Making sense of Sunday

By  Peter Kavanagh, Catholic Register Special
  • July 26, 2007
{mosimage}On Sunday July 8, Nova Scotia went one step further down the road to making Sunday just like any other day of the week. It was inevitable. After years of attempting to control Sunday shopping, and a plebiscite in 2004 where 55 per cent of voters cast their ballots in support of a Sunday ban on shopping, the pressure became unbeatable.
In 2006, after taking the battle as far as the Supreme Court of Canada, the province lost its right to deny commercial transactions on the day of rest.  On that July Sunday, with the opening of liquor stores, the province moved that much closer to the rest of the country in allowing the great sacrament of our age to be performed — shopping to one’s heart’s content.

Inevitable but perhaps still regrettable; you can acknowledge the further advance of the secular, muse about what once was and feel a sense of loss. Two new books, A Day Apart: How Jews, Christians and Muslims find Faith, Freedom and Joy on the Sabbath  by Christopher D. Ringwald  (Oxford), and Sunday: A History of the First Day from Babylonia to the Super Bowl by Craig Harline (Doubleday), detail the history of Sunday and the idea of a day at rest. They are guides to what used to be an opportunity for regeneration for the community, the family and the church.

 {sidebar id=2} The shift from holy day to ordinary day is the story of the development of modern industrial capitalism, the emergence of the mass consumption society and the rise of secularism. It’s the tale of economics dislodging spirituality, the 21st-century parable of Mammon vs God. 

There is no real golden age of Sundays as a refuge but there was a time, a long time, when Sunday was at least imagined as this: a day of rest, a day of communion, an occasion for attending to the non-physical, the other in one’s life.

For long periods Sunday as a day of rest was a dream, an aspiration, a boon and a gift. In the 19th-century struggle for a shortened work week, labourers began their campaign by demanding Sunday at least be spared from the Dickensian version of the 24-7 grind.

Where religion was banned and persecuted, Sunday as a day of celebration took on the sheen of revolution or at least resistance. But we have known for far too long that we are much more susceptible and acquiescent to the soft allure of supposed comfort. What central committees and show trials can’t eliminate, the soft-spoken salesman seems to be able make vanish.

For much of the 20th century Sundays acquired a patina of boredom and enforced ennui. The obligatory Sunday drive and/or family dinners were the stock items of much comedic writing. And as is true of all satire, there was real experience at the heart of the quip. When religion and spirituality are merely form, an obligation without substance, it is fitting that they end up objects of ridicule and replaced by something more meaningful. When a society of consumers has been created, curtailing the right to consume simply becomes indefensible.

It is ironic that in an age where the universal whine is a lack of time, where shopping is so ubiquitous an activity that we have “shopping therapy,” “shop-a-holics” and are awash in rising household debt, the solution is more shopping opportunities rather than non-monetary downtime.

This is not simply a rant rooted in nostalgia. It is a real question about how one structures one’s life and how one makes sense of time. Being able to shop 24-7 doesn’t mean you must. As the histories of the day clearly demonstrate, the shape, focus and meaning of the day has changed repeatedly over time. And the essence of the day is found in how we use the day, how we shape our understanding of what replacing consumption with introspection, reflection and community will actually create.

When Sunday’s meaning was enforced, as individuals and communities we actually had it easy. When Sunday’s meaning is now in our hands, the choices we make and the consequences that flow are up to us.

In the song “Sunday Morning Coming Down” by Kris Kristofferson, he sings that there’s something about a Sunday that makes a body feel alone. The 1970s hit was speaking to a country music sense of alienation, solitude and searching that might well need to be reworked for life in the early years of the 21st century. Because for too many of us Sundays now have the quality of aloneness that one might experience best in the crowd of a shopping centre.

(Kavanagh is a senior producer at CBC Radio in Toronto.)

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