The Third Day


It seems to be a rare thing that any painter or sculptor, even the best of them, is able to capture the ecstasy of love in the countenance of Jesus, Mary, or any saint.  Their subject is usually quite self-contained, even when the artist purports to depict an experience of the rapture of self-transcendence.  But the Holy Spirit in a single stroke of his brush accomplishes what no artist has or will ever achieve:  “Be ready for the third day.  Have no intercourse with any woman” (Ex 19:15). Procreation itself is held in breathless abeyance: the human race, its continuance, its survival, stops short in its tracks as on the very brink of annihilation.  “Be ready”, Moses tells the people, “Sanctify yourselves and wash your garments.  Do this today and tomorrow, and be ready for the third day.  Do not come near the Mountain nor touch even its base.  Anyone who does so must be stoned to death” (Ex 19:10-14). 

And here we stand – we, the People of God, the Church, on this night of Vigil as we await the break of that unspeakable third day.  Forty days we had spent in our feeble efforts to sanctify ourselves and wash our garments, until at last the night of the Supper had arrived.  Jesus himself had ritualized our sanctification and our washing (Jn 13:4ff).  The holy paschal remembrance had been carried out.  We had sacrificed and been fed with the flesh and blood of the Lamb, (Mt 26:26-28) and we were warned: let no sign of the death of this sacred Victim remain till the third day.  Anyone who eats of it on the third day shall be cut off from the Community (Lev 7:18,21; 19:5-8; Dt 16:4).

And now Moses, the great Christ-figure, ascends the Mountain of Covenant (Ex 19:16-20), and the sacred writer seems to be undoing himself in his efforts to express in human terms what is simply inexpressible: lightning and peals of thunder, clouds of smoke and fire as from a furnace, earthquake and terrible trembling, trumpet blasts growing louder and louder (Ex 19:18f).  And we – we are shaken to our depths, knocked off our feet before the staggering, majestic vision of the glory of God.  Yet, when the risen Lord comes to us on his wondrous third day, giving us his peace and bidding us have no fear, even here we may be totally undone, not now in terror, but simply in helplessly adoring love.

Jesus never predicted his impending suffering and death without adding that he would rise again on the third day, in order that the Scriptures might be fulfilled.  The apostles in their post-Pentecostal preaching followed his lead.  Jesus himself had “opened their minds to understand the Scriptures” (Lk 24:44f; cf Acts, passim; I Cor 5:4; 15:3—5), and how to detect in them the imperative that was to determine the profile and the mission of the promised Messiah.  They had learned to find his veiled presence shining through the Law of Moses, and through every narrative, every psalm, every prophecy contained in the sacred scrolls.  In prime place among all of these there stood the central event of the Third Day covenantal theophany on Sinai.  Centuries earlier there had already occurred another “third day” event: Abraham’s obedient compliance with a perceived divine demand that he sacrifice his beloved son Isaac and the ensuing substitution of a ram as the victim (Gen 22:4ff).   Subsequent to the Sinai event, Joshua would lead the Israelites across the Jordan into the Promised Land on the third day (Jos 1:11, 3;2), which was another foreshadowing of Jesus’ entrance into his glory.  The fact that the first day of the week is the third day after Jesus’ death has always loomed large in Christology, as it points to Christ as the First-born of the New Creation.   This is, no doubt, an underlying sense of Jesus’ prediction that he would rebuild the temple in three days after its being destroyed by his adversaries (Jn 2:19).   

