The Eighth Day

By George Westhaver

“The same day at evening, being the first day of the week … came Jesus and stood in the midst, and saith unto them, Peace be unto you. … And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and saith unto them, Receive ye the Holy Ghost.”

A few years ago, I attended a conference that featured a paper with one of my favorite titles: “The Bible — foundational document for the New Atheism.”

How could the Bible be the foundational document for the New Atheism? Well, since the Bible was first written, people have struggled with, or sometimes relished, the various difficulties that come with reading the Bible — with difficulties, obscurities, symbolic forms of expression.

We encounter one of these puzzles in the gospel for today. According to St. John, on the very day of the Resurrection, the risen Christ breathes on his disciples and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” But don’t we celebrate the pouring out of the Spirit on the Day of Pentecost, 50 days after the first Easter Sunday? Then, with a sound like “a rushing mighty wind,” “there appeared unto [these same disciples] cloven tongues, like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them: and they were all filled with the Holy Ghost.”

We could explain these two accounts of the gift of the Holy Spirit as representing a fundamental contradiction, or that St. John offers a different version of an experience or reality that St. Luke describes in the Acts of the Apostles.

It is important and good to probe the meaning of these differences, but the solution that makes them into contradictions may banish us to a two-dimensional world where the mysteries of the gospel are drained of color and depth. Such a solution could offer the satisfaction of suggesting that we have a certain kind of intellectual superiority over the more gullible ages before us, but in solving the challenges of the Scriptures this way we may simply be embracing a more simplistic kind of thinking and reasoning, not a more sophisticated one.[1]

Often, what looks like a contradiction in the Bible becomes a way to discover dimensions that a more straightforward narrative would conceal. If we are willing to rest in uncertainty, we might ask what we can learn from this gift of the Spirit on the Day of the Resurrection, and how does it concern us directly now? To do this, I would like to explore the meaning of the eighth day after Easter, the Octave day, today.

In the early Church, the eighth day after Easter was treated with great solemnity, as a kind of sacrament of time. We are familiar with seeing the bread and wine of the Holy Communion as the visible signs and symbols of a spiritual reality. The Easter candle is also a sign, a sign of the presence of Christ: Christ who led the people of the Israel out of Egypt and through the Red Sea by a pillar of fire, Christ who freed humanity from the slavery of sin, is present with his people gathered on the first day of the week. The grains of incense in the cross on the candles are emblems of wounds which he showed the gathered disciples, and which he shows us each time we celebrate these holy mysteries.

The first day of the week, the Lord’s Day, the eighth day, is also a sign, a sacrament that guides us toward the apprehension of a spiritual reality. What is the special grace or gift of this day, of the eighth day? Here, the problem is one of superabundance — there is an Eastertide superabundance in the reflections of the early Christian commentators on the meaning of this great day. I would like to focus on two, which are already fulsome enough.

First, the eighth day is the first day of the new creation, a day that we live sacramentally every Sunday. Second, the eighth day is a sign of the presence in time of what is beyond time.

To appreciate what it means to see Easter as an eighth day, and the day of a new creation, we need to return briefly to the very beginning of our Lenten pilgrimage. On Septuagesima Sunday we first turned toward Lent, and we heard the account of creation from Genesis, Chapter 1.

Sometimes Christians these days hear that account with some measure of embarrassment — isn’t this a story that has been discredited by the discoveries of science? If we share in that embarrassment, then we share in a very narrow view of what the first chapter of Genesis is about, a glass house constructed by a strange alliance of atheism and an unintentionally superficial reading of the Bible. Genesis 1 is not an account of mechanical or external processes. It is a sketch of what is essential and abiding. It is a prophecy as well as revelation.

“In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth …. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light (Gen. 1:1-3).

When the early Christians read this verse, they heard there a description of the work of the Trinity. God the Father speaks the Word that is His Son: “And God said.” This is filled out in the Prologue of the Gospel of St. John:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

… All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men.[2]

The image on the front of your bulletins helps one to see the way in which the eighth day is the day of the new creation. It is the scene of the creation of Adam, of humanity, as pictured in the Good Samaritan window in Chartres Cathedral. In the middle, we see the Word through whom all things are made, pictured as already having taken on flesh. On the left is Adam, who receives a ray of breath from his creator — hard to see on bulletins, straight line between their mouths:

… then the Lord God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being.

However many ages or millennia God spent forming humanity, we need to know humanity cannot be explained as a product of necessity, but by the gift of divine life.

