“Do not hold on to me”


Jesus tells Mary not to hold on to him, because he has not yet ascended into heaven. Although some commentators make this passage to be primarily about the form of Jesus’ resurrected body, that it ought not be touched before the ascension, this is problematic given all the physicality of so many other Resurrection scenes. Thomas is invited to touch Jesus’ wounds. Jesus eats with the disciples. He breathes on them, without a caution “don’t touch!” There is a difference between not touching and not holding on.

The message Jesus gives to Mary seems more specifically oriented to her and to her spirituality. Mary and Jesus had a close friendship but Jesus is telling her already that he is going to leave in a sense, and ascend to his Father. Mary is probably eager at the Resurrection to go back to her old relationship with Jesus, to resume things and pick them up as if nothing had changed with death and resurrection. But Jesus already tells her that he will soon be ascending, i.e., more change is on the way. This is part of Jesus’ missioning of Mary: she’s being asked not to cling to a previous way of relating to Jesus but rather to focus on spreading the good news. Of course, this does not mean that she is not to love Jesus or relate to him, but the nature of that relationship will change.

This idea of not clinging is relevant to so many aspects of spiritual life. Perhaps a person is being invited to pray or to relate to God in a new way, after old models of prayer or pictures of God no longer suffice for one’s new circumstances. Or a relationship may change and a new way of entering into that relationship may be the invitation. Or we may be past focused when Jesus is inviting us to be present focused in our mission.

Jesus’ words not to touch him is not a rebuke but an invitation, an invitation to new life for Mary in her mission, as he sends her off to the other disciples.

2 thoughts on ““Do not hold on to me”

  1. Good explanation. This has to be the way to look at it. Why else would Jesus tell one who loved so much not to “touch” him? Your post prompted me to look up this encounter in all four gospels. Only John 20″ 16-17, relates this conversation. Personally, I think it’s just a poor translation or careless narration on the part of the gospel writer.

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    1. It’s only in John–John has a number of unique stories not in the synoptics.

      I don’t think it is careless narration, myself, because the author of John is so masterful with language (e.g., look at the opening—in the Greek even God (theos) and Word (logos) rhyme and play off one another. I know from other scholarship that many think John was written later than the others once the Christian community had separated from the Jewish one (thus comments about the Jews that ought not be taken out of their historical context to refer to Judaism but rather to the specific community with which they were in conflict), and so is already looking ahead to what follows after the Resurrection. All of John’s stories are focused on healing, then mission—makes sense in the context of a church figuring out what its life is in the midst of real complexity.

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