The evangelists in their Gospel accounts of Jesus’ ministry and Passover event, enlightened by their post-Pentecostal understanding, are aware of the nuances and implications of the actions and words of Jesus.  Many of these are too subtle for us to recognize immediately.  One of these is what we could refer to as the third crossing.  The grand exodus from Egypt entailed a first crossing.  This crossing is celebrated by the Church at the Easter Vigil: Jesus, in the person of Moses, crosses the Red Sea.  The account of this crossing includes the Passover meal, and issues in the Sinai Covenant event.  Subsequently in the person of Joshua he leads the Israelites across the Jordan River where they now begin to eat the rich food of the Promised Land, and where they renew their Covenant with Yahweh (Jos ch 24).  The third crossing is noted for us in the Gospels, especially in that of John’s sixth chapter.  Jesus had fed the multitude on the third day, after which he crosses the Lake of Galilee walking upon the water.  He reaches the boat amid the turbulent waters, and “presently they arrive at the shore to which they were going”.  This account is followed immediately by Jesus’ great discourse on the Bread of Life – the Eucharist — which he would designate at the Last Supper as the “New Covenant in my Blood”.  The crossing, the food and the covenant: all are linked together in a climactic three times three.

The Day and the Hour

In speaking of his ministry or his impending passion and death, Jesus always speaks in terms of his “hour” (e.g. Jn 2:4; 17:1).  Even his enemies have their “hour”, the triumph of darkness (Lk 22:53).  But in speaking of his resurrection and his final cataclysmic return, foreshadowed by the destruction of Jerusalem and of the temple, it is that “day”.  Matthew’s Gospel gives us a very interesting passage (Mt 11:13-15) in which Jesus divides history as we know it into two days: from the beginning until John the Baptist, and from John till the end.  John is Elijah, ushering in, historically, the messianic day, and prophetically the “great and terrible day” (Mal 3:23) with its unspeakable theophany of the Third Day.  Luke gives us Jesus’ response to those who tell him that Herod wanted to kill him: “Tell that fox that today and tomorrow I cast out demons and perform cures, and on the third day my purpose is accomplished; for all that, I must proceed on course today and tomorrow and the day after, for no prophet can be allowed to die anywhere but in Jerusalem” (Lk 13:32ff),  The first two days, then, pertain to the passing epochs of our earthly existence; the Third is the Day of final triumph, the Day of the New Creation, the Day of Resurrection and eternal glorious Life.  What importance does all of this have for us?  Jesus sees it as very important indeed, for he tells us at the close of the passage in Matthew (v.15): “Heed carefully what you hear!”  In the course of his teaching, especially when he is teaching in parables, he often issues the injunction, “Let everyone heed what he hears!”  But here he says “Heed carefully”.  He asks his disciples whether they have understood, and goes on to assure them that they are then in possession of treasures both new and old (Mt 13:51f).  Treasures?  If the very Son of God calls them treasures, then truly we are being called to wake up to what our values are, and what things we consider to be important in our lives. 

In Exodus 3:14ff the Lord tells Moses that he is both singular (“I AM”) and plural (the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob”)  He confirms this self-identification as his name and his title for all generations, i.e., forever.  But who is Abraham if not the great Father in whom all the communities of the earth are to find blessing (Gen 12:3; Jn 8:56)?  Who is Isaac if not the only SON, “your only one whom you love” who goes like an innocent lamb to the place of sacrifice (Gen 22:1ff)?  And who is Jacob if not Israel who directly engenders the People of God –twelve sons (tribes) and the one bride (Gen 30:21) just as the Paraclete engenders the New People of God at Pentecost, empowering those 12 x 10 disciples and the one bride (Ac 1:14f) to bring blessing and good news of salvation to all the communities of the earth?   It needs to be said, of course, that numbers, in whatever form they may be couched, are irrelevant to God.  He simply IS.  John’s Gospel account gives us a Jesus who over and over again in his conversations with the Jews and even with his apostles asserts that he is both one with the Father and distinct from the Father (e.g., Jn 10:30; 12:44; 14:9ff, 28; 16:10).  We are beginners; we need the “training wheels” of bafflement, because bafflement opens the door to awe, and awe opens the door to truth and spirit, i.e., the worship of humble adoring love.  This is what the Father seeks (Jn 4:23). 

