Thursday, November 29, 2007

The Eighth Day

I was invited, along with three of the children from my Sunday evening catechesis session (for children ages 9-12), to a Baptism at a church that was new to us. As we were waiting for the priest to arrive, one of the children noticed that the Baptismal font had eight sides. Together, we had meditated on numbers during our Sunday evening sessions. During Advent, we had thought often of the significance of the number four: not simply that the four Advent candles represent the four Sundays leading to Christmas, but also that the cross has four arms, which “connect” heaven and earth and embrace all that exists; one child had noticed that there are four compass points; another remembered that there are four evangelists; that remark had recalled the four rivers that watered Eden. And when we had read the account of the Creation in the Book of Genesis, we had reflected on the significance of the number seven; that discussion had led us to contemplate the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit and how they might be connected to the seven days of Creation. And so it was natural for us to wonder together about this new number, the number eight.
The children couldn’t think of anything in the Church that made reference to the number eight. Yet, their experience of the Church told them that no one would build a baptismal font with eight sides unless that number signified something very important. As has happened countless times in my experience as a catechist, I had a vague idea about the significance of an eight-sided font, but I was afraid to mislead the children. So I had to admit to them that I did not know the answer for certain. I promised to search out the meaning of the number eight and to report back at our next Sunday evening session.
That week, flipping through my books, I stumbled upon a chapter from Jean Danielou’s The Bible and the Liturgy entitled “The Eighth Day.” In its opening paragraph, Danielou writes, “The seven days, figure of time, followed by the eighth day, figure of eternity, appeared to the Fathers of the fourth century as being the symbol of the Christian vision of history” (page 262). Danielou goes on to discuss the thought contained in the Homily of the Hexaemeron of St. Basil the Great, the master of the Cappadocian School:
But the visible symbol, the sacrament, meant to guide our spirits towards this unique aeon [the Parousia], is the first day of the week, that on which light was created, on which the Savior rose from the dead, of which the Sunday of each week is the liturgical commemoration; it is called one to signify that it is the figure of the oneness of the age to come. The whole theology of the Sunday is now seen clearly; it is the cosmic day of creation, the biblical day of circumcision, the evangelical day of the Resurrection, the Church’s day of the Eucharistic celebration, and, finally, the eschatological day of the age to come. (page 266).

