We tend to think in dimensions of space and time. Something happened then, or happens now; someone was standing here, or going there. This makes it hard for us to understand certain events in the Bible which escape such dimensions; events which reveal the presence of the Spirit.
The Resurrection, the Ascension and Pentecost are such events. They reveal the presence of God as Spirit and when we try to express this in words, we fumble. We use symbolic language.
So all these three feasts reveal Jesus as ‘the living Spirit’, to borrow a phrase from St Paul. Someone who empowers us and sends us on mission, to complete the task he came to do.
“He ascended into heaven”, “he sits at the right hand of the Father”, “you will see the Son of Man at the right hand of the Power, coming on clouds of glory” “therefore God has exalted him and given him a Name which is above all names…” – all these expressions convey the same reality: Jesus who suffered and died is today alive and powerful and he empowers us to do as he did.
Matthew locates the ascension on a mountain in Galilee. A ‘mountain’ in the Bible is a symbolic place where man meets God – like at Sinai, Tabor or ‘the sermon on the mount’. We don’t need to take it literally.
What Jesus communicates to his disciples is the “authority and power” to make disciples, as he once did. The command extends to “all nations” and is not restricted to certain “chosen people”. No, everyone is chosen. He gives his disciples the assurance that he is with them always, through thick and thin, through ups and downs, through trials and persecution. They will never be alone. The sign of his presence with them is the abiding peace and joy they experience.
The sign that someone accepts discipleship is baptism, immersion in water and the Spirit. Water, a sign of purification; the Spirit, a sign of empowerment. It is a baptism given “in the name of Jesus.” Matthew adds the formula of the Trinity, which reflects a later understanding of the Church. We can be sure that Jesus did not use those words himself!
This is what the Ascension is: the Risen Jesus is a “life-giving Spirit”, who sends us his disciples on a mission. The full understanding of this mission comes at Pentecost, yet another aspect of our life in the Spirit.