Unlike Christmas, the world devotes little attention to the time leading up to Easter. A few bunnies go up as decorations and the stores put out Easter candy in the week or two leading up to the day, but otherwise there is not all that much to mark its approach. Like Christmas, as soon as the day has passed, the world moves on to other things.
In the Church we spend four weeks during Advent preparing for Christmas and then twelve days celebrating Christmas itself. And while the Church’s celebration of Christmas differs from the world, our celebration of Easter differs even more. We spend five and a half weeks during Lent preparing for Easter. And then we spend forty days celebrating the presence of the risen Lord with his disciples up until the day of his ascension. Eastertide itself extends for fifty days until the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost.
These forty days between Easter and Ascension are important for our understanding of the Christian faith. Luke begins the book of Acts by saying:
In the first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach, until the day when he was taken up, after he had given commands through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. He presented himself alive to them after his suffering by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God (Acts 1:1-3 ESV).The appearances by the risen Lord were not a one day event. Instead, they extended over the course of forty days. These days were the occasion when Jesus Christ provided many proofs that he had risen from the dead, and during this time he engaged in teaching the disciples.
These appearances occurred at (John 20:11-18) and near the tomb (Matthew 28:7-10 ). They occurred in Jerusalem itself in a room twice (Luke 24:36-49; John 20:19-23; 20:24-29). They occurred on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35). They occurred in northern Israel on a mountain in Galilee (Matthew 28:16-20) and at the Sea of Galilee (John 21:1-14).
Encounters with the risen Lord were not limited to the twelve, or even to a small group. The apostle Paul told the Corinthians:
Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain.Forty days of appearances to different groups of people in different places. Why were the disciples willing to suffer imprisonment and even death? They knew that the crucified One had risen from the dead! They knew because of the resurrection of Jesus Christ that the message they preached was true, and so nothing else mattered.
For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallenasleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. (1 Corinthians 15:1-8 ESV)
From the beginning, Christians were very open about the fact that the faith they proclaimed stood or fell with the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Paul told the Corinthians:
And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied. (1 Corinthians 15:14-19 ESV)Yet the disciples knew for certain that Jesus Christ had risen from the dead. They didn’t have to wonder whether they were mistaken about something they had experienced one Sunday. Instead, they had encountered the risen Lord on multiple occasions in different places during the course of forty days. As Paul went on to say, “But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead” (1 Corinthians 15:20-21 ESV).
The disciples bore witness to what they had seen and heard by their lives … and their deaths. They travelled around the Mediterranean world and proclaimed Christ in the midst of great hardships (2 Corinthians 11:23-29). They even gave the ultimate witness by dying for Christ – by being martyrs for Jesus (a Greek word that means “witness”).
Only the Holy Spirit can create and sustain faith in Jesus Christ. But as we share the good news about Jesus with others and as we face the assaults of the devil against our own faith, the events during the forty days during between Easter and Ascension provide comfort, strength and encouragement that we need.