This image helps us to see the account in Genesis as a kind of prophecy. On the day of the Resurrection, the One in whose image humanity is made breathes again the breath of life into the gathered disciples. The great Egyptian theologian, Cyril of Alexandria (d. 444), describes this as a remaking of humanity by restoring a likeness, a communion, with God:

[Christ, he says,] is formed in us through the Spirit, Who trans-elements us unto God by Himself … bestowing a Participation of the Divine Nature[3]

For Cyril, this gift is a kind of first instalment of what will be given more universally on the Day of Pentecost. For him, it is not a contradiction but a revelation that the communication of the work of Christ to humanity is also and always the work of the Spirit. The reading from Ezekiel today has a similar function as the reading of Genesis at the beginning of our Lenten journey. In Ezekiel, we see a prophecy of the life of the Spirit that is both the gift of the Resurrection and the promise of Pentecost.

The epistle also teaches us to see the connection between the old and new creation:

Who is it that overcomes the world but he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God? This is he who came by water and blood, Jesus Christ, not with the water only but with the water and the blood.

This emphasis on the water and the blood echoes the Gospel of St. John, and the passage that fixes our attention to the water and blood flowing from the side of Christ:

But one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once there came out blood and water (John 19:34).[4]

The early Christian commentators saw in this description of blood and water flowing from the side of Christ another prophecy of the new creation. Genesis 2 says that while the first Adam slept, his side was opened, and Eve, the mother of all the living, was formed from a rib taken from his side.

So likewise, on Good Friday, the sixth day of the week, the second Adam slept on the cross, his side was opened, and the New Eve, the Church, the mother of all who have life in Christ, comes out of his side in the water and blood. The connection between the first and second creation of Adam is prophesied in the window from Chartres.

Behind the Word who breathes the breath of life is a tree in the form of a cross, which point toward the second sixth day. This water and blood that flow from Christ’s side prophesy the sacramental life of baptism and Holy Communion. This is he who came by water and blood, Jesus Christ, not with the water only but with the water and the blood.

But what is promised in the water and blood is given only with the breath of the Spirit, in-breathed by the risen Christ. The same Spirit who hovered over the face of the waters hovers over the water of the font, joined with the Word and promise of Christ, to give new birth and new life. The Day of the Resurrection is the day of a new creation. The “let there be light” of the one day is echoed and fulfilled in the “let there be light” of the resurrection and the “let there be light” of Baptism.[5]

The celebration of the Lord’s Day is a celebration of the eighth day. This day has a sacramental character, and it invites us to share in the experience of the eternal in time. But what does this mean?

For the Fathers of the Church, both in the East and the West, the seven days of the creation story represent all of time, and the whole of creation. The day of the Lord’s resurrection both breaks open this cycle and fulfills it: “The week is related to time. The eighth day is outside time.” The day of the resurrection cannot be a day like any other day. It is, says St. Basil, “day without evening, having no other day, a day without end, outside of time measured in weeks.” In the celebration of the Lord’s Day, we are celebrating the presence in time of what is beyond time, the trampling down of death by death, and the presence of the risen Christ, the Alpha and the Omega, present in time with the assembled body of believers.

One of the best places to encounter and consider the meaning of the eighth day is in St. Augustine’s City of God:

After almost 250,000 words, his conclusion is a reflection on the eighth day:

Chap. 30, Of the Eternal Felicity of the City of God, and of the Perpetual Sabbath:

How great shall be that felicity, which shall be tainted with no evil, which shall lack no good, and which shall afford leisure for the praises of God, who shall be all in all!

But there is not now space to treat of these ages; suffice it to say that the seventh shall be our Sabbath, which shall be brought to a close, not by an evening, but by the Lord’s Day, as an eighth and eternal day, consecrated by the resurrection of Christ, and prefiguring the eternal repose not only of the spirit, but also of the body. There we shall rest and we shall see, we shall see and we shall love; we shall love and we shall praise. Behold what shall be in the end and shall not end. For what other end do we propose to ourselves than to attain to the kingdom of which there is no end?

For Augustine, the eighth day is a kind of fulfilment of the Sabbath. Genesis speaks of God resting on the seventh day, and this rest is inscribed in the life of the people of Israel in the keeping of the Sabbath as a day of rest. For the early Christians, this Sabbath is a prophecy of the rest which Christ both accomplishes and brings. One aspect of this rest is a tranquillity of soul, the tranquillity that comes from a good conscience. “For he who does not sin truly observes the Sabbath” is a description of the rest of the seventh day that is fulfilled in Christ and shared with his people. The popularity of the verse “Come unto me all who labour and are heavy laden” speaks to us of the recognition — we all know it or discover it — that sin is hard labour, feeding on the husks of the pigs with the Prodigal Son.

