Series editor’s note: Throughout 2023, “Deeper understandings” will feature biblical scholars reflecting on one of the books of the Old Testament. Reed Carlson will continue this theme in the March-April edition. —Kathryn A. Kleinhans, dean of Trinity Lutheran Seminary at Capital University, Columbus, Ohio, on behalf of the ELCA’s seminaries
The first day of creation and weekly Christian worship are intimately related. Understanding this connection can help frame the cosmic nature of the central rhythm of our life together as Christians.
A single word in Hebrew (בראשית), often translated into English as “in the beginning,” initiates not only the book of Genesis but the whole of Scripture. There is a simple beauty in this single word, before which there was nothing. Creation doesn’t emerge from a primordial struggle, as it did in creation stories of the ancient Israelites’ neighbors. Rather, out of nothing, not even another word or syllable, the cosmos emerges.
In the first three verses of Genesis, God creates the heavens and the earth (1:1) not into a fully formed cosmos but first into an unrefined, unformed heap. The text describes this: “The earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters” (1:2).
There is a great deal going on in this description. The picture is of a wet and murky mess shrouded in darkness. While void of form, this early picture of creation is not void of God. The verse ends by speaking of a wind from God sweeping over the waters. What is translated “wind from God” in the New Revised Standard Version can as faithfully be translated either “breath of God” or “Spirit/spirit of God” as well. God doesn’t create and run. Even with the murky mess, God is present.
With the greatest of ease, the Lord speaks light into being.
The presence of God, creator of heaven and earth, then speaks: “Let there be light” (1:3). With the greatest of ease, the Lord speaks light into being. This first specific creative act of God shares the simple beauty of the story’s first word. From the void there was light. From nothing, God creates the dark and wet murky mess, and into this God speaks light into being, then declaring this light good and then separating the light from the darkness (1:4). And so, God begins moving the murky mess from chaos to order.
Fast-forward through the rest of the story to the seventh day (2:1-3). From nothing to chaos to an ordered cosmos, much has been created and put in order, including us humans.
But the formation of time doesn’t reach its fullness until after all else is done. Establishing the Sabbath, God rested and blessed this seventh day and hallowed it (2:3). This is the pinnacle of God’s creative activity. As God spoke light into the darkness with the greatest of ease, so God completes this creative movement with a blessing of the Sabbath not merely for God but for all creation (see Exodus 31:12-17).
Christians, including Martin Luther, have associated Sabbath with Sunday (see Luther’s explanations of the Third Commandment in both the Small Catechism and Large Catechism). While there is a long tradition of understanding Sunday as a day of rest, as Sabbath, there is another framework for understanding Sunday that flows from day one.
Word of light and life
When Christians gather, we do so on Sunday to celebrate Jesus’ victory over death. Sunday, the day after the Sabbath, is the day of Jesus’ resurrection. In Matthew’s Gospel, the account of the empty tomb begins: “After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning” (28:1, also Mark 16:1, Luke 24:1 and John 20:1).
The connection between the day of Jesus’ resurrection and the first day of creation was a rich source for understanding the significance of Sunday. The first day of the new creation initiated by Jesus’ rising from the dead was rooted in the first day of the old creation. Not just any old first day, the day of Jesus’ resurrection was referred to as the “eighth day,” a new pattern within the fabric of time—the weekly cross-pollination of the old creation with the new.
New creation breaks into the old with the promise of forgiveness and life.
The language of “eighth day” first hits circulation among Christians in the Epistle of Barnabas, an apocryphal New Testament text dating to around the year 100 C.E. Barnabas speaks of the eighth day as the “beginning of another world,” the day on which “we also celebrate with gladness the eighth day in which Jesus also rose from the dead, and was made manifest, and ascended into Heaven.”
While not using such specific language, John 20 sheds further light on this connection. The crucified and risen Jesus shows up to Mary Magdalene as well as to the disciples behind locked doors—twice. All these encounters were on “the first day of the week”: the first two on the day of Jesus’ resurrection and the third the following week. Amid grief and fear and uncertainty, the crucified and risen Christ shows up speaking peace. The incarnate Word (the speech of the speaker—“let there be light!”) is also himself the light that shines in the darkness.
When we Christians are gathered by the Spirit of God around word and sacrament on the first day of the week, the crucified and risen Lord shows up and new creation breaks into the old with the promise of forgiveness and life. Ordinary time is reoriented toward the fullness of time, which encounters the Christian within the assembly with the ever-new Word of light and life.