I must confess I have never been liturgically savvy. I always consider myself to be a slowpoke who takes time to get it. But something Pope Benedict said, pushed me to look further at the very structure of the Easter Vigil. Otherwise for people like me, the many readings will be akin to an already groggy mind buried under an avalanche of words and more words. I find it very interesting to note that we have seven readings from the Old Testament. The seven carry us to the threshold of the Mass. With the eighth reading you are finally in the Mass itself. This is no accident. I hope you will indulge me if I try to unpack what is going on.
The very first reading is about the seven days of creation. There is something I had not paid attention to previously. Man we know was created on the sixth day and hardly was he created then came the Sabbath. So man entered almost immediately into the day of rest. This is what is fascinating to me. God worked six days and then rested. But this was not supposed to be the case for man. He was to have begun from the sabbath rest and then work under the authority of God. If he were obedient – then he would be in the state of rest as he began to work in Paradise. The land was not yet cursed nor was labor a punishment. Man did not have to work six days on and one day off. That was God’s business.
Adam and Eve chose to disobey. They did not want to be dependent. So man aped God – instead of beginning in the sabbath of God, he chose to be like God – he would work for six days too and then, like God, give himself rest on the seventh. Now we know that this has never worked. Our autonomous work week has not worked. We work and work and have not reached our rest. This is the huge burden we labor under. It is the chaos that stalks all we do, the weariness we experience as we try desperately to give ourselves rest, the loose ends lying all about us, the never ending cares we have whenever we have to work and bear responsibility. And rest never comes.
What is also fascinating and this was pointed out by a commentator and there might be some merit to this – man probably sinned on the Sabbath – the seventh day and thus he should have died and not been allowed to live past that day into the eighth day. The mercy of God is what kept him alive. And this is reflected in the sacrificial system of Israel – when the male child was circumcised on the eighth day and the sacrifice of first born male animals on the eighth day. Blood begged for mercy to live into the eighth day. The eighth day points towards some future mercy.
Which brings us to the Easter Vigil. The seven readings of the Old Testament carry us to the threshold of the Mass. With the eighth reading – we are into the Mass itself. We are out of the seven days of old time and into the eighth day. This is the new dimension that has opened up for us. Jesus rose on the eighth day. The eighth day becomes the first day of the week for us. Pope Benedict puts it beautifully – he says – Something quite unprecedented happened in the nascent Church: the place of the Sabbath, the seventh day was taken by the first day. The structure of the week is overturned. No longer does it point to the seventh day, as the time to participate in God’s rest. It sets out from the first day as the day of encounter with the Risen Lord. In short, finally, at long last, we begin with the day of rest exactly as Adam would if he had not sinned. This is a dramatic change. Pope Benedict tells us ‘it is a revolutionary development at the very beginning of the Church’s history and can be explained only by the fact that something utterly new and baffling had happened. Death had changed. A new form of life had occurred, a new creation.’ A new creation means new time. No more could the followers of Jesus go back to the six days on and one day off pattern. The eighth day becomes the first day of the week. We begin from rest as Adam should have but did not.
And this is what the structure of the Easter Vigil points to – when the eight reading brings us into the heart of the Mass itself – the Hebrews sacrificed the first born male animals on the eight day to beg for mercy and in this eighth day of the Mass, we are in the Sacrifice that assures us of untold and infinite shalom. We are no longer living in Adam’s autonomous work week of six on and one off. In Christ Jesus, we have entered into a new time – are now living in the Sabbath of the eight day, the true day of rest. Now brothers, this is something we must work at. It does not happen automatically. Remember we are programmed to work and work and work hoping work gives us rest. It does not. We are always working toward a weekend that never comes. We must keep in mind that we are already living in the eighth day of rest. We are already at rest deep down in our souls, in our very being by being baptized into Christ. The stone has been rolled away for us. We have been brought into rest. What we must do is let this rest bubble up to the surface into our body, our sensibilities and imagination – so that we do not live like split personalities – Christians in church and bedeviled and harried pagans in the work week. We are already there. We do not have to seek frantically like those without hope. This is the day the Lord has made – let us be glad and rejoice- Alleluia, Alleluia.