Thursday, May 05, 2011

More About the Eighth Day

We have just emerged from the octave of Easter. Some readers will be aware that I referred to this at a simple level when discussing Our Lady, Star of Evangelisation, painted in an octagonal star last week, which draws on this symbolism of the eighth day. Over the last few days selections from The Office of Readings have shed more light on the significance of this for me. Much of the symbolism described in this piece I was already aware of (and indeed I have already written about on this site). What is new and of interest to me (and I hope some readers) is not so much the symbolism described as its connection in each case with the liturgy and in particular the Octave of Easter made apparent by these readings from the liturgy itself.

I first became aware of the idea of the ‘eighth day’ of creation when reading Pope Benedict’s book, The Spirit of the Liturgy. He discusses the transition from Old to New Testaments, revealed in the transition from Sabbath to Day of Resurrection. Sunday, taking over the significance of the Sabbath has three different names, he says: it is the first day of the week; it is the third day ‘seen from the Cross’; and then he says: ‘the Fathers added another consideration: seen in relation to the whole preceding week, Sunday is the eighth day.’ He didn’t elaborate further and I didn’t know anything more about it, until this past week that is. I must have read the passages I am about to refer to before, but I had not appreciated this aspect of what they were saying until now.

First on Holy Saturday a passage from the Letter to the Hebrews interpreted Psalm 94 (95). The Letter says: ‘He has said of the Sabbath, God rested on the seventh day from all his labours; and yet in this passage he is still saying, “They shall not attain my rest”. It is still left for some, then, to attain it, and meanwhile, those to whom the message first came have been excluded by their unbelief. So he fixes another day, “To-day”, as he calls it.’

This is the day, it says, which is given to us to attain that rest, as long as we do not, to quote the psalmist, ‘harden our hearts’ as at ‘Meriba and Massa in the wilderness’. So here is the establishment of the new eighth day. Furthermore the importance of this is emphasized to me by the fact that I have read this as the Invitatory Psalm every day at the opening of the Liturgy of the Hours for some years. I wonder how many times I have recited this phrase without seeing what it was referring to.

Then the Office of Readings for Divine Mercy Sunday had a passage from St Augustine that made precisely the same points that Benedict made in his book, with the additional point of the traditional practice of the circumcision on the eighth day. Augustine put it thus: ‘ This is the octave day of your new birth. Today is fulfilled in you the sign of faith that was prefigured in the Old Testament by the circumcision of the flesh on the eighth day after birth. When the Lord rose from the dead, he put off the mortality of the flesh; his risen body was still the same body, but it was no longer subject to death. By his resurrection he consecrated Sunday, or the Lord’s day. Though the third after his passion, this day is the eighth after the Sabbath, and thus also the first day of the week.’

This cycle of seven-plus-one in the liturgy, in which the final step is simultaneously something new, but also the beginning of the repetition of the same cycle, echoes the pattern in music in which octave after octave, each cycle of 7 notes and the eighth octave note is a repetition, yet one that is at the same time something previously unheard, higher in tone than the last. So the liturgy also spirals to heaven through sacred time.

This significance of the new day, linked to the person of Christ, is reinforced with the familiar octagonal motifs in the design of fonts and baptisteries, the interior of Pisa is shown above, and even the design of the Raphael Mond Crucifixion (below), which the heads and feet of the onlookers make up an octagonal shape around the figure of Our Lord. Regular New Liturgical Movement readers will know of these by now.

Consider this split of the liturgical octave into a five-day period and three days, as described by the Pope and Augustine. In numerical symbolism, five is often associated with perfection in humanity and three, of course with the Trinity. Take a look at the border of the 18th century stained-glass window image of the Sacred Heart, which is at the Maryvale Institute in Birmingham, the motif in the border is a design that resembles a pentagonal flower emerging from one corner of a triangular bulb at its root. I had taken this to be a symbol of the word made flesh, both God and man. I was aware of the traditional idea of 5 representing living matter and especially man, but had not made the connection with the split of the liturgical octave. (When the musical octave is split in the same way it creates, I am assuming, the harmonic interval of the 5th, one of the fundamental Pythagorean harmonies.) I have included pictures of the window and the painting of the Sacred Heart that the Institute commissioned for their 25th anniversary.

The numerical series, called by Boethius in the 6th century, the ‘Fourth of Four’, one of his 10 listed perfect proportions, starts 1, 2, 3, 5, 8…. . I have written in greater detail about the Boethian proportions in the Christian tradition here. This is in a sense a symbolic numerical description of the process of the incarnation, from the three persons of the Trinity, we see a perfect man, represented by 5 and the work of which is symbolized by the 8th day. Interestingly it is a Boethian version of the Fibonacci series, (several centuries before Fibonacci) in which each term is the sum of the previous two. The Fibonacci series has a significance in the natural world, scientists have since realized, as it describes the proportionate growth of living material, when the amount of new material is generated from what is already there. It is intriguing, I think, when the traditional symbolic and more conventional quantitative aspects of number harmonise in this way.

There are other little coincidences that I can point to: the 3:5:8 proportion, contained within the series and this split of the octave, is the same as those associated with the perfect man, Christ, as described by St Augustine (although usually described in terms of 6:10:16 and as discussed just a couple of weeks ago, when discussing the described proportions of the Ark of the Covenant, prompted coincidentally by a different set of passages from the Office of Readings).

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