Explaining 'three days'

Question: Matthew 12:40 says that Jesus was in the tomb three days and three nights. Mark 9:31 says the Lord would rise “after” three days. These texts seem either erroneous or point to the fact that Jesus was crucified before Good Friday. What say you?

— Reynaldo Yana
Saipan, Mariana Islands

Answer: In terms of reckoning of days, your implicit premise is too strict by biblical standards. The text, in saying “days,” does not necessarily mean 72 hours exactly. The Lord was in the tomb for one whole day and parts of two others. The ancient Jews were comfortable in reckoning partial days as a whole day. Thus, the concern for three days is addressed by understanding that “day” does not necessarily mean three whole days, and the ancient Jews (or Gentiles for that matter) would not have the concern you express here.

The concern about three nights is a bit more complex but has a similar solution. Part of the difficulty of the texts you refer to as indicating three nights is linguistic. The Scriptures were written in Greek but the words of Jesus were more likely spoken in Aramaic. The Jews, like most ancients, would speak of three days and three nights as three “night days.” And thus, the text may be trying to express in a Greek way a more complex Jewish reality which, as noted, reckons partial days as whole days but also includes the night along with the day. We moderns divide out night and day in a way the ancient Jews (and to some extent the Greeks and Romans) usually did not. Further, for us, a new day begins at sunrise; for the ancient Jews, the new day began at sundown. Hence, there is the concept of “night days.” The solution to your concerns involves three premises regarding time. First, we ought to avoid insisting on a precision about time that the ancients did not have (clocks and precise calendars are modern). Second, they more comfortably reckoned partial days as whole days than we do. Third, they thought more in terms of “night days” since the new day began at sundown. With these premises in mind, Jesus was in the tomb three days and nights since: Friday is “night day one”; Saturday is “night day two”; Sunday is “night day three.” As with all biblical scholarship, there are other aspects that could be explored (such as how biblical prophecies are used and understood) and not every exegete approaches the problem in the same way.

Understanding the Mass

Question: Our pastor talks of the Mass as a sacrifice, but the deacon always calls it a meal. They have other disagreements. What is the Mass: meal or sacrifice?

— Name, location withheld

Answer: Perhaps we should first remember that the Mass is not simply one thing or another. At its heart, the Mass is the once-for-all sacrifice of Jesus made present to us. But the Mass is contextualized Christ in the heart of the Passover meal, and he links the bread and wine of that meal to his body and blood that are given over for us in the sacrifice of the cross. There has been a modern tendency to over-emphasize the meal aspect and even set aside the sacrifice. But for the Church and for Christ, these aspects are together. St. Thomas describes the Mass in a hymn he wrote as: “O Sacred banquet in which Christ is received, and the memory of his passion is renewed ... (“O Sacrum Convivium”).

Msgr. Charles Pope is the pastor of Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian in Washington, D.C., and writes for the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., blog at blog.adw.org. Send questions to Pastoral Answers, Our Sunday Visitor, 200 Noll Plaza, Huntington, IN 46750 or to msgrpope@osv.com. Letters must be signed, but anonymity may be requested.