In Augustine’s description at the end of The City of God, the seventh and the eighth day blend: There we shall rest and we shall see, we shall see and we shall love; we shall love and we shall praise. St. Augustine describes a “a rest which is always awake, and an activity which is not lazily, but unwearyingly rested.” But this is not something that waits for us in some impossible future. The keeping of the weekly memorial of the Resurrection, the eighth day, is an invitation to enjoy in time what cannot be contained by time.

Gregory of Nyssa wrote in his Life of Moses: “It is the property of the spiritual activity to be rested by exercise itself.”[6] This is not something just for the future, but a gift for the present.

Whenever we keep Sunday as the Lord’s Day, we are participating in another way of keeping and experiencing time. This is not the kind of time that can be cut into segments and organized, time like an empty container waiting for us to fill it, or time like a cage from which we cannot escape. Rather, on the Lord’s Day, when the risen Christ appears in our midst, the normal round is broken open, the eternal emerges in the temporal, he breathes on us the Spirit to make us partakers of the new life of the new age.[7]

There is something wonderful and humane in this joining together of a weekly round with an opening to what is beyond that round. The gift of the Resurrection is not uncertain. Christ has said, “Let there be light.” We are raised with him, he has breathed the Spirit into us. And yet we all know how imperfectly our seek those things which are above, we all know how much of us still needs to be remade. So, we are given the gift of this weekly return to what is beyond the week. We are invited to hear again the promise of the forgiveness of sins, not just once, but at every commemoration of the day of the Resurrection. But this is not just the same old thing, an endless repetition of a cycle. No, time has been broken open, Christ stands in our midst to repeat the words, “Peace be with you.”

“This is neither a possession nor only a hope, but a waiting which is already peace because it rests wholly on the promise of the faithful God.”[8] We may waver and wander, but the sacrament of the eighth day is an invitation to discover, to find, and to enjoy the blessedness of a day without evening.

[1] Often, considering what looks like contradictions and difficulties in the Bible becomes a way to enter its meaning more fully. The very difficulties which the new atheists or the old atheists delight in are the very places where we discover signposts and clues to a fuller appreciation of the richness of the treasures of the Gospel and of the mysteries of faith. Only if we first bow down in humility to pass through the impossibly low door can we enter in and then stand up in the spacious Basilica of the Nativity in Bethlehem. The door is very low and difficult to pass through. The incarnation of Christ in Scripture is also like that. There is a low and rough passage into the soaring spaces where the treasure is to be found. The two gifts of the Spirit teach us something of the greatness of what Christ gives.

What Christ gives to the Apostles or to the gathered disciples on the first Easter Day, he will give to the whole Church universally 50 days later. His gifts are without measure, and if he gives only some measure of the Spirit, he is already giving some measure of himself. This is not an “answer.” If we try to solve the puzzle of these two gifts, we may close the door to the space where the same Spirit is at work.

[2] As the Genesis account makes clear, there is a kind of light that precedes the light of the sun and moon.

[3] St. Cyril, Dialogue 7 in Pusey, Sermon XVI, “The Christian’s Life in Christ,” Parochial Sermons, Vol. 1, Third Edition, John Henry Parker (Oxford, 1852), 242 footnote. [Who conformeth us unto God, {not through ministerial Grace} but as bestowing a Participation of the Divine Nature {on those worthy of Himself}.

“As then, at the beginning, man was formed and came into being, so likewise is he renewed; and as he was then formed in the Image of his Creator, so likewise now, by participation in the Spirit, is he transformed into the Likeness of his Maker.” Cyril, Commentary on John, vol. 2, p. 675, “first instalment,” p. 679.

[4] He who saw it has borne witness — his testimony is true, and he knows that he tells the truth — that you also may believe.

[5] Second, not just for humanity: first creation account in a garden with four rivers watering the world, in the second takes place in the midst of a garden — not just an account of human experience, but something which includes the created order. Second issue: experience and reality of decay and death alongside and in new creation.

[6] PG XLIV, 404

[7] Schmemann again, p. 63, with Charles Taylor, living our lives in relation to Christ, the beginning and end, who orders, redeems, and sanctifies all our times.

[8] Daniélou, chapter on the eighth day, adapted.


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