Jesus said to her, “Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brethren and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” Mary Magdalene went and said to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.
John 20: 17-18
Who is this Jesus risen from the dead? What was the nature of the faith in the Risen Jesus that was required of those who had known and loved the historical Jesus? What does that experience tell us about the nature of faith for those of us who “have never seen”?
These reflections are based in large part on the commentary on John’s gospel by Francis J. Moloney, SDB (The Gospel of John, pp. 524-9). As the scene of today’s gospel begins Mary stands outside the tomb weeping in unbelief. She thinks that the body of Jesus has been stolen, and she asks the person, whom she thinks to be the gardener, to return to her Jesus’ body if he has taken it. In reply the unrecognized Jesus calls her “Mariam” and she then recognizes him as the Jesus whom she loves. She calls him “Rabbouni” or “My Teacher.” This is the first level of faith in the episode. Yet, although she now sees that Jesus is not dead but alive, she does not truly have faith in the resurrected one. This is why Jesus says to her not to cling to him, that is not to cling to the person she has known. He must ascend to the Father, for now the Father is not only His Father but also the Father of all. “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” Now Mary goes to the disciples with a different faith, faith not only in the bodily resurrection of her teacher but in the presence of the Risen Lord of all.
The Jesus who has undergone and passed through the call of “his hour” and who is now raised from the dead is someone new from the one whom his disciples knew and followed before his death. If they are to know him, they must cease from clinging to the one whom they have known and loved. They must allow their relationship to him to change. He is no longer “my teacher” but rather “the Lord.” He lives now with the Father who is his Father and our Father, his God and our God. Today’s gospel reading thus summons us to appropriate two very difficult aspects of faith.
The first is that we must relinquish and not cling to any feeling, thought, experience, or relationship in life. At moments it may seem to us that we have found or experienced the fullness of life, the fulfillment of our hopes and dreams. If only we could remain in this place, with this person, in this understanding we would possess all that is needed. If only we could keep or recapture that moment of prayer or insight or relationship we would be satisfied. Yet, the words of Jesus to Mary are constantly reminding us: “Do not cling to me.” A friend of mine used to resent these words of the gospel, feeling that they perpetuated the stereotype of women as needy and clinging. However, this is not at all their meaning. Rather they are universal in applicability and speak to the tendency of all of us to want to cling to what we possess, or believe, or hope for rather than to abandon ourselves to the Mystery that is ever both revealing and concealing Itself. Have gratitude for the gift given, but always stand ready to let go of what is passing and be willing to be taught anew.
The second aspect of faith that today’s reading teaches us is the call to pass from one’s self-absorption to a realization of the universal dimension of God’s revelation and love. Mary is drawn from her identification of Jesus as “My Teacher” to the realization that he is the Lord of all. The love of God in Jesus for us is, of course, a love of us in all our uniqueness and originality. Yet, it is at the same time the love of all, of every person in precisely the same way. One way we can recognize even slight intimations of God’s love for us is that God’s love for and presence to us is, at the same moment, God’s love for and presence to all. God’s mercy is mercy in my regard, but it is also mercy for all: my friends and my enemies, the good and the evil, believers and non-believers, saints and sinners. God’s love and mercy is for all these aspects of myself, and so for all the aspects of the whole body of Christ. The Risen Jesus is not merely for me and for those who think and believe like me. “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” Very early in life most of us were taught to become willing to share what we had with others. Some recent studies actually suggest that very young children naturally share but somehow learn very young not to. Whatever the case, we discover as we age that letting go of our sense of personal privilege and claims is not easy. We want to stand out and apart by our personal possessing of material, emotional, intellectual or spiritual goods that others lack. While deeply personal, however, faith is not a private possession. The One who is risen and in whom we believe is the Lord of all. As the Letter to the Ephesians states: He is the “one God and Father of all who is over all and through all and in all.” (Ephesians 4:6)
Even those who knew Jesus in the flesh had to experience a profound purification of faith in order to recognize him as the Risen Lord. So, for us. We would like there to be a “deposit of faith” to which we could cling and where we could go to access the truth on our own terms. Yet, that is not the truth of things. As Mary, we must continually let go of that to which we cling, if we are to come to recognize the Lord who is always coming to us all in new and mysterious ways.
Life as it stands is called to be the place of our contemplation. The cultivation of inner life does not need to produce an existence that is situated between heaven and earth, in ecstasy and illumination, but rather a life which, in humble closeness to God and with sincere empathy toward neighbors, creates and realizes a purified and transformed existence in history.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer uses the image of “cantus firmus” to explain how an encounter with God allows the believer to contemplate the world, human persons, and everyday tasks to be performed with a contemplative attitude, and that it is this attitude which allows a person to see, live, and savor the mysterious presence of God-Trinity in all things.
The contemplative unites, gradually and through a long process, work for God and the good sense to recognize God. The contemplative perceives the sound of God’s footsteps in life’s daily happenings and becomes an expert of the “light, silent sound” (1 K 19:12) of everyday life where the Lord makes himself present.
Joao Braz Card. de Aviz, Contemplate, pp. 27-8