Mike’s Historical Half Truths: Ascension day

Want to speak to the French A17ers today? Can’t because its Feast of the Ascension day.

For a brief introduction to this series, see Easter

Mike’s Historical Half Truths: Ascension day


The holiday is to celebrate the Ascension of Jesus into heaven. As the story goes, 40 days after Jesus was resurrected he and his disciples went to Mount Olivet outside of Jerusalem. Jesus then ascended upwards, towards heaven. Christians see this as Jesus’s work on Earth being complete and he went up to heaven to prepare it for his followers. In modern day terms, the ultimate #micdrop.

40 days – thats Lent isn’t it?

There are the 40 days of Lent leading up to Easter and then 40 days after Easter comes Ascension. God also made it rain for 40 days and 40 nights. Moses spent 40 years in the desert. He was also on Mount Sinai for 40 days and 40 nights. The Israelites wandered for 40 years. Jerusalem was destroyed 40 years after the crucifixion of Jesus. Plus lots of other uses of the number 40.

As far as I can tell, there is no significance to the number 40. Its just a number; which just isn’t pleasing.

The Quran also makes mention of the number 40 a bunch of times and not just in the bits that overlap with the Bible; for example it says a a person isn’t fully matured until they reach 40. Muhammad was 40 when he met the archangel Gabriel, he prayed and fasted for 40 days and had 40 followers to spread Islam. Hindus fast for 40 days and popular prayers have 40 stanzas. The Torah mentions impure people being submersed in 40 measures of water. Some Russians and Filipinos believe the spirits of people linger for 40 days after their death. People get 40 winks, people say life begins at 40. American hand-eggfootball players complete a 40 yard dash and baseball teams have 40 players. Its the confusing 3rd point score in tennis. Seriously why are the first 2 points worth 15 and the 3rd only worth 10? Its stupid. Consistency in scoring you’d think was pretty important.

An old Arabic proverb:

To understand a people, you must live among them for 40 days

Human pregnancies normally take 40 weeks and if you use a 9 year calendar a 40 day cycle fits with remarkable accuracy; something scholars from Ancient Egypt an onwards understood.

In English, the word “forty” is the only word form of a number where all the letters are in alphabetical order. -40°C = -40°F and thats the only time they correspond like that. After the US civil war, some freed slaves got “40 acres and a mule” to give them a start to their freedom. WD-40 is famously the 40th attempt at making WD-40. Our work weeks are 40 hours long, its the number of spaces on a Monopoly board. Historically quarantine time is 40 days.

Maybe 40 feels sufficiently sizeable, and thats that.

The answer to life the universe and everything: 42 40

Anyways, Ascension day

Its a feast day that has probably been celebrated for as long as Christianity has been going, it was first mentioned in the 5th century. Its traditional for Catholics to eat a bird of some sort, one that could fly because Jesus ‘flew’ to heaven. Beans and grapes are also eaten too, even though they can’t fly. Red Bull is in too, because it gives you… OK I’m done.

It is a public holiday in a bunch of European countries, Columbia, Haiti and Namibia. Some people celebrate it on the Sunday afterwards if their country doesn’t have a public holiday for it. As a Brit it seems absurd that anyone would have a day off in the middle of the week like this as a bank holiday, because all the British bank holiday days are at the start of the week except the crazy Good Friday.

So, not celebrated in the UK is it not?

Nope. Pope Clement VII excommunicated King Henry VIII and England from the Roman Catholic Church. The king made himself the head of the Anglican church, because he wanted to marry Anne Boleyn whilst he was married to Catherine of Aragon. This new church was Protestant and not Catholic, and it abandoned Ascension day as a celebration. Henry VIII later had Anne Boleyn beheaded, a fate that also faced his 5th wife, Catherine Howard.

Its a Catholic thing then is it?

Yeah. Should be noted around 42% of French consider themselves Catholic and of them only 10% say they go to church regularly. Also Napoleon, a Catholic, arrested Pope Pius, which apart from being pretty rock and roll, doesn’t feel very Catholic. He also re-wrote the Bible and gave himself equal status as God. Napoleon was all kinds of bonkers.

Oddly the Argentinians don’t celebrate it, despite it not being more secular than France. Around 75% of Argentines consider themselves Catholic and, well, lets be honest, the Argentinians will have a public holiday for nearly anything 😉

Also published on Medium.