And when they have completed these days, then from the eighth day onward the priests shall offer upon the altar your burnt offerings and your peace offerings; and I will accept you, says the Lord God. —Ezekiel 43:27
Have you ever heard of the Eighth Day? Besides some folks’ recognition of the name of one of the best bookstores in the country (don’t miss Eighth Day Books if you’re ever in Wichita), the tradition of the Eighth Day has largely, if not entirely, lost its place in the Christian imagination. But Eastertide is a time to celebrate new life for things dead and gone, and nothing of holy origin is ever too far gone in the graveyard of time to be set on its feet to walk again. Moreover, as a symbol of the Resurrection, there is no better thing than the Eighth Day to be resurrected.
We often hear people lament over all the things we have lost in our benighted day and age. In my opinion, the single greatest thing we have lost is the sense of what we have lost, or that we have lost anything at all. The Eighth Day is one of those rich mysteries that has lost even the ghost of itself in the noise and narrowness of the modern sensibility.
There was a time when common Christians may have heard of such a thing as the Eighth Day but didn’t quite know or remember what it meant—just as they might have heard of Homer or Euclid or St. Thomas Aquinas but didn’t quite know or remember what their precise claim to fame was. There once was a time when every man—be he doctor, lawyer, or plumber—maintained at least a nodding acquaintance with the likes of Achilles and Caesar and Hamlet. But, alas, for our great supplanting era of wondrous wealth and convenience. It is the best of times, it is the worst of times.
Reclaiming such ideas like the Eighth Day is no small part in the requisite work for the restoration of Christian culture. To that glorious end, we look to the Eighth Day—a poetic device that, like all true poetry, symbolically breaks the boundaries of the material world and expresses something intangible yet essential. When the Good News of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ spread over the world, it came with a marvelous piece of poetry. Christians referred to Sunday, traditionally considered the first day of the week, as the Eighth Day.
In ancient times, the Sabbath Day (Saturday) marked the seventh and last day of creation when the Lord rested from His good work. But after the Resurrection, when the Passover became the Pascha, Christians began referring cryptically to Sunday, the first day of the week and the day Christ rose from the crypt, as the Eighth Day, bringing new symbolism to the oft-mentioned Old Testament eighth day as a day of cleansing feasts and spiritual birth. The Resurrection, as an eighth day, bespoke a movement beyond the seven days into something new.
This secondary appellation for the first day as the Eighth Day hailed the Resurrected Christ as the beginning and end of time, and it also symbolized a mystical movement beyond the seven days. God created the world in seven days, and when His Son rose from the dead, a new creation was begun.
Cardinal Jean Daniélou’s The Bible and the Liturgy (1956) delves with detail into primary sources concerning this shift from the “first day” to the “eighth day.” In several places, Cardinal Daniélou writes of Sunday, or the Lord’s Day, as the “first day of the Jewish week.” “This day consecrated to the Sun,” he writes, “was found to coincide with the first day of the Jewish week and so with the Christian Lord’s Day,” and “this day had various characteristics capable of being taken as symbols: it was the first day of the Jewish week; it fell on the day of the sun in the astrological calendar; and it was the eighth day.”
If, however, the day after the Sabbath was the first day of the Jewish week, then the Sabbath must be the last day as well as the first, which introduces a growing understanding, bestowed by time and revelation, between the relation of the Sabbath Day and the Lord’s Day and the idea of giving Sunday a double significance in its “bookend” numbering within the days of the week.
Just as a musical octave returns to the same note, but sounds a new version of it, a higher version of it, so the Resurrection of the Eighth Day returns creation to the pure light of the first day but moves it beyond that created light into the everlasting light of eternity. With Christ’s Resurrection, the Church steps above and beyond the seven-day cycle of creation week into the eternal unity of the Eighth Day. Thus, the Easter Octave celebrates a cycle of Sunday to Sunday, a more unified cycle than the seven-day cycle, a cycle in which both first and last, Alpha and Omega, stand as if united in a single day.
And herein lies the deepest secret of the Eighth Day: it is Jesus Christ, Who declares Himself the Alpha and Omega, Who is the firstborn of every creature, by Whom and for Whom all things were created and in Whom they hold together, Who is truly and preeminently the Eighth Day.
And thus, an intersection of time and eternity is poetically captured. As Christ makes all things new again, so His Resurrection institutes a new creation, a passage into perfection and fulfillment that both completes and transcends the seven days. Sunday is the first day, the Lord’s Day, but it is also the everlasting day, encompassing all the other seven in its light as it returns as a second first, or eighth day, in a single, celebratory octave of itself eight times over and onward.
To honor this poetic Christian tradition, Catholics should read good poetry about life and renewal and the Resurrection as a part of their spiritual exercises—poems that evoke the Easter mysteries and the mystery of the Eighth Day. Poetry is yet another cultural mainstay we are losing the sense of and the importance of, and Catholics should defend and preserve it. Beautiful poetry is a fitting and right embellishment for Easter, for as that day is preeminently a day of rest and, as the eighth day, is a work of renewed creation, so is poetry a work that can be rested in as a recreation. All beautiful things that draw the mind and heart up to eternal things have a place in our holy observations, and poetry should be one of them, as the Psalmist sings.
And so, I invite and encourage you to try something new this Eastertide and at all holy seasons of the rolling year: take poems with you to church or chapel. Meditate on beautiful and appropriate verses in devotional silence before the Lord who rose from the dead. Sublime works of art are signposts of salvation and, as ones longing to share in immortality, we do well when we open ourselves to their guiding influence. May the poetry of the Eighth Day enliven your Easter, make your Holy Week holier, your Bright Week brighter, and bring the glory of the Eighth Day to every day of your life. For it is you—it is all of us—who are the new creation as a risen people.
Christ is Risen! He is truly Risen!
[Image: “The Resurrection of Christ” by Pieter Coecke van Aelst]