Q: Is it necessary to attend weekday services, or is Sunday morning sufficient?
A: This is a difficult subject. Our society and media often present Christianity as a Sunday morning only exploit. It is unclear, based on this popular understanding of Christianity, what it is that Christians do during the rest of the week!
Despite this popular misinterpretation of Christianity (that is, that it is sort of a Sunday morning club), Orthodox Christianity does not fit this popular myth. Orthodoxy is not a Sunday morning venture, but rather a way of life, a worshipping community, a worldview and something that we ideally reflect in our every day lives, not just something we do on Sunday mornings.
We have touched in the past on the importance of attending Saturday evening services. At our parish we also regularly have services during the week, although we do not have daily services as has been common in the past (St. Basil the Great in the 4th century mentions that Christians attended the Eucharist four times a week – Sundays, Wednesdays, Fridays, & Saturdays).
It is hard to know exactly how people view these services, but certainly “optional” is a word that comes to mind. I am often asked about the necessity of attending these services, and this happened again just this week. Thus, I wanted to spend just a few minutes discussing this issue here. Just as during the discussion of the Saturday evening services and the widespread feeling that these too are optional I pointed the finger at myself as falling short in conveying the importance of these services, so too here I must point the finger at myself for not being clear about the importance of weekday services.
In actuality, these “optional” services are important for us as Orthodox Christians. Attending these services helps us to live in an atmosphere of grace, or as St. Paul says, to live in Christ. Instead of living as if we have two distinct lives – “religious” life on Sunday and a “secular” life the rest of the week – they constantly remind us to try to live one seamless and continuous life in Christ.
Secularism is the great modern enemy of Christianity. For secularism teaches us that God, faith, church, etc. belong to a category called “religious life” while all other activities belong to regular (read “real”) life. Secularism subtly places religion and religious behavior in it’s own separate drawer unrelated to life. It compartmentalizes “religion” so that it becomes something even other than life.
But the Christian Church is different. Christ did not come to establish a “religion,” He came to give us “Life” (and “life in abundance”, i.e. real life! See John 10:10). Instead of adopting a secular worldview Christians are to bring all of creation into the sanctity that comes to us through Christ. St. Paul tells us that we are to “sanctify our time” (Eph. 5:16; Col. 4:5). Living within the rhythm and cycle of the Church year helps us to sanctify not only time but to bring sanctification to our hearts more and more deeply and authentically. As an electric current requires a ground wire, the corporate worship life of the Church keeps us grounded in the Faith.
Of course the liturgical worship of the Church is not a magic pill. We must live in a way that opens us to the grace that is available there and then incorporate it into all of life. Our life outside the church services should become a liturgy, an offering of praise and a means of communion with God. It should carry the grace-filled “feeling” and ethos that is found in the Church’s liturgy into our daily existence. And our daily “liturgy” should be in harmony with the Church’s liturgy. To the extent that it is, we will experience the Church’s liturgy and prayer for what it is – our participation in the continual, glorious liturgy of the kingdom of heaven.
Now this does not mean that everyone must attend every service scheduled. There are some who would like to but simply cannot on certain occasions due to circumstances, work schedules, etc. Yet such people often feel a sense of loss (not guilt) and are in church in spirit, though not in body. God gives grace to such people because of their intention and desire. Also children cannot be in church all the time, they also need to run and to play. This is important also for their physical and spiritual development. All things are to be done with a sense of true balance.
However, as one becomes familiar with the “mind” of the Church, we do begin to understand the vital importance of certain services. The 12 Great Feasts fall into this category for instance. If we are really fasting and participating spiritually in Great Lent, we begin to understand the strength and grace derived from the Wednesday evening liturgies of the Presanctified Gifts. I have strong, warm memories of these Wednesday nights services along with the Lenten meals following during the years of my teens.
Although we don’t have days of obligatory church attendance in the Orthodox Church per se, we certainly should look at the Great Feasts as just as obligatory as Sundays. That is, just as we would not consider regularly missing Sunday services, so too we should make every effort to attend services for the Great Feasts.
Sometimes this means taking a vacation day (or a half-day) from work. Sometimes we just can’t do that and we have to miss the services. However, this should be the exception and not the rule. I realize that for many of us this concept is not part of our “work-church” paradigm. As Christians, though, we have the responsibility to put holy things first, to value the things of God above the things of this world.
No one is going to tell you that you will be condemned to everlasting punishment for missing divine services on a Great Feast or on a Saturday night. However, as Orthodox Christians attending these services is something we should want to do, something we should want to share with God and our brothers and sisters in Christ, something we should feel a desire and a pleasure in taking part in. And taking part in these services, being mystically present at the events commemorated as we stand in the parish church, is something that elevates us spiritually.
I would like to leave you with this thought: we would never consider missing Christmas services no matter which day of the week December 25th falls on. This feast is a very important part of our spiritual lives. If we didn’t attend Christmas services we would feel like we missed something very important. Christmas is one of the 12 Great Feasts. If we can just get ourselves to feel the same way about the other 11 Great Feasts of the year we will have accomplished a wonderful thing: we will have understood the spiritual importance of the Great Feasts, and we will have drawn nearer to God through participation in these services. May God grant this understanding to all of us!
The Dates of the 12 Great Feasts:
◦ The Nativity of the Mother of God – September 8
◦ The Exaltation of the Cross – September 14
◦ Entrance of the Mother of God into the Temple – November 21
◦ Nativity of the Lord – December 25
◦ Theophany (Baptism of the Lord) – January 6
◦ Meeting of the Lord – February 2
◦ Annunciation of the Mother of God – March 25
◦ Palm Sunday – Sunday before Pascha
◦ Ascension of the Lord – 40 days after Pascha
◦ Pentecost Sunday – 8th Sunday (50 days) after Pascha