The words of Jesus to Mary Magdalene when he appeared to her always sound a little harsh to me. I try to read them in that gentle Jesus voice you always hear in the passion plays. I expect Jesus’ words to his disciples in his post-resurrection appearances to be extremely loving, calming, happy words of encouragement. But this dialogue with the first person he meets, one of his closest companions, doesn’t really fit those expectations at all. I have trouble hearing the words, ‘Don’t hold on to me!’ in the passion play Jesus voice.
11 But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look* into the tomb; 12and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. 13They said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping?’ She said to them, ‘They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.’ 14When she had said this, she turned round and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping? For whom are you looking?’ Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.’ 16Jesus said to her, ‘Mary!’ She turned and said to him in Hebrew,* ‘Rabbouni!’ (which means Teacher). 17Jesus said to her, ‘Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” ’ 18Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord’; and she told them that he had said these things to her.
‘Don’t touch’ is a little harsh to be the first words out of his mouth after Mary recognizes him. What she was doing to inspire these words is unclear, especially since he asks Thomas to touch him later. The verb is a reflexive form of ‘to adhere to or fasten,’ and might suggest an unmannerly way of touching. Some have even suggested he was naked and didn’t want her to get too excited! Neither Mary touching Jesus inappropriate or Jesus being naked are good ways to read this, but what do his words mean then?
A different way to translate this than the NRSV above would be ‘Don’t cling to me.’ As in, ‘Quit being all clingy!’ Sounds more like a scene from He’s Just Not That Into You. I can picture her thinking, ‘That’s not what you said the night I was washing your feet with my perfume!’ Since we know Jesus was into Mary, and he was never concerned before about social mores, what gives?
The next thing he says is that he hasn’t ascended yet, so maybe he doesn’t have time for touching? He’s got a lot to do, sure, but could he not spare a minute for a hug when his BFF needed him? She had after all been through a lot over the weekend. This question has been debated. The idea that he couldn’t be touched has been suggested, but that’s not consistent with asking Thomas to touch his wounds. Some have even said he was still sore from crucifixion!
Maybe Jesus could see in her behavior that she wasn’t going to let him get a way a second time. Maybe she wasn’t willing to accept that he would not be around anymore as the same old Jesus of Nazareth. So he told her, ‘I’m going to do a new thing now and I need your help. I’m going to the Father, but my spirit will still be here with you. I know it will be different and hard, but things will always change, and I need you to help me spread this movement.’
I think these words are for us to hear. We tend to cling to our view of Jesus’ mission, but it’s a mission that by nature is constantly evolving. Jesus has something new to do. Whatever flavor of Christianity that’s fresh today will be stale tomorrow. Jesus is wild and adventurous. We can’t cling to him as if we could hold him in one place. We have to follow.