“On this day the Lord has acted; * we will rejoice and be glad in it.” (Ps. 118:24).
In the 1993 comedy film Groundhog Day, Bill Murray plays a TV weatherman who goes to cover the observance of February 2nd in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. He’s not a very nice person, and while he’s there he gets caught: caught repeating the same day, over and over again. He’s stuck in town because of a blizzard, one he didn’t predict, and has to spend the night; but each morning he wakes up and he’s still the same arrogant person. The Bill Murray character is really stuck, repeating the same day over and over again; he can live the day any way he wants but next morning he’s faced with the same day. He pretty much knows what’s going to happen, and he’s free to learn French or to take piano lessons; he can help people out using his foreknowledge or even take his own life; but at the end of the day it’s still the same day. He’s caught; stuck; and nothing changes until he learns humility and the true meaning of love.
Apparently Murray and the director fought over whether this film was a comedy or not, and you can see why. It’s funny watching what happens to the protagonist, but there’s also the painful glimmer of self-recognition. The dilemma that strikes home in the film is the same problem that strikes us. Why aren’t we nicer, after all? Why do we often feel stuck? Why isn’t what we do more significant in terms of how things go?
Most of us are optimists, however, and that’s a good thing, in terms of box office appeal. We believe in progress. After all, who would want to watch Bill Murray in a tragedy about being stuck in Punxsutawney? We modern folk, if we’re right-thinking, believe that humility and the true meaning of love will save us in the end. That’s the moral of the movie after all. We’ll learn to become better people and we’ll move forward. There’s plenty of evidence to the contrary, some of it pretty shocking, but that’s what we believe. We may be stuck for a time but there will be a new day.
People in the ancient pagan world were not so sanguine. They believed in eternal recurrence (a bit like Groundhog Day), and the slow and steady decline of all things from the golden age of the gods and heroes. For them, this day was just one day in a slow and steady retreat from ancient perfection. They were stricken with regret for what was past.
We in our own day have a contrasting myth, of eternal progress and unlimited potential. Perfection lies ahead: “Every day, in every way, I’m getting better and better.” We’re besotted with our own prospects, at the same time that we actually feel pretty bad about ourselves. For us this day is just one day in a relentless march forward to fulfillment, however that’s conceived. Yet actual progress much less perfection alludes us.
In the face of both these mythic tales, Easter Day posits something else again: it gives us the day that the Lord has made, the day which our psalm proclaims this morning. It’s the day in which God acts, as it says in our psalm; in which God acts to give ground to human hope through the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. There is no other hope for the human race short of the new life that shines forth on Easter Day. There is no new life apart from the person of Jesus Christ, raised from the dead. Humility and love cannot save us except the humility and love of Jesus Christ.
When the early Christians talked about the Day of Resurrection and about human hope they talked about the “eighth day”. Here they were debtors to Judaism, which had the notion of the “eighth day” as the day lying beyond the weekly cycle, the day in which God made covenant with the People of Israel. Circumcision was reserved for the “eighth day” after birth, and circumcision was the sign of the covenant. In one sense the eighth day was simply a return to the first day, the day of creation, the day that the Lord has made (as our psalm reminds us), but in another sense it was a fresh beginning given by God, the day on which he acted to save.
Christians took up the “eighth day”, the day in which God’s grace breaks out of the frame of creation and makes a new creation. The “eighth day” requires something that lies beyond human pessimism or optimism and that is the action of God. It is the Day of Resurrection, the day in which Jesus is raised from the dead, which both restores creation but also goes beyond it.
Sunday is the first day of the week, but it’s also the day that begins a new age, the “eighth day” of creation. One early Christian writer noted that this is the day that is truly pleasing to God, “the Eighth Day” according to the writer, which is “the commencement of a new world” (Epistle of Barnabas, 15). This is the day that Jesus Christ is raised from the dead, which means new life for us: release from the prison of the past and from the death march of the future. It’s a new world.
So if you are stuck, take heart: a new world is here. If you’re wondering why the plan for progress is not working out then tune in to the Gospel promise. It’s this action of God in Christ that gives meaning to everything. Whether you’re stricken with regret or besotted with your own prospects, realize that the answer lies beyond you. “On this day the Lord has acted; * we will rejoice and be glad in it.” (Ps. 118:24).
- The Rt. Rev'd John Bauerschmidt, Bishop of Tennessee