Don’t touch me.
These words hardly seem to convey tenderness and love.
Yet these are the very words Jesus says to Mary Magdalene, when she first recognizes him, risen at his tomb. The encounter takes place in John Chapter 20, verse 17.
Is Jesus being rude? Insensitive? Cold? Or is he doing something else?
Let’s unpack this puzzling encounter.
You may be familiar with the scene. Mary Magdalene comes early to the tomb. She finds it empty. She runs and tells Peter, John and the disciples. She has assumed someone has stolen Jesus’ body. Peter and John run back to the tomb to inspect. They find it empty. The burial linens are there, folded up. John sees this as evidence that Jesus’ body had not simply been stolen, but that he has risen and left the tomb. He sees the empty tomb, the linens, and he believes (Jn. 20:8).
But he does not speak of it. Perhaps he is afraid. Perhaps he is unsure of himself. In any event, John and Peter return to the upper room, while Mary stays back at the tomb, weeping.
A man is there. In the garden. He engages Mary in dialogue, asking why she was weeping. That man was Jesus, but Mary’s eyes are unable to recognize him. Not until he speaks her name, not until he addresses her, do her eyes open.
“Mary!” he says.
Mary turns. The veil that prevented her from recognizing Jesus is lifted. She recognizes him. “Teacher!” she cries out.
And now Jesus utters these strange words:
Μή μου ἅπτου. Do not touch me. (Jn 20:17)
One imagines Mary was running toward him at that moment, full of joy, ready either to embrace him, to fall on her knees and clasp his hands, or perhaps to kiss his feet as she had done at Bethany.
Jesus stops her, firmly, clearly. “Do not touch me. I have not yet ascended to my Father. But go and tell my brothers that I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” (Jn 20:17)
So he gives her a mission. To carry the news of the resurrection to the apostles.
But this doesn’t explain the phrase: Do not touch me. Why not allow a natural human embrace? Why refuse the understandable desire for human touch?
Jesus was not always like this. Indeed, we know that Jesus used to travel tirelessly around Galilee, spending hours with crowds and individuals, letting them touch him, healing them precisely through the power of his physical touch. I think of the scene where the crowd gathers around Jesus, all of them seeking to touch him because a dunamis flowed from him (Lk. 6:19). I think of the scene when he reaches out his hand and touches the leper, healing him instantly (Mk. 1:41). Then there is the scene when a woman with an incurable internal hemorrhage draws up to Jesus in a large crowd, touches the hem of his cloak in deep faith, and is suddenly healed in a way doctors were unable to do for over 18 years (Mk 5: 27-28).
So it is clear that Jesus regularly healed with the power of his touch.
Why then does he insist that Mary not touch him here? Would not his risen body be an even more powerful source of healing and grace?
It’s a puzzle. Is Jesus being stern? Distant? Is he withdrawing? Has he grown cold?
Are there any other passages which might illuminate what is going on in this scene?
The Night of the Spiritual Life
Let’s consider Hosea, Chapter 2. Here we see what might also appear to us as strange, firm, cold behavior, between God and Israel.
“Therefore I will hedge up her way with thorns,” God says, speaking of the soul (who is exemplified by the wife of Hosea). “I will build a wall against her, so that she cannot find her paths…I will take back my grain in its time, and my wine in its season . . . I will put an end to all her mirth . . . I will lay waste her vines and her fig trees.” (Hos 2:6,9,11,12)
This is the language of deprivation. It is metaphorical of human suffering. The soul’s paths are blocked with thorns, walls are in her way, her paths are concealed, her basic nourishment diminished. The grapes of jubilation are no more; mirth is no more; vines and fig trees are wasted.
It sounds bleak. Is there any good news here?
I think of the great Christian mystic John of the Cross and his language of the dark night of the soul. There are times in the life of the soul when goods that we experience at the natural level – goods like health, esteem, material success – when these things are blocked or come to an end. Sometimes it seems tragic. There are also times when we encounter some kind of persecution, opposition or some other form of deprivation. I think these are the sorts of things Hosea is describing here. Winter at the level of sense perception and appetites. The dark night of the soul.
