As simple, and profound, as the days of the week

By Derek Olsen

My younger daughter has been running around the house singing a song from preschool; it’s called “Days of the Week” and it’s to the tune of the Adam’s Family theme complete with finger-snaps. So—for no better reason than that—I’ve had the days of the week on my mind.

If I rail against those who fiddle with the Prayer Book liturgies, it’s typically on the grounds that the texts and arrangements that we have received transmit centuries of theological habit and reflection. All too often these are cast away not with malice aforethought, but simple ignorance—we just don’t realize what we wander by and what we cast away. Let me offer as an example of the depths of our Prayer Book a brief and entirely non-exhaustive glance at a topic as basic as…the days of the week.

Most of us are pretty clear on Sundays—Sunday is the day we go to church and have the Eucharist, right? Well, it is now. Sundays have always held a special place in the lives of Christians but exactly what we do together then has not always been so clear. The very first (and still rather catholic) Book of Common Prayer in 1549 appointed Collects and Lessons “to be used at the celebration of the Lord’s Supper” for all the Sundays of the year. The Readings for daily Morning and Evening Prayer moved through the Scriptures sequentially taking no notice of the day of the week and thus offering an ancient monastic pattern: Daily Prayer punctuated by celebration of the Eucharist on Sundays and Feast Days. A spare ten years later, Elizabeth’s 1559 BCP offered a clear protestant option, a special table appointing readings for Morning and Evening Prayer on Sundays. Elizabeth’s pattern dominated Anglican life for the following centuries, flowing into the first American Books of Common Prayer, and—aside from the Anglo-Catholic wing and the Parish Communion Movement—the chief Sunday service was Morning Prayer.

What happened between now and then? Quite simply—Vatican II and the accompanying Liturgical Renewal Movement. Reaching back to the earliest recoverable Christian paradigms, Sunday was given pride of place and the centrality of the Eucharist was emphasized. Vatican II’s Sacrosanctum Consilium states at the very head of its decrees on liturgical time:

“…the Lord’s day is the original feast day, and it should be proposed to the piety of the faithful and taught to them so that it may become in fact a day of joy and of freedom from work. Other celebrations, unless they be truly of greatest importance, shall not have precedence over the Sunday which is the foundation and kernel of the whole liturgical year.”

Following this thought—and reaching back to the pattern enshrined in the 1549 BCP—our Prayer Book states at its start that “The Holy Eucharist [is] the principal act of Christian worship on the Lord’s Day and other major Feasts…” (p. 13). Following the notion that Sundays are “the foundation and kernel of the whole liturgical year,” Sundays—all Sundays—are designated as the second highest class of feast in the section on the Calendar (p. 16). The logic is placed at the start: “All Sundays of the year are feasts of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Every Sunday, then is a little Easter; every Sunday is a festival of the Resurrection.

But then we get to the rest of the week—and what we find there might surprise us… There’s another weekday lifted up as special in our Prayer Book’s directions on the Calendar. If you let your eye move from the Sundays in numbered section 2 on page 16 and drift across the page to page 17’s numbered section 4 you’ll find this notice under the heading “Days of Special Devotion”:

“The following days are observed by special acts of discipline and self-denial: . . . Good Friday and all other Fridays of the year, except for Fridays in the Christmas and Easter seasons, and any Feasts of our Lord which occur on a Friday.”

Everybody knows about Sundays—Fridays, well, they’re a bit less observed. However, the observance of Fridays enshrine a fundamental Christian principle of balance. We believe that the love of God in Christ has sanctified and transformed our whole life—not just the happy bits. Christ (as Hebrews reminds us) was like us in all things except sin and walked the same paths of pain and sorrow that we tread. If every Sunday is a festival of the resurrection (and it is), then it is only fitting that each Friday (except during our high-party seasons) be likewise a remembrance of the cross.

Interestingly, even through our protestant periods Fridays have been identified as special times of remembrance. The first BCP to explicitly detail days of feasting and fasting, the theoretically normative English 1662 Book, states that “All the Fridays in the year, except Christmas Day [if it should fall on a Friday]” are days of fasting or abstinence. (And I’ll pass in silence over the troubles that the simple “or” caused among the scrupulous!)

Sundays and Fridays—these are the weekdays that get special treatment. But I’ll let you in on at least one other weekday pattern concealed within our book… As Eucharistic piety rose in the early medieval period, cathedrals and monasteries began offering masses every day. But outside of Lent, Propers were only appointed for Sundays, Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays—what services were to be used on the others? Furthermore monastic communities began offering two masses daily—only one of which could be the Mass of the Day. What to do with the other? The answer was the votive mass: a celebration of the Eucharist with special intentions for problems facing the people (plagues, storms, Vikings, etc.). But when none of these perils threatened, a standardized pattern sprang up that recommended certain votives for certain days of the week:

• Sundays celebrated the Holy Trinity,

• Mondays, the Holy Spirit,

• Tuesdays, the Holy Angels,

• Wednesdays, All Saints,

• Thursdays, the Holy Eucharist

• Fridays, the Holy Cross,

• Saturdays, the Blessed Virgin Mary

(From Andrew Hughes’s Medieval Manuscripts for Mass and Office, page 157). There was local variation, of course, especially on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays. My favorite 10th century English missals, for instance, celebrate Holy Wisdom and Holy Love on some of these weekdays instead.

Now, what does this have to do with the days of the week in our Prayer Book? Just this: flip to page 251 if you’re a contemporary sort of person, or page 199 if you like your language traditional… Here you’ll find the collects appointed for “Various Occasions”; meet the BCP’s votive masses. And, interestingly enough, here are the first seven:

• Of the Holy Trinity

• Of the Holy Spirit

• Of the Holy Angels

• Of the Incarnation

• Of the Holy Eucharist (specifically recommended for Thursdays)

• Of the Holy Cross (specifically recommended for Fridays)

• For All Baptized Christians

With the exception of some apparent scruples over the place of the saints and the Blessed Virgin Mary, the votives are the same! (In fact, if you flipped the fourth and the seventh you’d come even closer still…) Furthermore, if you look hard at the collects at the end of Morning and Evening Prayer you’ll find echoes there too of the ancient weekly pattern.

So why do these patterns matter? First, they shatter the cultural assumption that attempts to restrict our faith to Sundays. The God who entered time has sanctified our time and blessed our days; these patterns remind us to return the favor. Second, they present us with the patterns of Christ in miniature—almost a weekly repetition of the yearly liturgical cycles. Third, they remind us weekly of the fundamentals: of the Spirit that blows through our lives, of the mystery of the Word made flesh, of Christ’s self-giving on the cross and in the meal.

The Prayer Book is filled with patterns and possibilities like these. But they do us little good if we ignore them or alter them without thought. This week I urge you to consider the patterns, consider the habits, into which the Prayer Book invites us. Consider, for instance, the days of the week…

Dr. Derek Olsen recently finished his Ph.D. in New Testament at Emory University. He has taught seminary courses in biblical studies, preaching, and liturgics; he currently resides in Maryland. His reflections on life, liturgical spirituality, and being a Gen-X/Y dad appear at Haligweorc.

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