And so, when we die to sin and death as we are submerged in the waters of Baptism, we die also to time, as symbolized by the seven days of the week. When we emerge from the water, we are reborn into the eternal life of Jesus Christ, our Risen Lord; we have conquered time! We now find ourselves on the eighth day of Creation, a day that will never end. On day One of Creation, God speaks light into being. The eighth day, superimposed over day One, enriches that primordial light into the Light of the Resurrection; and Sunday, which had formerly been the first day of the week, becomes the day of the “Morning Star which never sets.” Through Baptism, we live that eighth day, the eternal Day of the Risen Lord. Our Sunday Eucharistic celebration invites us to pay attention, with particular intensity, to this already existing reality.
Armed with this theology of St. Basil, I walked into my next Sunday evening catechetical session. As always, we began the session with singing. Then I invited the three who had been present at the Baptism to describe the font and to share their question with the others.
The children began to reel off symbolic numbers they’d already encountered: one for the unity of the universe, three for the Trinity, four for the Gospels, six for the points on the star of David, seven for the gifts of the Holy Spirit, twelve for the apostles, forty days of the Flood…I listened, waiting for a pause in the conversation so that I could spring my knowledge on them, still wondering whether I could find a language simple enough to help their understanding. Then one girl said, “Well, eight is a totally new number, so it must stand for Jesus.”
“Yeah,” said another. “No one else was ever the Son of God before. He has to have his own number.”
“Oh!” said a third. “Jesus rose from the dead on the day after the Sabbath! Remember how the women were bringing the spices and stuff—”
“So, that was the day after the last day of the week!” another girl cut in.
“The eighth day!” said two children at once. “Sunday.”
I was stunned. In the back of my mind, I thought that I still had an ace up my sleeve, one angle they hadn’t yet explored, when…
“It’s the Parousia!” shouted the first girl.
There was a profound silence in the room. No one questioned this conclusion.
How did the children come to these insights? Are the study and preparation of the catechist completely useless? If I couldn’t teach them these facts, what was my purpose for them?
These children and I had spent hours meditating on the Scriptures. We had taken a close look at the Rites of the Church, most particularly the prayers and gestures of Baptism and of the Mass. We visited and revisited the parables of Jesus, always exploring their deeper meanings (one child had remarked that the parables are like “boxes inside of boxes, every time you lift the lid, you find another present”), and we had reflected on the sacramental signs of bread, wine, water, oil, light, and gestures. We had lingered over the three great moments of salvation history: Creation, Redemption and Parousia. Whenever we read of the Parousia in the prophesies of Isaiah, the epistles of St. Paul and in the words of Jesus, the children would express a hunger for that Great Day. So, without realizing that the significance of an eight-sided baptismal font would ever become a question, I had been helping to prepare them to answer it.
Liturgical signs do speak to us. Their language is essential and immediate. Signs bypass the pitfalls of intellectualism and are thus able to communicate to any and all who know how to pay attention. In fact, liturgical signs teach us realities that we cannot grasp by any other means, and the longer we contemplate them, the more they tell us. In fact, the language of signs is the religious language par excellence. As the catechist and Bible scholar Sofia Cavalletti observes in The Religious Potential of the Child: “The religious character of the method of signs is evident: It is a method conscious of its limits and as such it is filled with veneration for the mystery, which it knows to be unfathomable; it is a method that does not claim to explain, circumscribe, or define, but rather one that speaks falteringly, through hints” (page 165). But the liturgical signs remain mute for those who have never been initiated into the discipline of seeking after their meaning. If we don’t expect them to speak, we will miss even their most rudimentary meaning. If Christianity is to thrive, we need to develop, in ourselves as well as in the next generation, the capacities to listen deeply and carefully, to look longer and wider, to pay closer attention; in short, we must keep alive our capacity for wonder. As Cavalletti observes, “When wonder becomes a fundamental attitude of our spirit, it will confer a religious character to our whole life, because it makes us live with the consciousness of being plunged into an unfathomable and incommensurable reality” (page 139).
The bare words of the children I have recorded above tell a story of understanding, but what I have failed to communicate is the sense of serenity that pervaded the room after they had shared their insights with one another and with me, the joy with which they entered into the day’s lesson, the appreciative way they looked into each other’s eyes during the remainder of our session.
During Mass earlier that day, we had lived, more or less consciously, the “unfathomable and incommensurable reality” of Sunday; then, well after the sun had set, that reality had dawned on us in an entirely new way.


Jen Lang Mama 2 9 said...

Beautiful! Thank you for your insight and lesson.

Rosy said...

this is a fabulous piece.
many thanks

Dumbstruck by the Mystery

...our temptation is always to impose our prejudices or our measure on reality -- except when we are faced with a fact that leaves us dumbstruck, and instead of dominating the fact ourselves, we are dominated, overcome by it. If there were no moments of this kind, the Mystery could do anything, but in the end, we would reduce everything to the usual explanation. But not even a Nobel Prize winner can stop himself from being dumbstruck before an absolutely gratuitous gesture. If there were not these moments, we would find answers, explanations, and interpretations to avoid being struck by anything. It is good that some things happen that we cannot dominate, then we have to take them seriously, and this is the great question of philosophy. If the conditions for the possibility of knowledge (see Kant) impose themselves on reality or if there is something that is so powerfully disproportionate that it does not let itself be "grasped" by the conditions of possibility, then the horizon opens. If this were not the case, then we could dominate everything and be in peace, or at least without drama. Instead, not even the intelligence of a Nobel Prize winner could prevent him from coming face-to-face with a fact that made him dumbstruck -- instead of dominating, it was he who was dominated. Here begins the drama, because I am called to answer. It is the drama that unfolds between us and the Mystery, through certain facts, certain moments, in which the Mystery imposes itself with this evidence. These are facts that we cannot put in our pocket, which we cannot reduce to antecedent factors.
-- Julian Carron in "Friends, that is, Witnesses."