Then Jesus led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshipped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God. (Luke 24.50-53)
It’s forty days since the resurrection of Jesus happened. The clock has still been ticking; we are still in real time. We have all gone back to our daily lives, our jobs, the demands of family and friends, the things that keep us busy, the ways in which we spend our time. Time has passed. And time has passed for the disciples – but we are not given any clues about how it has been passed.
To be honest, the forty days is a traditional timing for the ascension and isn’t mentioned in scripture. It may have been established in relation to Pentecost, which is of course a ‘real time’ event in that we can accurately say when it occurred in relation to the events of Easter. But for this purpose we will stay with the tradition.
But this still leaves us with the intriguing question of what was going on for those forty days. It would certainly seem that the disciples were still in Jerusalem, for it is from the city that they go out to the Mount of the Ascension, which Luke tells us, in the gospel, that it was near Bethany. In the Acts of the Apostles (also ascribed to Luke) it says, after the event, that they ‘returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet’. So the Mount of Olives is as good a place to remember this event as anywhere else.
The traditional site visited by pilgrims is on the summit of the Mount of Olives, the place from which the palm procession begins. So the triumph of the entry into Jerusalem and the triumph of the ascension, the entry into heaven, are linked in a wonderful way.
Before the conversion of Constantine in 312 AD, early Christians remembered the ascension of Jesus in a cave on the Mount of Olives. By 384, the place of the Ascension was venerated on the present site, up the hill from the cave in a church first built in 390. The Chapel of the Ascension that pilgrims visit today is a Christian and Muslim holy site. As an added bonus, in the small octagonal church/mosque is a stone imprinted with what some claim to be the footprint of Jesus.
Whatever the historical accuracy may be, the Ascension marks a moment of transition for the disciples and the beginning of a time of expectant waiting. We imagine that for forty days they have experienced the presence of the Risen Christ with them in a particular way, after all Luke says that ‘while staying with them’ (Acts 1.4). Jesus has been staying with them, now he is leaving them, now there is a change. It’s intriguing to think that we have only been given a taste of the experience of the Risen Jesus that they experienced in all its fullness, for this long period of time.
But the truth is that we too have been experiencing the reality of the Risen Jesus in the reality of our lives during these forty days. I have recently been to Zimbabwe to visit our link diocese of Masvingo. One of the lasting impressions I have is of the joy and vibrancy of the worship in which I shared – worship full of the reality of God, full of the life which we experience when we know Jesus. That is true wherever we are and the presence of the Paschal Candle, burning in our churches throughout these days is a constant and living reminder of the constant and living presence of Jesus with us. However these days have passed for you the Lord has been present with you, in your real time.
Ever present, Risen Lord,
may I never forget that you are with me,
wherever I go,
whatever I do,
for forty days,