Sunday, March 06, 2005

"The day the Lord has made": A meditation

"This is the day that the Lord has made; we will be glad and rejoice in it."

Psalm 118 is one of the psalms of ascent, a psalm which pilgrims sang as they made their way up toward Jerusalem and eventually up the steps of the Temple platform into the sacred precincts. It is also one of those verses that we have heard so much that we have ceased to hear its real meaning. It has become a kind of ritual noise that is often made at the beginning of the liturgy: the bell rings, the organ plays, the pastor says, “This is the day that the Lord has made” and we lapse into autopilot.

Stop for just a moment and think about the first half of this verse. The Psalmist affirms something remarkable. God has made this day. These twenty-four hours of light and dark are an artifact, a creature, a gift. They are something that Someone has made and given to us. At the beginning of all things, Genesis tells us God made day and night: “and the evening and the morning were the first day… and God saw that it was good…”

Just think: time itself is a creature, no less than you and I and blue whales and amoebae and Mt Rainier are creatures. Time is like the air we breathe or the ocean we bathe in. It is a medium in which we live, but it, too, had a beginning and will have an end. God created time and gave it to us.

However, there is more to this familiar phrase. The Psalmist had in mind a particular time-- the Sabbath. After God had created day and night, the creatures that swim in the sea and those that walk on the land and fly in the air and after God had created humans in the divine image, then God created a special day, the Sabbath. The Psalmist was referring first and foremost to the Sabbath. God gave us one day out of seven on which we may step back into Eden (or at least poke our big toe through a crack in the wall). On the Sabbath Jews refrain from work as a sign that the curse that made work a burden will one day disappear. God and humankind have been estranged from the moment that Adam and Eve felt the apple’s juice run down their chins, but in the Sabbath prayers that estrangement is overcome.

What does God invite us to do with this day that he has made? Does he invite us to work? Not at all. In fact, God explicitly forbids Israel to work on the Sabbath. Does God invite us to mourn our sins and shortcomings and repent? We may need to do those things on the Sabbath as on any other day, but that is not what God bids us do on the day he has made. Rather, the Psalmist reminds us that the Lord’s day is a day when we are to “rejoice and be glad”.

Another thing to note about this familiar verse is that its second half acknowledges only one way to employ our time on the Lord’s day, namely, to rejoice and be glad. Someone has said that praise is the proper employment of our hearts and voices. On the Lord’s day, we are commanded to be joyful. Long before contemporary psychology came to this insight, the Psalmist realized that we have a choice about our emotional lives. We can dwell in misery and sadness, or we can rejoice and be glad.

For Christians, however, the meaning of the “day that the Lord has made” is different. Like Jews, Christians affirm that time is God’s good gift, and that it, too, is a creature. Just as setting aside a portion of our finances for God’s work is a sign that all that we have belongs to God, so setting aside one day in seven for God’s service bears witness to the fact that all of our time belongs to God, as well. However, the day that Christians acknowledge God has made, the day on which we are invited to “rejoice and be glad,” is not the seventh day but the first day. Christians affirm that the first day is the Lord’s because it is the day of resurrection.

The resurrection imparts new meaning to Psalm 118. This psalm is the psalm we traditionally read during the principal service on Easter Day, and that is no accident. Like every other creature, the time that God created will come to an end. But Easter is God’s great promise that all of creation will be redeemed and restored, even time. I once heard theologian and physicist John Polkinghorne say that the new heaven and earth that God promises in the Book of Revelation rather than being timeless must in some sense incorporate time redeemed. It is an intriguing thought that is simply beyond my comprehension, but it seems intuitively correct. If the purpose of creation is to be redeemed by Christ’s death and resurrection, then surely the new heaven and earth must include time redeemed.

Had we nothing more of the Bible than this one verse, it would be almost enough. It reminds us of the essential facts of the Bible. God made the world and everything in it; time, no less than human life, is finite. In fact, it may be the very finitude of life that makes rejoicing imperative.

Perhaps I have gone a bit too far afield. We live beyond Eden and before the general resurrection. But when we rejoice and are glad in the day that the Lord has made, then we begin to live, however tentatively, in that day which is yet to come, when all our thoughts and words will be praise, and sorrow will be swallowed up in joy everlasting.