thus in 1627 a decree of Tsar Michael Theodorovich Romanov was issued which forbade, under the threat of the whip, attendance at popular entertainments. Tsar Aleksei Mikhailovich fought even more energetically against these festival amusements which penetrated more and more into us from the West. In 1648 he issued a special ukase forbidding "any sort of drunkenness and any sort of restless, diabolical activity, mockery and buffoonery and any sort of diabolical games" on Sundays; in place of this the ukase orders going to Church for Vespers, Matins, and Liturgy and "standing here humbly and with all piety." Those who disobey are commanded to be "beaten mercilessly with rods" and even to be exiled. In 1652 the tsar issued a new ukase forbidding the sale of wine on Sundays during the whole year. The 26th article of the famous "Code" of 1648 is noteworthy: the laws which protect the sanctity of Sunday refer in it to the period of time beginning on Saturday three hours before the beginning of evening. Emperor Peter I, famous for his homage to the West, who introduced among us in Russia worldly amusements on the western model (the so-called "assemblies "), nonetheless by a special decree did not permit organizing them earlier than the end of Liturgy on Sunday. On February 17, 1718 he also issued a decree obliging all people on Sundays to attend Vespers, Matins, and especially Liturgy. By a decree in 1743 Empress Elizabeth Petrovna forbade the opening of taverns on Sundays before the conclusion of Liturgy. Emperor Paul I in a decree of October 22, 1796 forbade theatrical performances "on all Saturdays," while by a decree of 1799 the sale of alcoholic beverages was forbidden during the times of Divine services. In 1833 under the Emperor Nicholas I through the efforts of the famous Speranskiy, the "Codex of Laws of the Russian Empire" was compiled, in the XIVth volume of which there is a special article on preserving the sanctity of Sundays. The laws dealing with Sunday are presented here in the following form: Sundays should be devoted to "rest from labor and godly piety." The law advises avoiding dissolute living on these days and going to church to Divine services. Along with this, the civil power took upon itself the responsibility of seeing to the preservation of order, quiet, and peace during Divine services, both in the church and around it. Public houses could be opened after Liturgy. This law decisively forbids any sort of entertainment, music, theatrical presentations, and any other public amusements and games before the conclusion of the Sunday Liturgy. By a special decree of September 21, 1881 Emperor Paul I's prohibition was again confirmed against organizing theatrical performances and presentations "on all Saturdays," with the exception of dramatic presentations in foreign languages (there was, of course, a concession to foreigners here).

From everything that has been said above it is quite clear that even the civil laws of former Imperial Russia required the faithful to meet feast days in prayer and piety, and if this was not done in some places, it was precisely as a result of that decline in faith, that scandalous instability of minds and hearts which finally led our homeland to all the horrors of blood-thirsty, atheistic communism. And the atheist communists now intentionally organize all sorts of spectacles and entertainments at the time of festival services and even on the night of Pascha itself so as to draw the people away from attending church.

How can we here abroad not be ashamed to imitate the atheist communists in their efforts to draw the faithful away from attending feast-day services?

Is it really not yet clear to us by this time that Russia was destroyed because we too blindly followed after every sort of self-proclaimed "leader" and "teacher" who inspired us with the spirit of imaginary "freedom" and of disobedience to our Mother, the Holy Church, and her saving institutions.

Whoever wants to "free" himself from obedience to the Church is digging himself a pit of perdition with his own hands. It is time to understand this and to open our eyes at least now, when the whole world, having gone too far in its opposition to the genuine Church of Christ, finds itself at the edge of a frightening abyss, ready to swallow it up!

* Canon 66 of the VI Ecumenical Council, Canon 72 of the Council of Carthage.

Translated by Father Deacon Seraphim Johnson, The Present Times in the Light of God's Word: Sermons and Speeches, Vol. I, pp. 59-63. St. Job of Pochaev Press, Holy Trinity Monastery, Jordanville, New York.