Haec dies quam fecit Dominus: exsultemus et laetemur in ea.
“This is the day the Lord has made: Let us rejoice and be glad in it.” So cries out the psalmist in Psalm 118, and all this week the Church recites these words in place of a responsory for both morning and evening prayer. These eight days, from Easter Sunday to Divine Mercy Sunday, form the great Octave of Easter. For these eight days, the Church again and again repeats these words, and indeed repeats the whole of the Easter Sunday offices of morning and evening prayer. Easter Sunday is a time outside of time, you might say, and stretches across the entirety of the Octave.
On one level, on a human level, the Octave is easy to understand. I have a friend whose parents celebrated his “birthday week” when he was growing up. When days are really important to us, they spill over into the adjacent days. Easter Sunday, the fulcrum about which the world pivots, is so important that we don’t stop celebrating for eight days. We eat at the feast of the Lamb, never full and never unsatisfied.
But, it seems to me, there is a deeper and more opaque meaning to the Octave of Easter. Just as a musical octave is one chord, two voices perfectly blended in one harmonic, the Octave of Easter is eight days speaking the one day of timeless eternity, the time outside of time in which dwells the risen Christ and His faithful. I’m going to talk about this by looking at the meaning behind the number of days, eight.
In the mathematics of the ancient Greeks we learn of a number referred to as the “perfect number,” a number complete in itself – a natural perfection. These numbers equal the sum of their factors (excluding themselves). For example, the first perfect number, 6, has factors of 1 and 6, 2 and 3 (because 1 times 6 equals 6, and 2 times 3 equals 6). Excluding 6, we add these factors together (1+2+3) and the sum is 6, the original number.
When God created the heavens and the earth, the activity of creation took six days. These six days represent a natural perfection, the ordering of the world to itself. On the first day, God separated the day from the night; on the fourth day God populated the day with the sun and the night with the moon. On the second day God separated the waters below from the waters above, and called the waters above the sky; on the fifth day God populated the water and the sky with fish and birds. On the third day God separated the water from the dry land; on the sixth day God populated the dry land with the animals and with man. These six days show God’s beautiful ordering of creation, the natural order of creation to itself, of each creature to its place in creation.
But on the seventh day God rested. On the sabbath the Jews rested from their work to remember the work of the Lord, how they were rescued from slavery. On the seventh day of the week, which is the first day of the week, we rest and remember the resurrection of our Lord. The seventh day represents the ordering of the creation to God, its maker. Creation has an intrinsic ordering to itself, but an extrinsic ordering to God. The number seven thus comes to represent the perfection of nature by grace. There are seven sacraments; there are seven virtues (three theological – faith, hope, and charity – and four cardinal – prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance); in the Gospel of John Christ works seven miracles prior to the resurrection.
And because of this, while six symbolizes a natural perfection, it also comes to symbolize the rejection of God and the life of grace. Hence the number of the devil, three sixes. For a perfect creation without God is hell; creation finds its true perfection only in God.
But outside of creation, behind the veil of the temple, inside the quiet tomb in the garden, there is God – a god who has come to earth to redeem us that we might live with Him in paradise. Beyond nature, beyond all time, in a time outside of time, lives the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The eighth day is the day in which God lives always, the eschatological moment. This Octave of Easter is our glimpse into the eschaton, the transcendent glory of the Risen Christ. These eight days we live in the one day of God’s beauty. We see God as He is, the King of kings, the Light of lights. For one day which is eight days we have a foretaste of what will be the eternal banquet of the Lamb. It is the one day which represents the triumph of Life over death, and promises the final resurrection to new life which is the destiny of Christ’s faithful.
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