The thirty-ninth day

by Lindsay Small

Texts: Acts 1:1-11 and 1 Corinthians 15

Of all the high holy days throughout the church year, the one that really gets the short end of the stick is Ascension Day. It doesn’t really like to talk about it, but Ascension Day has a bit of an inferiority complex...I mean next to Christmas and Easter, who wouldn’t?

This is understandable. By the time we reach Ascension Day, we’ve already observed Jesus’s birth, learned from his life, mourned his death, and we have celebrated his resurrection. So when it rolls around in late Spring we quickly skim over it. It’s the white crayon in the box or the one healthy item at Captain Sundae...passed over and easily overlooked. Yet there is something about the ascension of Jesus that makes it particularly interesting to me in these days of pandemic.

Jesus ascends into heaven exactly forty days after his resurrection. Now, this number is a familiar biblical favorite. We see it over and over in Scripture: it rained for forty days during the flood; Noah waits for this same amount of time for the land to dry; forty was the number of days spent by Moses on Mount Sinai – three separate times!; Goliath challenged the Israelites...you guessed it, for forty days; and Jesus himself fasted in the wilderness before his temptation, for forty days.

This period of time appears as a moment of challenge and endurance. We don’t often hear a lot about what happens during this time, just how long it took. We usually join our Bible hero after this is over. But I can’t help but think about the during, and especially the thirty-ninth day.

I imagine the thirty-ninth day was the hardest. It is the furthest from the beginning, the point where one is almost broken and simply cannot stand it any longer. And while some characters in Scripture may have known going into it that forty was the end point, others had no idea how long their trial would last. They didn’t know when the rain would stop, when the drought would lift, when the fasting would end. And for some being tested, the thirty-ninth day could stretch on for years.

The thirty-ninth day is that moment when God can seem farthest away, when the lesson is yet unlearned, when the challenge has not yet been conquered, or when the person has not quite forgiven. It is this messy, in-between space that so many of us are caught in now. It is a time of testing, of quiet, of endurance.

Sound familiar? By my count, Ascension Day fell this year on our seventy-second day of quarantine. That means this thirty-ninth day has been on repeat for thirty-three days...and we don’t know when the fortieth is coming.

It has been agonizing, wanting to be gathered again. We want our restaurants and businesses to open, to be able to run our errands, and not have to worry about following the arrows at the grocery store. Most importantly, we want the curve to flatten, the death rate to go down, jobs to come back, and the fear to end.

In our passage from 1 Corinthians 15, we hear an urgent Apostle Paul responding to a church stuck on their own thirty-ninth day of sorts. Divisions, partisanship, unhealthy alliances have taken over. They have been going round and round a cul-de-sac of their own self-righteousness, and here Paul is desperately trying to pull them out. What does he do? He goes back to basics, reminding them of what their faith is built upon, as a way of pointing out that this is far from their current arguments. He says that Christ died for our sins, he was buried, he was raised on the third day, and he appeared to many people…“so we proclaim and so have you come to believe.” Not that we proclaim this so that you would fight, bicker, and divide. It is almost as if he is lining them up in front of First Corinthians Church and having them repeat the words they said when they were received into membership. “Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again.”

In the fog of the thirty-ninth day they had forgotten the foundation of their faith. No, it was there – they sort of remembered, but the problems at hand had become more pressing and seemed more important.

The same can happen to us whenever pressing emergencies take precedence. In this way, Paul reminds all of us to go back to the beginning, to day one, to the very advent of our faith. Paul reminds us what Christ did for us. Perhaps we need this reminder today.

Jesus’s ascension is an invitation to all of us to rise above the pressing challenges of today and take the long view. This long view allows us to remember that we stand in a great cloud of witnesses, that we share this faith, that there are so many more things that unite us than divide us, that this chapter will pass, and that even in death, Christ has the victory. Death is swallowed up in life. Life wins, today and everyday.

Paul concludes the chapter: “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?...The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

So why do I so often forget this? Over the last few months, my mind has been largely taken up by this pressing global health crisis we find ourselves in. But I realized this week that all this has made me forget (or perhaps want to forget) another crisis we were in before this one arrived, namely the seventy million people displaced from their home countries by violence, war, or hunger. Seventy million people! I was thinking about their thirty-ninth day, waiting endlessly in makeshift camps to start a new life. In investigating their experience, I learned that the average refugee waits for resettlement an average of seventeen years. That’s a really long time!

It is hard to remember our faith in the middle of pandemics, displacement, wars, violence, and racial tension. It is hard to remember our faith in the midst of yet another thirty-ninth day.

Do you feel stuck in such a place? Have you lost sight of Jesus in the midst of the wilderness? Friends, it takes courage to see through the mist of our urgent circumstances and to see Jesus instead. We so often forget that Jesus is with us, no matter where we are or what day it is.

Look to Jesus, who conquered his thirty-ninth day, and his third day, and he gives victory over all trials, injustices, hate crimes, displacements, and pandemics. Life wins, even over death. We will rise because Christ rose, first from death and then from this earth, on the fortieth day.