Forty days is a long time. A lot can happen in forty days. You could quit a job, move, and start a new job in forty days. You could take and pass a one-quarter class at Virginia Theological Seminary. You could recover from a serious illness, or conquer a video game. The gestation period of a squirrel is about forty days.
Forty days is a period of time that comes up a lot in the Bible: forty days and forty nights, especially. It’s a holy amount of time, overflowing with symbolism. The church decided centuries ago that there are forty days in Lent, not counting Sundays. Many of us took on some sort of spiritual practice during the forty days of Lent. But now it has been forty days (43 actually) since the Day of Easter.
For Jesus’ disciples, the first forty days after the Resurrection were a sort of anti-Lent. They moved from fear and confusion to sudden joy as Jesus appeared to them at different times and in different ways. We have many stories in our four gospels of the appearances of the resurrected Christ, and they most certainly don’t agree with each other. But how could they? The experience was so deep, so profound, so euphoric that the disciples struggled to describe it at all, let alone try to get their stories straight. Gathering scientific data was not their primary concern. The fact of the matter was that Jesus had been dead, and was now alive! And now the most important thing in the world was to tell everybody.
But they weren’t ready to do so on the very first day. I imagine there was still as much fear as joy during that time, as Jesus came to be among them, showed them his hands, feet and side, blessed them, ate with them, but just as often mysteriously disappeared again. It wasn’t like before, with all of them trooping around the Galilean countryside, following the call of a teacher and healer. He still bore the wounds of crucifixion—nothing in the past had been undone. He had not come back so much as gone forward, and somehow he was beckoning the disciples forward with him.
It may be that by the fortieth day, they were finally starting to get used to the new situation. They would think he was gone, and then he would call to them from the seashore, urging them to cast their nets on the other side of the boat, and then sharing breakfast with them on the beach. They would think he was gone, and then they’d realize he’d been walking beside them for seven miles and they just hadn’t recognized him. He was different. His very body was different, like a hologram that you might mistake for something else if you look from the wrong angle. You had to shift your vision to see him. You had to want to see him. Sometimes believing is seeing.
Maybe they were finally getting used to this new Jesus, this resurrected Christ, in all his characteristic strangeness and overwhelming reassurance, when the Day of the Ascension came. It had been forty days. Jesus was raised from the dead. But now, a very odd thing happened. Jesus wasn’t finished yet. He had more to do, and it meant that he would leave them yet again.
“Is this the time?” his friends asked him. “After all your earthly ministry, and after your brutal murder, and after that horrible Friday and Saturday, and after your returning to be with us again, is it finally time for you to reclaim our country for us and be our king?” As usual, even after forty more days and after everything that had happened, the disciples were still asking the wrong question. They had forgotten that it wasn’t the same anymore. Not only was it not the same as before Jesus’ death, but it wasn’t the same as it had been in previous generations. There was to be no return from this exile, no exodus across a river, no re-entering the Garden of Eden. There was to be no retaking of the land from the Romans. Jesus was not going to suddenly transform from a man of peace into a conquering warrior. Yet still, they clung desperately to their preconceived notions of the way things should happen.
But the risen Christ was patient with them—maybe even more patient than he had been before his death. “You don’t need to know,” he said. “You just need to follow these instructions. Go back into the city and wait until you have been clothed with power from on high.” And then he was gone.
It took two angels to pry them from that spot. “Why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” they asked. “Are you looking for shapes in the clouds—the shape of things to come, perhaps? If you must know something of the future, we can tell you that he’ll be back, and he’ll come the same way you saw him go.”
Well, I don’t know what that means. Do you? It’s very mysterious. But that’s OK. Jesus had just told them that it wasn’t their job to understand. That’s so hard for us! In our day and age, we feel we have a right to understand. We’re entitled to an explanation, and if we don’t get one, we jump to the conclusion that it’s a lie, or that it’s historically outdated, or that we can just ignore it. Or worse, we feel compelled to develop our own story than says exactly what it means, and then urge people to subscribe to it!
I hope we won’t insist on doing either of these things with the Ascension—neither explain it away, nor throw it away. I want to assert that some things can, indeed, be left as mysteries. That doesn’t mean we stop thinking, pondering, imagining about them, either. We need to let the imagery seep into our hearts. The question is not, “Is this story true?”, but, “What is this story for?”
Jesus died, descended to the dead, rose again, and then ascended into heaven. This is how we talk about it in the Nicene Creed. I hear these theological doctrines pointing to a savior who is always on the go. The Son of Man has no place to rest his head. He came to be with us, to teach and to heal. He descended to the dead to be with those who feared they were lost. He burst the gates of hell and bore it up on his back, releasing all those who were trapped within. He appeared to the women and the men who had known him best and loved him most. He spent forty days with them. Why?
A lot can happen in forty days. In forty days, you could benefit from a diet, quit smoking, quit biting your nails, or take a forty-day pilgrimage or sabbatical. If you didn’t have a day job, you could watch all seven seasons of The West Wing. Forty days is a short time, but it’s a long time. It was enough time. During that forty days, Jesus helped his disciples move from fear to faith. He appeared to them enough, and reassured them enough, that they were ready to move from that hill outside Bethany—with a little prying from two angels—and go back into the city to wait. In the meantime, Jesus moved from his temporary spatial location on earth to complete the work of resurrection—to ascend—to go from being Somewhere to being Everywhere. Resurrection does not mean a return to the way things were, but a going forward into a future that’s better than we could possibly imagine. And Jesus brings us along with him into that future.
Next Sunday we will celebrate Pentecost, the Jewish feast of “first fruits.” That’s when the resurrection went public, when the disciples harvested the first fruits of the reassurance and strength Jesus had given them for forty days. Indeed they did return to the city, and they waited. And when, to their strength and reassurance, God added to them the power of the Holy Spirit, they were ready. They were ready to go out to the ends of the earth and set the world on fire with the Good News that Christ is alive, that the exile is over and we can go on up to the new Jerusalem, that our exodus is accomplished across a new, eternal river, that a new Eden awaits, and that the entire universe has been delivered from death and saved forever. Amen.