Liturgical Titbits: A Tale of Two Days

As we learned in the previous post, the church retained two different calendars side by side: the lunar and the solar. Thus there was a clash between two ways of dividing up the year.

But there is also another clash in the church’s time-keeping. We think of the new day as beginning at midnight. So did the ancient Romans. However, in Palestine, each day ended at sunset. As a result, from Old Testament times, Jews have marked the beginning of a new day at sunset. By Roman reckoning, the Sabbath began on Friday evening and ended on Saturday evening—but for the Jews, that was just one day, the Sabbath.
Christianity emerged out of Judaism, but soon spread into the Roman world. As a result, both ways of time-keeping exist side-by-side. On the whole, the church operates the Roman way, from midnight to midnight. At the same time, the Jewish way hasn’t gone away altogether.

For centuries, Christians in the West have begun the Lord’s Day (Sunday) with Saturday night vespers. Many churches also have the first Communion service on Saturday evening. At Christmas, we have Midnight Mass, which often finishes rather than starts at midnight.

The modern observance of the Easter Vigil is a mixture of the two systems. Originally an all-night service (hence the name ‘vigil’). In the Eastern Orthodox church, midnight is marked with particular festivity, with the lighting of fresh candles and the proclamation of Christ’s resurrection. In the West, it is common to have the service already on Saturday evening as the ‘first Mass of Easter’—since by biblical reckoning, the day of Christ’s resurrection began at sundown on Saturday.

This clash of times will no doubt persist until the end of the world—until the revelation of a new heaven and a new earth, where there will no longer be night but one endless day (Rev. 21:23), and no seasons, but a perpetual season of fruitfulness (Rev 22:2).

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