And God said, “Let there be lights in the expanse of the heavens to separate the day from the night. And let them be for signs and for seasons, and for days and years, and let them be lights in the expanse of the heavens to give light upon the earth.” And it was so. And God made the two great lights—the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night—and the stars. And God set them in the expanse of the heavens to give light on the earth, to rule over the day and over the night, and to separate the light from the darkness. And God saw that it was good. And there was evening and there was morning, the fourth day. —Genesis 1:14–19, ESV
Because the planet we live on rotates at a peculiar angle of 23.4° relative to its orbit around the sun, the amount of time that any given point on Earth faces the sun during a given rotation (a day) will vary over the course of its 365.242199 day journey around the sun (a year). In other words, if you stay put anywhere on Earth long enough, you will experience the days rhythmically lengthening and shortening. The closer to either pole you are, the more dramatic the effect will be (and the more likely you will need to bring a sweater).
Like you, I learned this principle in my schooling, and to some extent I observed it on my own—the days get longer in the summer and shorter in the winter—it’s not rocket science. I was raised in Moline, IL, about three hours due west of Chicago right along the Mississippi river. We had four well-defined seasons every year signaled by a significant ebb and flow of daylight. But that is all I’d ever known, so I never gave it much thought. A fish does not notice it is wet.
But then, about ten years ago I moved down to Orlando, Florida, which has roughly two seasons: summer … and less summer. To the casual observer, a Florida year drones endlessly on without ever changing much at all. Yet I have observed that sometimes the best way to get a person to really begin listening is to simply speak softly. In the same way, only when the seasons started speaking softly to me did I start to actually pay attention.
And then, once my senses were attuned to the quiet rhythm of Florida seasons, I moved briefly to DC and then up to Boston in 2008. The effect was something like quickly cranking up the stereo volume. Boston is not actually any further north than Moline, but now it felt as if I was approaching the arctic circle. Not only did Boston have a way of getting very, very cold for long stretches every year, but the sun seemed to altogether disappear for months on end. The locals called it “winter.” I had almost forgotten about winter. Now I really noticed winter (as well as spring, summer, and fall). Now the seasons were screaming at me. Now they seemed to mean something important.
I was attending Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary at this time, and I was reflecting a good deal on the rhythmic cycle of the liturgical calendar as well. The liturgical calendar, of course, is organized around the life of Jesus and His redemptive work. But the major events in Jesus’ life and ministry were self-consciously synchronized with the Jewish calendar and its major festivals. And the origins of the Jewish calendar were both deeply theological and deeply agricultural. It marked God’s interventions in Israel’s history, but it also followed the flow of seasons punctuated by particular harvests. In fact, we miss out on the theological significance of those redemptive celebrations if we ignore the connected seasons and particular harvests.
All of this is to say that I have begun to take a great interest in what I am calling the “spiritual rhythm of time.” Forgive me if that sounds new agey. I have no interest in the vibrations of crystals or the movement of guardian angels. Nor am I referring to something taking place separately or uniquely in the spiritual realm. What I mean is simply that our Creator has built a natural rhythm into time regulated by the movement of the celestial bodies—primarily the sun, moon, and earth. That natural rhythm becomes ‘spiritual’ when we (through the guidance of the Holy Spirit) recognize the Creator and Sustainer of space and time who stands behind creation, and when we attend to His intended meaning behind the rhythmic advance of time.
And so I begin here with the most basic rhythmic unit of time: the ordinary day. It is the perceptual bi-product of our planet perpetually spinning about its own axis while it circuits round the sun. In English, just like most ancient languages, the word “day” can mean both the period of time in which sunlight fills the sky. Or, a “day” can mean the full length of time in a given rotation of our planet. I believe both meanings have importance for Christian life and worship.
As I have written above, that peculiar rotational axis of 23.4° means that a “day” (in the first sense of the word), is always changing. We have just passed the summer solstice (Jun. 20, 2012), so the days are now getting incrementally (though almost imperceptibly) shorter. The process will speed up as we approach and pass the autumnal equinox (Sept. 22, 2012) and then eventually slow down again as we approach and pass the winter solstice (Dec. 21, 2012). Then, the process will follow the same rhythmic pattern lengthening again toward the summer solstice of 2013. And on it goes.
