Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned and said to him in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, “Do not cling to me, for 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.'” John 20.16-17.
It is Sunday morning, the first day of the week and the first day of the new age. Everything has now changed though nobody yet knows it. Mary has been to the tomb and found it empty. In consternation she has told the disciples who have been to the garden and seen the empty tomb for themselves. Now they have left, not knowing what to do, but Mary has remained, weeping. And now Jesus — the risen-from-the-dead Jesus — has appeared to her, spoken her name as only he speaks it; and she has done what the other women will later do — prostrated herself before him and seized his feet (Matthew 28.9). It is this action that causes Jesus to say to Mary, “Do not cling to me.”
Those who read only the KJV are somehat misled by it at this point for it translates the Greek phrase me mou aptou as “Do not touch me” which is incorrect both in what it says and in what it implies. First, the verb apto does not mean “to touch”, but rather “to clutch or to grip”, and is virtually synonymous with the verb krateo, “to seize”, that is used of the women in Matthew 28.9. Secondly, the use of the negative me with the present imperative indicates not that Mary mustn’t start doing something, but that she must stop doing something that she is already doing.
But why must Mary stop clinging to Jesus’ feet? Well, on one level, because he will still be around in his resurrection body for a while and Mary will see him again. “Do not cling to me,” he says, “for I have not yet ascended to the Father.” I am on my way there but I have not gone yet.
But there is surely another level of meaning here too. Is it not that Mary must acknowledge that the new age has dawned; that she must learn to let go of the familiar Jesus of Galilee whom she so much loves in order to be able to embrace the Lord of Glory who will shortly dwell in her heart through the Holy Spirit? Is it not that only by letting go of the Jesus in the flesh who is with her now for a precious moment will she be able to discover the deeper reality of a Jesus in the Spirit who will be with her always to the end of the age (Matthew 28.20)?
But what of the message Mary has to pass from Jesus to his “brothers” — the message that “I am ascending”?
To ascend is anabaino from ana, “up”, and baino, “to go”; and, as Stephen Verney points out so lucidly in his book Water into Wine, “up” and “down”, “above” and “below” are key words in John’s Gospel. Jesus came down from heaven and the grave marked the lowest point in that descent. Now, with his resurrection (anastasis — the “up” word again!) from the dead, the return journey has already begun. Jesus is on his way back up to heaven. He is already ascending.
And he is ascending “to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” Why does Jesus put his return to heaven in those terms?
It is surely because now the distinction between his relationship to God and his followers’ relationship to God is being erased. From here on in, everyone who comes to the risen Christ and accepts him as Saviour and Lord, becomes a son of God, just as he is the Son of God. It is true that, as someone has said, he is a son by nature and we are sons by grace — but we are all sons. If Jesus can call God, “Abba!”, so can I. In the story of Ruth, this Moabite daughter-in-law of Naomi refuses to be sent home to her own people. “Do not urge me to leave you or to return from following you,” she tells her mother-in-law. “For where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God” (Ruth 1.16). When Ruth says “your God shall be my God”, she is not drawing a distinction between the relationship that she and Naomi have to the God of Israel but claiming that from that point on there will be no distinction. They’ll both belong to him, and he to them, in exactly the same way. And that is what Jesus is saying to his disciples.
Jesus has stepped from the tomb and God’s work of “bringing many sons to glory” is already underway (Hebrews 2.10). Hallelujah!
You came from heaven to earth to show the way,
from the earth to the cross, my debt to pay.
From the cross to the grave, from the grave to the sky,
Lord I lift your name on high.