by Father Mike Stubbs
The countdown has begun. Students are eagerly looking forward to the end of school. They are counting the days that remain until the start of summer vacation.
Sunday’s first reading, Acts 1:1-11, signals a similar countdown. As Jesus leaves his disciples to ascend into heaven, he informs them that “in a few days, you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” For nine days they will wait and pray in the up- per room for that important event. It is the first novena ever.
The descent of the Holy Spirit upon the disciples on the day of Pentecost will mark a new era in the history of salvation. The time period preceding that has focused on the public ministry of Jesus Christ, culminating in his saving death and resurrection. After his resurrection, our reading from Acts informs us: “He presented himself alive to them by many proofs after he had suffered, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God.”
This passage in the Acts of the Apostles is the only place in the New Testament which specifies 40 days as the interim between Jesus’ resurrection and his ascension. All of the Gospels mention Jesus’ spending some time with the disciples before ascending into heaven, but they do not indicate how long that lasted. Johns gospel even suggests that Jesus ascended into heaven on Easter Sunday.
Since the Acts of the Apostles stands out as unique in giving the number of 40 days as the length of this interim time between Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, it is possible that the number 40 appears more as symbolic, rather than literal. After all, the number of 40 days echoes other events in the Bible. Jesus fasted for 40 days in the desert. Noah floated in the ark for 40 days. The Hebrews wandered for 40 years in the desert.
All these periods of 40 represent times of transition. The 40 days that Jesus fasted in the desert linked his private life in Nazareth to his public ministry. The world before it rained for 40 days and 40 nights was full of sin and corruption. Afterwards, it was clean and purified for Noah and his family, so that they could start all over again. Before the Hebrews spent 40 years in the desert, they were slaves in Egypt. Afterwards, they entered into the Promised Land. In every case, the period lasting 40 days (or years) represented a time of transition. Its meaning is symbolic, rather than exact.
Similarly, the 40 days between Jesus’ resurrection and ascension mentioned in the reading from Acts means a time of transition. It marks the end of Jesus’ visible presence on earth and leads into the new way that Jesus will continue his mission in our world, namely, through his body, the church.