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Christ Is Risen! Now Don’t Touch Him!

Why did Jesus tell Mary Magdalene, the first witness of his resurrection, "Touch me not"? The Catholic explanation offers some food for thought.

A young man inquiring into the faith recently asked me why Jesus said to Mary Magdalene, the first witness of his resurrection, “Touch me not” (John 20:17). While on a trip to Europe, this young man had visited an art museum where he saw a painting that greatly moved him. It showed Mary Magdalene and Jesus reaching out to each other yet holding back from touching. The young man was moved by the painting because it seemed to express our yearning to be with God.

All four Gospels testify to the fact that Mary Magdalene is among the women who go to the tomb of Jesus early in the morning on the first day of the week and find the tomb empty. The full story of the appearance of Jesus to Mary Magdalene by herself, though, is told only in chapter 20 of the Gospel of John. Mary Magdalene apparently separates herself from the other women and goes off to tell Simon Peter the startling news.

Peter and John then run to the tomb and also find it empty. John, narrating the event, says he came to “believe” when he saw the burial cloths of Jesus lying on the floor in the empty tomb. Peter and John go away, but Mary remains, peers into the tomb, sees a vision of two angels, and then, weeping, asks where the Lord was taken. Then she turns, and suddenly Jesus himself is there, but she does not immediately recognize him.

This non-recognition of their master in his glorified body is the typical first impression of the disciples who encounter the risen Jesus. It happens on the road to Emmaus, as Luke relates (24:13-35). It happens to the group of the apostles on the shore of the Sea of Galilee (John 21:1-23). Mary Magdalene recognizes Jesus only when he speaks her name. She replies, “Rabboni” (teacher). It is then that Jesus tells her not to touch him, giving as the reason for this the fact that he has not yet “ascended” to his Father (20:17).

This scene has captured artists’ imagination, and the theme of not touching has been prominent in many representations. This is no doubt because the Scripture passage in question was known to them in its Latin Vulgate version: “noli me tangere,” or “touch me not.” The famous paintings of this moment by Fra Angelico, Botticelli, and Titian, for example, all have the title Noli me tangere. Any of these paintings could have been the one the young man viewed in Europe, or it could have been yet another. What is clear both from these paintings and from the text of the Gospel is that Jesus did not, in fact, want Mary to touch him, much as she longed to.

The original Greek in the New Testament here conveys a meaning more like “don’t hold on to me,” or “don’t cling to me”—which Mary Magdalene, in her impetuosity and great joy at recognizing Jesus alive after what had seemed the irreparable loss of Good Friday, evidently attempted to do. (We know from Matthew 28:9 that the women embrace the feet of the risen Jesus when they see him for the first time.) Some modern versions of the New Testament such as the New American Bible and the Revised Standard Version accordingly translate the passage as “don’t cling to me,” or “don’t hold on to me,” having dropped the word “touch” entirely.

But why does Jesus not want Mary Magdalene to touch or cling to him? Ten verses farther on in the same chapter of John’s Gospel, Jesus tells doubting Thomas to touch him: “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side; do not be faithless but believing” (John 20:28). Jesus wants to prove to Thomas that his glorified body is real, that he is no ghost or apparition, but that he did indeed rise from the dead.

The best explanation I know for why Jesus does not want Mary Magdalene to touch him—unlike Thomas, she already believes he is Jesus—is that his saving work is not finished. That is why he tells her he has “not yet ascended to the Father.” As Mary Magdalene no doubt well knows, along with the other disciples, Jesus promised before his crucifixion, “A little while, and you will see me no more; again a little while, and you will see me” (John 16:16).

And indeed, the disciples had seen him no more as his crucified body was laid in the tomb. But now, “again a little while,” Mary is seeing him. In her joy, she no doubt throws herself toward him, but Jesus, in effect, says to her: “No, not yet. I’m not back among you for good. My saving work will in fact not be completed until I send you the Holy Spirit, as I promised I would, to be with you always, and I return again.”

For Jesus also said he was “leaving the world and going to the Father” (John 16:28)—that is, that he was “ascending” to the Father, as he again tells Mary this time around. He had also, of course, promised the disciples that he would send the Holy Spirit “to be with you forever” (John 14:16).

Mary, like the other disciples—and all Christians to this day—has to receive the Spirit before the fullness of Christ’s saving work will be effective. Nor will her—nor our—joy be complete before joining Christ with his Father in heaven. Mary must not, meanwhile, cling to him as if everything had been accomplished and he had returned for good. Nevertheless, her ardent desire to touch him does aptly symbolize our yearning to be with God.

Biblical scholars generally agree that Mary Magdalene is the first to see the risen Christ. Jesus then tells her, “Go to my brethren and say to them, I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God” (John 20:17). Having appeared first to her, he tells her to break the news to the apostles, whom he had appointed earlier to be the witnesses to his resurrection before all mankind (see Luke 24:48, Acts 2:32).

Now, as a woman of that time in history, Mary Magdalene’s testimony to the fact of the Resurrection would not have been accepted like that of a man’s. Jesus nevertheless appears first to her, in defiance of the customs of the time, and then tells her to go tell the men. Some scholars cite this fact as one of the strongest proofs that the Resurrection actually took place: if the story had been fabricated, no one would have made a woman the first witness to the defining miracle of Christianity.

It is a marvelous story, and it is not surprising that it has had great appeal to Christian artists down through the centuries.

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