How important are the 40 days between Easter Sunday and Ascension Thursday? Crucially important.
Edit: To its credit, the Associated Press has issued the following correction to this story:
In a story March 20 about renovations at the tomb of Jesus, The Associated Press reported erroneously that the Edicule is revered by Christians as the site where Jesus rose to heaven. Tradition says the Jerusalem shrine is the site of Jesus' resurrection, not the ascension to heaven.
When the press reports on religion, subtract 15 I.Q. points.
When the press reports on Jesus, subtract 50 I.Q. points.
Here’s the lede on an Associated Press piece headlined “Historic restoration of Jesus’ burial shrine completed”:
The tomb of Jesus has been resurrected to its former glory.
Just in time for Easter, a Greek restoration team has completed a historic renovation of the Edicule, the shrine that tradition says houses the cave where Jesus was buried and rose to heaven. (Emphasis added — SDG)
In other words, the journalist doesn’t know or care that the Resurrection and the Ascension — Jesus rising from the dead and Jesus ascending into Heaven — are two quite different events that took place in two different places (the traditional site of the Ascension is not the Holy Sepulchre, but the Mount of Olives or Mount Mount Olivet), separated by 40 days during which Jesus walked, talked, and ate with his disciples.
How important is this? Crucially important.
In fact, it would not be an exaggeration to say those 40 days are responsible for the Christian faith being what it is and not something completely different.
The foundational Christian claim is that Jesus returned bodily to life after his death by crucifixion. He wasn’t simply translated into Heaven or glorified at the right hand of the Father.
The aftermath of the crucifixion involves three distinct phases:
On Friday evening and Saturday he was dead, buried, in the tomb, like anyone else who ever died.
Then, on Sunday morning, the tomb was empty — and Jesus’ followers (first the women, then Peter, then the rest of the twelve and others also) encountered him repeatedly in various situations: near the tomb, in the upper room, on the road to Emmaus, and so forth.
These were bodily encounters, different from the rather common phenomenon of reported sightings, apparitions or visions of the recently departed. Such phenomena (whether ascribed to paranormal or psychological mechanisms) were as well known in the ancient world as they are today, and would not have led to the foundational Christian conviction that the resurrection — an eschatological belief for the Jews — had suddenly been anticipated in a single case. (Despite Jesus’ predictions of his death and rising, the disciples were not anticipating his resurrection; Mark 9:10, among others, indicates that the disciples assumed Jesus’ words on this subject were just another of his often bewildering metaphors and parables — and why wouldn’t they?)
These experiences were different. For one thing, when people appeared as ghosts or in visions, their corpses remained in their tombs. Jesus’ corpse had been buried (1 Corinthians 15:4, the very earliest testimony on this topic, is clear on that point), but now it was gone. For another, he ate and drank with them; he showed them his flesh and bones; he even offered to let Thomas probe his wounds.
At the same time, this wasn’t just another dramatic resuscitation like the raising of Lazarus or Jairus’ daughter or the son of the widow at Nain. Jesus had brought the dead back to life more than once, but they didn’t proceed to appear and disappear at will. No one had any trouble recognizing them.
During these 40 days, Jesus’ disciples came to understand that their master had returned to bodily life, but a mode of bodily life unlike anything anyone had experienced, and even unlike anything the Jews were hoping for or anticipating. (N.T. Wright points out in his groundbreaking opus The Resurrection of the Son of God that the idea of the resurrection for the Jewish people was so synonymous with the language of “shining like stars” that a fictional resurrection narrative would almost inevitably involve the notion of luminosity. So much is this the case, in fact, that the Transfiguration has been identified by some skeptical higher critics as a displaced resurrection appearance-story. Yet in the actual resurrection narratives, for all the surprising things Jesus does, glowing isn’t one of them!)
Finally, after 40 days this period of Jesus meeting and walking with his disciples came to some sort of definitive ending, and a third phase began: the post-ascension phase. Jesus was gone, but only after having clearly “presented himself alive after his passion by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days” (Acts 1:3).
Nine days after that, something else happened that enables us to speak of Jesus being and remaining with his disciples in a spiritual sense — but this happened only after his physical resurrection from the dead had been clearly established.
To conflate the Resurrection and the Ascension of Jesus into a single event is thus to radically distort and falsify the foundational Christian claim.
It also distorts the whole Christian picture of the world: Christian eschatology, Christian hope. Christian hope, borrowing from but also going beyond the world of Second Temple Judaism, is not “life after death,” but (to borrow again from Wright) “life after life after death.” Death is real, but what happens next isn’t simply “survival” (i.e., the continuing life of the soul), but an undoing of death and corruption, which the New Testament writers saw as beginning with Jesus but ultimately extending not only to the whole human race but to the whole of creation, to the entire cosmos — the universe transformed and set free from corruption, a new heavens and a new earth.
Eliding the Resurrection turns Christian hope from the new heavens and new earth to a purely spiritual afterlife, as if we were Gnostics or Manichaeans or Neoplatonists, instead of Christians.
(Did you get all that, Associated Press? Do better.)