Winter – is there any kind of spring in sight? Night – is there any day ahead?
Hosea, and John of the Cross, would suggest that these dark nights, these experiences of spiritual winter, have a telos, an end, a purpose. If we can grasp that purpose, it might help us better understand why Jesus was so abrupt in his words to Mary Magdalene.
Later in Chapter 2, Hosea begins to reveal this purpose. After the experience of deprivation, God says, referring to the soul: “I will allure her. I will lead her into the desert and there I will speak to her heart” (Hos. 2:14).
Here is the key. God shuts down the human paths of the soul so that she will follow God into the desert.
A Place of Encounter with God
What is the desert?
In the Bible, the desert is the privileged place of encounter between God and the soul. A place apart from the day to day and from normal modes of human action. A place of solitude and silence; a place of natural tranquility. God leads Moses into the desert to reveal himself in the mystery of the burning bush, to reveal his divine name (Ex. 3:1-2, 13-14). God leads the people of Israel into the desert, where he feeds them with bread from heaven and seals a covenant with them (Ex. 16). God leads Elijah into the desert to reveal himself in the gentle breeze and confirm him in his mission (1 Kgs. 19). John the Baptist lives in the desert and there he teaches about the kingdom (Mk. 1:4). And Jesus himself frequently withdraws to the desert to pray to God (Mk. 1:35; Lk. 5:16).
The desert is thus the place where the soul encounters God.
To be drawn into the desert, then, is to be drawn to an encounter with God. In this sense, Hosea is describing a mercy, a grace, when God shuts down paths in order to orient the soul toward an encounter with God in the desert. It is a movement from night into day, from deprivation to encounter.
What happens to the soul in the desert? Let’s return to Hosea, Chapter 2
“I will make a covenant for you on that day . . . I will betroth you to me forever. I will betroth you in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love and in mercy. I will betroth you to me in faithfulness; and you will know the Lord.” (Hosea 2:18,19-20)
So the end of the path of deprivations described in the beginning of Chapter 2 of Hosea is a covenant in love where the soul comes to know God. This is rather remarkable.
God is Spirit
This dynamic echoes a passage from John’s Gospel, Chapter 4, where Jesus leaves a pearl, indicating how the soul is to know God. He is speaking to a woman from Samaria. They meet at a well where Jesus was resting. The woman comes to the well to draw water and Jesus engages her in conversation. This was rather shocking because Jews and Samaritans scarcely communicated with each other in those days.
But Jesus sees the woman as a soul who seeks God, a soul whom God loves. He seeks to introduce her to the Father and the Holy Spirit. He reveals himself to her as the Messiah. It is an incredible scene.
In the midst of this conversation, the Samaritan wonders where is the most suitable place to worship God. What specific place? The Samaritans and the Jews had long disagreed on this point.
Jesus replies that true worship of God is not restricted to a place. True worship, true relationship with God occurs in the Spirit, in the truth of who God is.
“God is Spirit,” he says, “and those who wish to worship God must worship in Spirit and truth.” (Jn 4:24)
God is Spirit. Those who wish to know God, to relate to him, to be in a relationship of love with him must learn to turn to him in the Spirit and to know him in the truth of who He is.
The Deeper Meaning of Jesus’ Words
Might this be why, to use Hosea’s language, Jesus blocks the path of Mary Magdalene? Might Jesus be calling her to a new way of knowing him, relating to him, expressing her love for him and receiving his love?
It’s as though he were saying: I am ascending to the Father. I am ascending to God who is Spirit. If you wish to seek me, to draw near to me, learn to seek me as you would seek the Father, in Spirit and truth.
It is a change of mode he is signaling in their relationship: from flesh to spirit. From the level of touch, the level of the senses, to the level of the heart, the level of the spirit. From Jesus as teacher and friend, in the flesh, to Christ as son of the eternal Father. Christ who is one with the Father in essence, living with Him in communion in Spirit and truth.
