I just finished reading a book by Eugene Peterson called Under the Unpredictable Plant. In the book, Peterson uses the Jonah story to discuss the vocation of pastoral ministry. He’s really spectacular at drawing meaningful parallels from Jonah’s behavior, psychology, and circumstances to the life of a pastor, and often more broadly, to Christians’ lives. One example is his expounding of the message Jonah was sent to prophesy: “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown.” To the ears not rooted in ancient near-eastern culture, the ears not familiar with biblical prophecy, the ears boastful of hearing what they’ve been fed yet condescending toward what they haven’t – my ears, our ears – to those ears, a prophecy like that sounds like some malevolent Zeusonian lightening bolt kind of hogwash. To the city of Nineveh, we are told, which didn’t have our ears, this prophecy sounded like an alarm. Not sounding the imminent destruction of a city full of innocent people, but a warning meant to steer a wayward ship away from the deadly rocks. Nineveh heard “forty days” and threw the ship hard to starboard… or port. They repented, fasted, and resolved to change their ways because in the declaration “forty days,” they heard “hope.”
There are several periods of a “forty” increment in Scripture. In every one of them, the time is an examining, scrutinizing, perspective-giving, life-changing period for the individuals or peoples who go through it. Noah’s forty days on the ark are a purging from generations of wickedness. Israel’s forty years in the desert are the taste of the “otherness” of the morality, worship, and lifestyle YHWH would demand. Elijah’s forty days running away eventually brought him out of the illusion of the threat from Jezebel’s court. Jesus’ forty days of temptation were for the clarifying and solidifying of his motive and intent. And the forty days of Christ’s appearances post-resurrection provided space and time for a verifying and internalizing of the “new reality that was now to characterize life in God’s kingdom.” (This all comes from Peterson’s Under the Unpredictable Plant, pg. 141-144)
Peterson notes that this time period of forty works eschatologically, meaning from the end (the fortieth day) backwards. The consequence of the unavoidably approaching fortieth day shapes the life lived during the other thirty-nine. “Under the pressure of eschato-feedback, the days become a womb, pregnant with new beginning.” The forty days have an agenda.
“If the forty does its proper work, life begins in a new way. If the forty is ignored, life is destroyed: the ark shipwrecks and everyone is drowned; the Israelites troop back to Egypt to spend the rest of their lives making bricks without straw; Jesus takes up the devil’s agenda and the world falls under the rule of antichrist, glad to be rid of the cross; Jesus disappears in the Ascension and the world goes back to business as usual.”
That last consequence I had never thought about. All the other scenarios, I’m pretty sure, I’ve imagined at some point to some degree. But reading that line during the week between Ascension Sunday and Pentecost, it finally hit me – the importance of what I perceived to be that minor note in Acts 1:3 about Jesus being seen by many people and explaining many things for forty days after his resurrection. Without this note, the miraculous Resurrection merges with a convenient Ascension, and voilà! – you get a “spiritualized” Jesus who died and was raised to Heaven (forgetting the gut-wrenching reality and implications of the Resurrection). Then it’s no surprise that the name of the game for us is to just die and go to Heaven. But with time to stare at Jesus’ body, to watch him eat fish and bread, to listen to his voice, this queer new reality becomes less of a strange dream after the trauma of his murder, and more of an energizing preparation for the entirely altered course of your life – of the life of the whole world. Now the mission is to declare the Lordship of Christ to the world. “He beat death itself. We’ve seen him – so have they, and them, and them too! He’s been exalted to Heaven, but he’ll appear again. And when he does, he’s going to put everything to death just as he was and bring it to new, more glorious life, just as he was. None of us are worthy of it, but if you believe in him, he’ll include you in that new life.”
Understanding the biblical rationale for the forty helps us to know what we are to learn from the pregnant, life-bearing time between Resurrection and Ascension. From it, we learn what to do with this mystery; we learn how to live. We are now in “ordinary time” in the liturgical calendar. Represented by the color green, this is a time of growth. This is a time of taking what’s been sown and growing it into something mature and substantial. Our belief and baptism make us witnesses to (this is what’s been sown) and representatives of (this means what we grow) the new reality of resurrection – the new creation.