The Holy Mountain

God himself reveals to us that the shift from Mount Sinai to Mount Zion as the place of the new and eternal Covenant was his own eternal plan:  “I myself,” he says, “have set up my king on Zion, my Holy Mountain” (Ps 2:6).  Over and over again the Psalms testify to this reality.  We could cite Psalms 76, 87, 125 and 132, but the theme is pervasive throughout the Psalter.  This is not as though abrogating the Sinai tradition, but rather as moving toward its fulfillment.  The author of the Letter to the Hebrews sums up this shift so beautifully when he tells his readers that they have not drawn near to Mount Sinai with its fearsome manifestation of power, but rather to Mount Zion with its glorious family, rejoicing eternally in the salvation wrought for them by Christ (Heb 12:18-24).

There is a line in that exquisite Psalm 110 which reads: “Yours is princely power on the day of your birth on the holy mountain (or in holy splendor); from the womb before the daystar I have begotten you.” The “holy mountain” and “holy splendor” are two renditions that have the same meaning.  In universal archetypal symbolism as well as in the pagan mentality of those ancient days, the mountain was held to be the dwelling place of the gods. In Judaeo-Christian theology also there is a flavor of the mountain as being a special place of meeting with God, a place of holy splendor.  We remember the story of Elijah’s experience of God on the Holy Mountain (I Kg 19:9ff), and there are echoes of this theme in the psalms and throughout the entire body of Old Testament writings.  Where is this Holy Mountain, this place of holy splendor?  There is no patent answer to the question, for God dwells in unapproachable light    (I Tim 6:16).  However, the fact that the eternal God did create, simply by his Word and the Breath of his mouth (Ps 33:6; Jdt 16:14) a new ambience for himself – the world as we know it – gives us an invitation to think (albeit in terms of our limited perspective) that the place and moment of this creation, that is, the entire Mystery of Christ,  had to be what scientists are calling the big bang.  In theological terms we could call it the Holy Mountain, the place of holy splendor. 

The scientists describe the big bang as a primordial burst of light which exploded into myriads of galaxies in a movement which is still in process. Habakkuk’s magnificent Canticle sings that the heavens are covered with the glory of God, that his splendor spreads like the light: rays shine out from beside him where his power is concealed (Hab 3:33,4).  But Jesus has told us unequivocally, “I AM the Light of the world” (Jn 8:12).  Do we believe that?  Or perhaps we relegate his assertion to the spiritual realm and miss a further, cosmic  sense.  But from our small, limited point of view we could say that his entire Mystery (his incarnation, suffering, death, resurrection, ascension, Eucharist, Pentecost, eschaton, creation itself and we as his mystical body) has been and is being played out within our little limits of space  and time and defined by our created categories of form and nature.  After all, where does created time fit into eternity?  There is no before or after.  But perhaps Paul and John, with the prophet Isaiah before them, might be moved to ask, “Lord, who has believed what we have heard?” (Is 53:1).  Paul (Col 1:15-19) echoed by John (1:3,4) and well within the Wisdom tradition (Prov 8: 24-31) has declared Jesus Christ to be the first-born of all creation, thereby identifying Jesus Christ with the eternal Wisdom of God: that all things have been created with him, through him, in him and for him.  Without him nothing was made.  It occurs like a refrain in the writings of Paul that we are in him.  Not that Paul was the first to express this insight:  Jesus himself spoke in the same vein when he said that he is the true vine and we are the branches, and the branches must remain in the vine if they are to live and bear fruit.  Paul sounds like one stammering to express something he clearly saw in a 3rd heaven experience (II Cor 12:2) and which is totally inexpressible. 

The Scroll

Did specific things have to happen to Jesus simply because they were written?  It almost sounds that way in several of Jesus’ statements.  Or were they written in our history because they already existed within that primordially accomplished big bang, the Mystery of Christ?  And why would the third day, and in fact the number three, or any other number be important to God, except that he has chosen, in his infinite love, to use our finite concepts to reveal his very self to us by signs that can be grasped by us, however imperfectly?

