Throughout the centuries, much ink has been spent by biblical scholars commenting on Mary Magdalene’s encounter with the risen Jesus in John Chapter 20. In particular, many have sought an explanation for verse 17 where Jesus says to Mary that she should “Stop holding on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father.” A number of possible interpretations present themselves and are worth examining.
An immediate question that arises is why Our Lord does not allow Mary Magdalene to touch Him, but when He encounters Thomas in the Upper Room, He allows him to touch Him? One possible explanation relates to the way that a burnt offering was made to the Lord. In the Old Testament, the priest must offer the whole lamb and burn it on the altar. The offering was not acceptable to the Lord until it had risen to the Him as a pleasing odor. Until the burnt offering was fully consumed and had ascended to God, it was only a priest who could touch it. Likewise, it is Jesus who is the lamb that serves as a burnt offering to the Father and until He ascends to the Father, it is only a priest who can handle Him. This of course relates to the fact that Jesus instituted a new priesthood in the Apostles.
It seems though that this particular difficulty is one that has been raised solely by biblical commentators. This was probably not the intent of the author however. The verbs that John uses in the two encounters are different, even if they are translated in English in the same way. He uses haptō, which is translated as “cling” or “hold” in verse 17 and uses pherein and ballein in verse 27 for “examine” and “probe”. Once we see that it was probably not the intent of the author to contrast the two encounters, two other possibilities present themselves.
First, it has been suggested that since the Greek imperative is used, we should translate it as: “Stop touching me!” Essentially Jesus is telling Mary to stop clinging onto Him because He will go back to the Father in a short time and wants to meet with the disciples as often as is possible before that happens. She should go and fulfill her vocation as Apostle to the Apostles by running and telling them the good news in haste. Based upon Mary’s actions, this seems to be the way she understood what Jesus was saying.
Perhaps the more compelling explanation is the one that is suggested by Pope Benedict in the second installment of Jesus of Nazareth(p. 285). Once Mary recognizes Our Lord she thinks that this is the fulfillment of the promise that Jesus gave during the Final Discourse when He said, “I shall see you again, and your hearts will rejoice with a joy that no one can take from you” (John 16:22). The reader (and probably Magdalene herself) is surprised by Jesus’ response not to cling to Him. Our Lord is telling her that the earlier way of relating to the earthly Jesus, who was her “Rabboni” (“dear Rabbi”), is no longer possible. She is the first to experience what St. Paul describes in 2 Corinthians 5:16-17: “From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once regarded Christ from a human point of view, we regard him thus no longer. Therefore, if any one is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come.” In essence, Jesus in telling her not to cling to Him is telling her that His permanent presence is no longer by way of appearance. Now it is by way of the gift of the Holy Spirit that will come only after He ascends to the Father.
What makes this explanation particularly plausible is the fact that even though she saw the angels and the burial clothes, did not understand what Jesus meant when He spoke about His resurrection. Certainly she is not alone, as Peter also looked in the tomb and did not come to belief. It is interesting however that there was something about the condition of the tomb that led the Beloved Disciple to believe. What Peter and Mary both overlook, but what John saw had something to do with the burial clothes themselves.
First, it should have been obvious that the presence of the burial clothes should have been an indication that the body had not been stolen from the tomb. If Christ’s body had been stolen either by grave robbers or the disciples (as they had been accused of doing), they would not have removed the wrappings. The myrrh and aloes would have essentially acted like glue so that the clothes could not be quickly removed. The tomb was guarded and they would have needed to work fast and would have taken both the body and the clothes together.
The reason John gives the details about the burial clothes the way He does is because it clearly supported the truth of the Resurrection. The Greek participle that is translated as “lying there” seems to suggest that the clothes were flattened in such a manner that the body had passed through them without being unrolled. It is this fact, namely that the clothes were intact and not unrolled, that led John to fully believe in the Resurrection.
Like everything that John wrote, He is wont to point out the deeper meaning of all of Jesus’ actions. By leaving the clothes behind, Jesus is pointing to the uniqueness of the Resurrection. In the story of Lazarus, we see him emerge from the tomb with the clothes because he will need them again when he dies. Jesus on the other hand leaves them behind because He will not use them again. As St. Paul says, “Christ being raised from the dead will never die again.”
This ultimately is the lesson that St. Mary Magdalene still teaches us—the newness of life that was at the heart of the mission of the Son. Although His relationship with the Father (“I ascend to My Father…”) is qualitatively different from our relationship with the Father (“…and your Father), nevertheless He is offering us a share in His natural Sonship. This newness of life is as adopted sons and daughters of God. Unlike our human experience of adoption where the adopted child is only a legal offspring of the father and does not share his blood, Jesus gives us His Body and Blood so that we might have the very Blood of God running through our veins. St. Mary Magdalene, pray for us!