This is why Jesus says to Mary: I do not want you to touch me. Do not seek to reach me any more through your physical senses. I am going to the Father. I want you to seek me there. It is thus a kind of turning off of the physical senses and ways of encountering Jesus and an invitation into a deeper mode, a more spiritual mode, of encountering him. Encountering him where he is: in his risen life, with the Father.
Put differently, what Jesus is getting at is an interiorization of the relationship between God and the soul. A drawing to the interior of the soul’s gaze. He is seeking to awaken a seeing, a sensing of the heart; an engagement of the spiritual faculty of the person. That part in us which is beyond the physical senses and goods and appetites; that part which is beneath them, deeper than them. Jesus is calling Mary Magdalene – and he is calling us – toward a way of relating to God and knowing God in Spirit and truth.
This move towards the interior makes me think of the concluding lines of Psalm 138. “O search me God, and know my heart,” cries the psalmist. “O test me and know my thoughts. See that I follow not wrong path and lead me in the path of life eternal.” (Ps. 138:23-24)
The psalmist here has come to the realization that a deepened relationship with God will be interior. He wants God to know him at the level of the heart. He wants to be guided, protected from taking the wrong path. And to be led into the path of life eternal.
The Path that Leads to Knowledge of God
What is the path of life eternal?
Jesus himself tells us in John Chapter 17.
“This is eternal life, that they might know you, the one true God, and the one whom you sent, Jesus Christ.” (Jn. 17:3)
We are back to the language of Hosea. We saw there that the end or telos of the soul being drawn into the desert is the sealing of a covenant. Through this covenant, the soul will be betrothed to God and will come to know God (Hos 2:20). Jesus here names this end, the intimate relationship of soul to God, as eternal life. Eternal life, he says, is to know God in the Biblical sense, which is a deeper, more interior act of knowing, a supra-rational act of knowing. A knowing above and beyond mere rational knowing; a knowing born of love.
Let me explain.
The Bible speaks of knowing differently than we tend to think of it. γινώσκω is the Greek word we translate as “to know.” This word has many layers of meaning. γινώσκω can mean to know, to come to know; to learn; to understand or comprehend. But it can also mean the deeper, existential, love-soaked knowledge of the other that is conveyed from spouse to spouse in the act of marital love. For example, the same word γινώσκω is used in these two verses: “Adam ‘knew’ his wife and she conceived and gave birth (Gen 4:1). And: “Joseph did not ‘know’ Mary unto the day when she bore a son. (Mt. 1:25)
This deeper dimension of the word γινώσκω is in play in Hosea 2 and John 17:3.
We recall that Hoseah promised that God would betroth the soul to himself. “I will betroth you to me forever . . . and you will know the Lord.” (Hos 2: 21-22) I don’t mean to suggest a sexual connotation to this relationship. But I am simply following the prophets and the Gospel writers in attending to the interior knowledge of God that is suggested by the word γινώσκω, “to know” God. This knowing-in-love to which God draws the soul. It is a knowledge that is born of the intimate gift of self, of an intimate exchange of love, and which gives rise to an interior knowledge of God marked by love and interior seeing. A knowledge of the heart.
This is what it means, it seems to me, to turn toward God in Spirit and truth. To know him from the heart. Beyond and beneath what the senses perceive, what the rational intellect knows. This is the knowing and loving in Spirit and truth to which Jesus wanted to draw Mary Magdalene. Communion with God, in Spirit and truth, at the level of the heart.
I believe he wants the same for all of us.
Lord Jesus Christ, son of the living God, you draw me into the desert. You draw me from the level of what I sense to the level of the Spirit. You draw me to turn to the Father, to know the Father, to worship the Father in the Spirit. To know him in the truth of who He is. To be drawn into His love in a heart to heart exchange. Amen. I do not know this path. Have mercy on me, a sinner. With the psalmist I cry: lead me into the path of life eternal.