The Weekly Cycle of Commemorations
The days of the week in Judaism
For Jews and Christians, the observance of a repeating cycle of seven days, with one day set aside and dedicated to God, is extremely ancient, going back to Genesis: "God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work he had done in creation" (Genesis 2:3). Peculiar to the Judaeo-Christian law is the connection of a rest for man with prayer to God. The seventh day, or Sabbath, was set aside for prayer and rest from labor, and two other days (Tuesday and Thursday, the traditional market days) became days on which Jews would fast and assemble for public prayer.
But of course the recurring seven-day week, even with one day set aside for God, did not resolve the problems stemming from the Fall. The Hebrew prophets looked forward to a day beyond the seven-day cycle, the "Day of the Lord" or the "eighth day", or which God would intervene and the world would be changed and sanctified.
The days of the week in the early Christian Church
According to the Gospel account, Jesus rose on the day after the Sabbath, on the first day of the week (which we call Monday):"After the Sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary came to see the tomb [of Jesus" (Matthew 28:1). Our Lord had kept the Sabbath by resting in the tomb, and his rising from the dead inaugurates a new week.
So for Christians, Sunday is:
- the day on which God created the world (as it was also for the Jews)
- the day on which Christ rose and humanity was renewed
- the day on which the Holy Spirit descended on the apostles, and the Church was born (Acts 2:1)
All of these events occurred on the first day of the week. But the day of Resurrection was also the Day of the Lord which the prophets foretold - the day on which the power of sin and death was broken - the eighth day. The eighth day represents both the historical Resurrection of Christ, and his return in glory.
So in the Christian Church, Sunday is the most important day of the week; it commemorates things that happened in the past, and also teaches us to look forward to the final stage of redemption which is yet to come. The first day of the week became the day on which Christians met, early in the morning, to read the Scriptures and offer the Eucharist. Jewish Christians continued to celebrate the Sabbath as well; but by the end of the first century, Christians chose to fast on Wednesdays and Fridays, to distinguish themselves from Jews, who fasted on Tuesdays and Thursdays. And in some parts of the Church (Rome, for instance), Saturday became a fast day as well, completely breaking the tie with Judaism.
The days of the week in the Byzantine tradition
In the East, however, the Sabbath (Saturday) continued to be honored as a day; it was remembered as the day Christ rested in the tomb, and was eventually associated through him with the martyrs who suffered and died for Christ, then with all the saints (on one hand) and all the faithful departed (on the other). Saturday and Sunday became the two principal days on which the Divine Liturgy was celebrated in the Christian tradition. The most important Scripture readings were assigned to specific Sundays, and the next-most-important readings were assigned to individual Saturdays. (The parts of the New Testament that were left over were assigned for continuous readings on the other weekdays, Monday through Friday, except during the Great Fast, when the Divine Liturgy was not celebrated at all.)
As we have mentioned, Wednesdays and Fridays were already set aside as days of fasting for Christians, and they became associated with the Gospel events which occurred on these days, according to the synoptic Gospels: the betray of Jesus on Wednesday, and his crucifixion and death on Friday. From the connection with his suffering, both days also came to be associated with the Cross of Christ; additionally, in the Byzantine tradition, Friday was used to especially remember the presence of the Theotokos and Ever-Virgin Mary, the Mother of God, as she stood at the foot of the Cross.
The remaining weekdays (Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday) were given their own commemorations, in roughly historical order: Monday with the holy angels, Tuesday with the John the forerunner, the link between the Old and New Testaments; and Thursday with the holy apostles (who spread the Gospel throughout the world) and Saint Nicholas, patron of the Byzantine Churches.
As the liturgical services developed, special prayers and hymns were composed for each day in the eight-week cycle which reflected the special commemorations for each day of the week:
|Day:||On this day we commemorate:||Historical or biblical event:|
|Sunday||the Resurrection of Christ
||the first day of the week, and also the "eight day" or "day of the Lord"|
|Monday||the holy angels||continuing praise of God in heaven|
|Tuesday||the Forerunner and Baptist John||the transition from the Old to the New Testament|
|Wednesday||the Holy Cross||the day of Christ's betrayal|
|Thursday||the holy apostles; Saint Nicholas||the spread of Christ's message throughout the world|
|Friday||the Holy Cross and the Mother of God||the day of Christ's crucifixion|
|Saturday||the martyrs; all the saints; the faithful departed||the seventh day of the week, or Sabbath; Christ's rest in the tomb|
Since the day begins at sunset in the Byzantine tradition, this means that at Vespers:
- on Sunday night, we sing hymns in honor of the angels
- on Monday night, we sing hymns in honor of John the Baptist
- on Tuesday night, we sing hymns in honor of the Cross of Christ
- on Wednesday night, we sing hymns in honor of the apostles and Saint Nicholas
- on Thursday night, we sing hymns in honor of the Cross of Christ (and the Mother of God standing at the Cross)
On Friday night, we sing in honor of the martyrs and saints, and we also sing the nekrosima, or hymns for those who have died. (These are the same as the "Hymns of Saint John Damascene" that are sung in the funeral service). And on Saturday night, we sing hymns in honor of the Resurrection, as as new week begins.
Father Robert. The
Liturgy of the Hours in East and West.
(Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1993).
An excellent history and explanation of the Divine Praises in the different liturgical traditions.
- Mother Mary and (Bishop) Kallistos Ware. The Festal Menaion. (South Canaan, Pennsylvania: St. Tikhon's Seminary Press, 1969). Contains an explanation of the daily liturgical cycle, and an outline of each office.