Why does going to Mass on Saturday night “count” to fulfill the Sunday obligation?

Posted by Alice L. Camille
Thursday 04, May 2017 | Category:   Doctrines & Beliefs,Church History,Liturgy
Saturday evening Mass
The Hebrew definition of a day is measured from one desert sundown to the next.

Plenty of folks, including my Dad, have viewed the “Saturday Five” Mass as an unwelcome innovation. It’s been decried as one more Vatican II accommodation to flabby Catholicism: dumbing down our vigorous commitment to the Precepts of the Church. Most decriers would be surprised to hear that a prior evening anticipatory Mass was recommended and defended by 4th-century heavyweights including Augustine and Jerome. Where does the idea come from?

The fifth verse in the Bible declares: “Evening came, and morning followed—the first day.” The phrase is repeated after each of the first six days of creation, giving rise to the Hebrew definition of a day as measured from one desert sundown to the next. Examples in both Testaments testify that time makes a significant shift at sundown: the Temple is closed as shadows lengthen, or crowds bring their sick to Jesus as night falls. Even Easter is counted as “the third day” when the women approach the tomb under cover of darkness.

To be on the safe side in observing erev (Hebrew “evening”), rabbis say wait for three stars to appear in the sky. When you think about it, the concept that the a.m. (ante meridiem, Latin for “before noon”) period begins at midnight is not much more than a decision. The day has to start somewhere.

Jewish practice carries over in the anticipatory Mass for Sunday, or the Vigil Mass of a feast. In 1969, Paul VI wrote that ''the observance of Sunday and solemnities begins with the evening of the preceding day.” Although this was a moto proprio (personal papal initiative), it built on formal teaching issued two years earlier granting permission for the anticipatory Mass. It also acknowledged what the Liturgy of the Hours had promoted for centuries: a Sunday celebration lasting from Evening Prayer on Saturday night until Evening Prayer on Sunday.

The 1983 Code of Canon Law notes that “assist[ing] at a Mass celebrated anywhere in a Catholic rite either on the feast day itself or in the evening of the preceding day satisfies the obligation of participating in the Mass." (no.1248) The Catechism of the Catholic Church affirms: “On Sundays and other holy days of obligation the faithful are bound to participate in the Mass. The precept … is satisfied by assistance at a Mass which is celebrated anywhere in a Catholic rite either on the holy day or on the evening of the preceding day.” (no.2180)

Scriptures: Genesis 1:5, 8, 13, 19, 23, 31; Leviticus 23:5, 32; Nehemiah 13:19; Matthew 28:1; Mark 16:1-2; Luke 4:40; 2 Peter 1:19

Books: Celebrating the Easter Vigil – Rupert Berger, Hans Hollerweger, eds. (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1983)

Let Us Pray: A Guide to the Rubrics of Sunday Mass – Paul Turner (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2012)

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