“Let there be lights in the expanse of the heavens to separate the day from the night. And let them be for signs and for seasons, and for days and years” (Gen. 1:14, ESV). The length of each “day” is the surest sign of what is soon to follow. The earth and oceans act like an oven absorbing the light (and heat) of the sun. But it takes a while to absorb all of that light, just as an oven takes a while to warm up. So while the longest day of the year is already behind us, the warmest days are yet to come. Likewise, It takes a while for the earth and oceans to cool down as well. Only after the winter solstice—when the days are shortest—will the coldest days return. What’s more, wind currents, precipitation, vegetation, and animal migration patterns all follow in concert. The ever changing rhythmic “day” rules and regulates the seasons, by design.
Of course, the less agricultural we become as a society, and the less time we spend outdoors, the less all of this may seem to matter. Moreover, I can (and did) Google “solstice” and look up calendars and almanacs online to figure out precisely when and how the seasons will change. I do not need to even look out my window—let alone pay attention to the sun—to track the weather or the changing seasons. But for Christians, creation has more than just utilitarian value. “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge” (Ps. 19:1–2, ESV). We have been created to worship God, and we impoverish our worship (and ourselves) when we lose touch with God’s creation. Sometimes I find that I can become numbed to singing praise choruses or even the great hymns of our faith over and over. It is only when go for long walks along the Potomac in the hot summer or spend time studying astronomy that I find myself breaking out into spontaneous and uncontrollable worship. Let us not forget the great lights created to rule creation alongside humanity.
But there is a second meaning behind the word “day” which I believe has even more theological and devotional significance for Christians. An ordinary “day” can also refer to the full, 24-hour rotation of the earth—day and night included (or night and day). Most of modern, western society has inherited the Roman practice of measuring a full day from midnight to midnight. There is much to be practically commended in this approach (particularly in our modern world), but it is worth noting that this is a relatively arbitrary, cultural choice. It is not more or less correct to begin a day at midnight any more than it is more or less correct to speak French or drive on the left side of the road.
Some cultures have (understandably) measured a full day from sunrise to sunrise. Others—and notably the ancient Hebrew people—chose to measure a full day from sunset to sunset. That cultural preference is reflected at several points in the Old Testament, but most clearly in the creation account of Genesis 1. Each day is concluded with the summary statement: “And there was evening and there was morning, the [nth] day.” Out of reverence for the Hebrew scriptures, the modern Jewish calendar still measures days from sunset to sunset.
To our modern sensibilities, it may seem odd to begin a day with night. However, this was not at all abnormal in the ancient world and may have even been the majority practice. We cannot say for certain why this is, but it is not difficult to speculate. The moon and stars often provided a more easily observable pattern for tracking time and seasons. Thus there may have been a preference to front-load night. It may have simply provided more practical accountability in record keeping, since most everyone was awake and generally alert at sunset. Or it may have even been a closer memory of God’s creation pattern even in cultures that had largely forgotten God.
Whatever the origin, by both God’s providence and direct inspiration it was written into the Genesis account. “Evening and morning” is the pattern God has chosen to characterize an ordinary day. And that pattern has great theological and devotional significance for you and me. The Presbyterian pastor, Eugene Peterson, has written more extensively about the devotional pattern of “evening/morning” in several of his books.1 I am leaning heavily on his insight here; if anything I write is of interest to you, I commend you to his more gifted writing and deeper insight.
Creation begins with God in the darkness. God speaks into that darkness and creates light and life. Humanity only enters in at the very end of that creation. We join into God’s work and sabbath rest only after the most difficult work is done. By God’s grace, each and every day still begins with His work in the darkness while we sleep—while (for all intents and purposes) we do not exist. When we awake, we enter into a world that God has been at work sustaining and creating afresh. We enter in at the end and begin our work only after God’s own work has already been accomplished. That is how creation began. That is how each of us were born into this world. That is how we were born again into God’s redemptive grace. And that is how we enter into each and every day.
The shift in mindset is critical. The day does not begin with our waking or with our “quiet time” or “devotions.” We are not meant to begin each day with our work. The day begins in the evening as we let go of our work and let God begin His. It is God’s design that we awake and enter into a day that is already half over. That is the rhythm of creation and the rhythm of redemption. That is the rhythm of each and every ordinary day we are blessed to spend spinning on the earth as it circles round the sun.
(Photo thanks to Bschwehn)
Chris Anderson is a graphic designer specializing in visual & verbal storytelling. He received his M.Div from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in May, 2012.
1) Peterson, Eugene H. Working the Angles. Eerdmans: 1987 pp.67–70
Peterson, Eugene H. Answering God. Harper-Collins: 1989 pp.59–67