Yet how can we think that Christ’s entire Mystery could be realized in that glorious moment of the big bang?  Well, we might begin by recognizing that the entire Mystery of Christ participates in the earth-shaking image of the Sinai theophany.  Echoes of that event are evident in the Gospel accounts of the whole life of Jesus, as well as in the Acts of the Apostles.  The Sinai theophany is the big bang brought down to the dimensions of our weak human capacity. 

How about his suffering and death?  Here more than ever our thinking is far too time-bound.  Isaiah 11:1-10 projects us into the ultimate truth: yes, his dwelling shall be glorious.  This, however, is not the only consideration.  Jesus himself has told us that there is no greater love than that one lay down his life for his friend.  Shall it be possible then, for mere men to surpass God in love – God who is Love itself?  This consideration can open the door to the possibility that there is an exigency within God to give to the absolute divine ultimate in love  (Jn 13:1).  But God is Pure Act, having no unfulfilled exigencies.  We might be led to conclude that Jesus is himself the eternal scroll, the eternal Scripture which must be fulfilled.   There is no other.  Shall we dare to think, then, that he is eternally generated as sacrificed and consequently glorified?  Could this be the reason why Psalm 2, “You are my Son; this Day I have begotten you”, is cited by the apostles in connection with Jesus’ resurrection?  We little people have no comprehension of the infinity of the divine Love.

Echoes and enhancements of our Third Day and Holy Mountain theme appear everywhere and anywhere in the pages of the Holy Book, and an unheedful eye can easily miss them.  They are far too many to be cited here.  But as an example one may look at that lovely Psalm 76, where we find that the Powerful One comes forth resplendent from the everlasting Mountain, and that the earth shudders and then falls still when he arises to judge.  The Mystery of Christ!  Yes, of course it has to include that “combat stupendous” of Jesus’ suffering and death, for how can there be victory where there is no battle?  Matthew’s Gospel account keeps us in touch with the Sinai theophany.   When Jesus is born, the heavens produce a new star; when he dies on the cross, darkness covers the earth, the veil of the sanctuary is rent in two, the earth quakes, boulders split, tombs burst open and the dead are raised.  When he rises from the dead the earthquake continues. In fact,  Matthew effectively joins the whole Mystery of Jesus, his birth, death, resurrection, ascension, and his Pentecostal sending of the Spirit,  into a single cosmic event, which culminates in his final return, described in terms of a theophany which scatters the enemy and arouses even the underworld.  He tells of clouds, winds, earthquake, trumpet blasts, and the very heavens being shaken, as the Son of Man comes in great power and glory (Mt 24:29ff).  Yet we are assured in our Psalm 76 that after all the shudderings of the great cosmic climax, then all falls still, and there remains the eternal rest of the wedding feast of the Lamb (Rev. 19:7).

And are we there?  Certainly in faith and by our Baptism and the Eucharist we are there, for, as St. Paul assures us, we are the very body of Christ (Eph 2:6; Col 1:8).  Do we realize the implications of that statement in the Letter to the Hebrews  (7:23) that Jesus Christ “forever lives to make intercession for us”?  The Son of God would not live forever to intercede for us if it were not so.   But we are, each of us, partakers in his very own divine fullness (Eph 1:23; Col 1:19), even while we struggle through the trials of our earthy life.

In Conclusion

Having arrived at this point in our reflections and looking back upon them, one might be led to see them as a conglomerate of unrelated tangents.  But tangents are born from the wheel.  They move outward and away from the center, whereas, may it be hoped, the reader has found them to be rather as the spokes emanating directly from the hub, the center.  This center has been Christ in his mystery, each of the spokes contributing in its limited way to create and support  the wheel, our running comprehension of the incarnate Son of God.

Theologians have found and continue to find far more scholarly insights into so sublime a subject.  These rather are shared simply as the thoughts and reflection of a non-scholar.  May each of my readers find in them a catalyst for his own insightful devotion.

We pray it, Lord.  Amen.