by Father Mike Stubbs
When we promise to do something in a couple of days, we do not always mean an exact period of 48 hours. Instead, we often mean “soon, in a short period of time.”
In the Bible, the expression “on the third day” carried a similar weight. It meant, “after a short period of time, soon.” That could end up being 72 hours. But it didn’t always work out that way.
The Scriptures speak of Jesus rising from the dead “on the third day.” We find that expression in Easter Sunday’s first reading, Acts 10:34a, 37-43. That echoes the charge leveled against Jesus by the passers-by as he hung upon the cross, which we heard in the Passion reading on Palm Sunday: “You who would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days” (Mt 27:49). Earlier, when Jesus predicted his death and resurrection, he had also used that same phrase: “From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised” (Mt 16:21). Jesus repeats that prediction twice in Matthew’s Gospel, and it also occurs in the Gospels of Mark and Luke.
But when exactly did Jesus rise? Was it on the third day?
None of the four Gospels describe the resurrection of Jesus. Instead, they have the women visit the tomb of Jesus, which is empty. That visit takes place early in the morning, while it was still dark, according to Chapter 20, Verse 1, of the Gospel of John. That means that Jesus presumably rose from the dead sometime during the night. But does that place the Resurrection on the third day?
We should remember that the traditional Jewish way of calculating time was different than how we do it now. A day began at sundown and ran to the next sundown. So, from Holy Thursday evening till Good Friday evening constituted one day. From Good Friday evening to Holy Saturday evening constituted a second day. And from Holy Saturday evening until Easter Sunday evening constituted a third day. That means that if Jesus rose from the dead during the night between Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday, it happened on the third day.
Incidentally, the practice of a Saturday evening Mass counting as a Sunday Mass reflects this traditional Jewish way of calculating time. According to this approach, Sunday has already begun with Saturday evening.