Pastor’s Corner – April 12, 2015

with Fr. James

The Number 8 as Easter Symbol

The Church speaks the language of religious symbolism in her liturgies, Scriptures, arts and architecture. In a way, symbols are like jokes: if you have to explain them, then they didn’t work. But even jokes need to explained to children or non-native speakers so that they can learn to appreciate them. Nowadays many of us are not schooled in the language of Christian symbol.

An effective religious symbol does not have a single, discreet meaning where symbol X always carries exactly meaning Y. Rather, real symbols are multivalent — intended to have multiple meanings, values, and resonances.

To take one example, consider the number 8. This Sunday is the end of “the octave of Easter”. So Easter Sunday is celebrated for 8 days, the octave, so that, liturgically speaking, each day is the equivalent of Sunday Mass. Why eight?

Jesus rose from the dead on “the first day of the week” (Matt. 28:1; Mark 16:9; Luke 24:1; John 20:1). In that first generation, Christians began observing the first day of the week (Sunday) to celebrate Eucharist, which in time became their Sabbath day, as opposed to the 7th day. (Acts 20:7; 1Cor. 16:2).

The first documentation we have of Sunday viewed as the 8th day of the new creation is in the so-called Epistle of Barnabas from the second generation of Christianity. In the context of explaining how the Law of Moses does not apply to the Christian dispensation, we read:

Wherefore we also celebrate with gladness the eighth day in which Jesus rose from the dead, and was made manifest, and ascended into Heaven.
(Barnabas xv.9)

In traditional church architecture, baptismal fonts are often octagonal in shape. After all, the waters of baptism are the portal for entry into the new creation in Christ. Even entire churches have been built on an eight-sided plan. Stars with 8 points are common in Christian art. Obviously, the number also resonates with the 8 Beatitudes. Other scriptural echoes include the number of people saved in Noah’s ark; the day of circumcision in the Law of Moses; and the number of the sons of Jesse.

As you contemplate the Mandylion icon in the sanctuary on this Eighth Day of Easter (Divine Mercy Sunday), consider all the symbols of the new creation embedded in our chapel and in the Sunday liturgy itself.

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