Mary, thinking that he is the gardener, says to him, “My lord, if you have carried him off, tell me where you put him, and I will take him away.” Jesus says to her, “Mary.” Turning, she says to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni” (which means “Teacher”). Jesus says to her, “Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brothers and tell them: I ascend to my Father and your Father, and to my God and your God.”John 21:15-17
The encounter between Mary and the Risen Jesus that is related in today’s gospel is one of the most familiar and oft-represented situations of the gospels. It has a dramatic quality about it that made it the source material for much early Christian drama. A friend who is an ordained Baptist minister often spoke of her difficulty with the passage in terms of what she saw as its misogynistic representation of women as overly emotional and “clingy.” Rather than diminishing women, however, this encounter can also be seen as representing an experience of which only the closest of Jesus’ disciples would be capable. Jesus is not reprimanding Mary, but he is rather inviting her to realize the new mode of presence to and with him that comes with his physical absence. This encounter between Jesus and Mary that we meditate today is the invitation of Jesus to us to transform the very nature of our relationship to him so that his very presence and mission may now be offered to the world in us.
Adrian van Kaam, in his text On Being Yourself, speaks of three ways of “following Christ.” He identifies these as the way of imitation, the way of intimacy, and the way of identification. In today’s gospel we see Jesus communicating to Mary, as truly the “first” disciple, that she is called to pass from the way of intimacy to the way of identification. She is not to “cling” to the physical body of Jesus in intimacy, because she is now to be that body as she “goes out” to tell the others that the Jesus they have imitated and with whom they have been intimate is now ascending to his and their (our) Father. As St. Theresa of Avila will say centuries later,
Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks with compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.
Any preoccupation we may have about the historicity of the resurrection narratives seriously misses the point. These are not historical narratives but rather descriptions of a profound and transformative spiritual experience. The characters are mythic in their significance. Not mythic in the sense of unreal but rather in the sense of archetypes for each of us. As mysterious as she remains, it seems fair to say that Mary is, of all the followers of Jesus, the one who is most intimate with him, along, of course, with the disciple John. It is she who has remained with him throughout and held nothing back from being with him through all he has undergone. Even in death it is she who comes to be with him, as she supposes now a corpse in the grave. She loves Jesus in every conceivable way: in mind, body, and spirit. There is yet a deeper intimacy with Jesus that is possible that she does not yet know. It is his death, resurrection and ascension that makes this new relationship possible, a relationship that can only happen when Jesus has ascended to his and our Father. It is a relationship we have, through, with, and in him to God as the “sibling” of Jesus we most truly are. This is what Jesus has come to make known to us, and it is the abode to which he draws us up with him.
In the ways of imitation and even of intimacy, we relate to Jesus as one who is other than, separate from us. During the years of his physical presence on earth, this was, of course, most literally true. This is the body to which Mary longs to cling. Personally, I don’t do well with departures. Every moment of separation from one I love is truly wrenching and physically as well as emotionally painful for me. As I leave those close to me, even for just a time, I feel the pain in my heart, and at the moment of goodbye I know full well the desire to cling that Mary experiences.
Strangely enough, however, as the time of separation continues, I, at least occasionally, discover a communion with the ones I most love that transcends our physical absence. I realize that they are a part of who I am, as, I hope, I for them. With those closest to me, I increasingly see them at work in me, and my own truest self becomes formed in accordance with those attributes and dispositions that they have brought into my life. This is always partial, of course, as they and I remain the separate persons that we are. And yet, the presence and communion we share at a distance are not imaginary but real.
On the path of discipleship with Jesus, we begin by coming to know his life and his teaching and then attempting to imitate his way of living in our own lives. We try to grow in thinking, speaking, and acting as Jesus did, or would. We attempt to become disciples, that is students, of his as we learn from him how to think, speak, and act in the way of being most fully human that he, in his life on earth, embodied. We work to conform our words and actions to Jesus’ way in imitation of the one whom God has sent us to show us how to live.
As our imitation increases, we come to know Jesus more deeply and closely and so we begin to grow in intimacy with him. It is no longer merely a matter of imitating in our eternal lives the behavior of Jesus. Rather we awaken to his inner life and we begin to love that originality of Jesus in the way we have come to love the inner originality and potential of our closest friends. Our relationship with Jesus begins to deepen from the level of outward behavior to that of inner affection. Jesus becomes more than merely a model; he becomes a friend. There is little we value more in life than the presence of loving and faithful companions. As I, when parting from my closest friends, desire to cling to them so that we, though separate can remain physically and emotionally together, so we, along with Mary, can cling to this affective mode of discipleship with Jesus.
With Jesus, however, there is a yet deeper mode of relationship. Because our own deepest and truest originality lies in Jesus, when we are able to let go of our holding on to him as separate from us, as consoling as his friendship is, we discover that beyond the Jesus we constitute by our thoughts, feelings, and imaginings lies the one in whom I live and who lives in me. What sounds to us like Jesus’ reprimanding of Mary is actually a loving invitation to be in him. That the gospel makes Mary the first to receive this invitation is far from misogyny. It is the recognition that she, of all the disciples, is the one who is capable of receiving this invitation to be the Jesus who, as ascended to the Father, is now the love and power of God in her. It is his love and his power that she is to bring to the other disciples.
Yet there is, at one level, a harshness to the words of Jesus, “Do not cling to me . . . .” For, we want to cling to what and to whom we have. The way of identification is a way of darkness. We cannot know the Jesus who is our life at its most original in the way that we know the one we imitate or the one with whom we feel intimate. As we are drawn ever more deeply into our true originality, which is our communion in Christ with God, the way of faith becomes darker and darker. Now, at every moment, we can only live in faith, and hope, and love, for there is no assurance that it is God who leads and guides us. The God in whom we live is not comprehensible to us. Although Jesus, risen and ascended, is present in this much deeper way “in the world,” that presence often feels like absence. We can envy those who seem to know God and Jesus so clearly and assuredly. For we no longer do.
As we gathered at Easter and shared together our experience, one among us spoke of how God is not a Christian god, or a Jewish god, or a Muslim god, or, for that matter, a secular god. We want to make of God the meaning of our life. But that is not God. God is our life, the life of each and all of us. The god that we think we know cannot be God. We shall never stop killing each other with the pretext of doing so in defense of God and belief until we cease clinging to “our god.” There is solace and consolation and even companionship in the gods of our creation, but Divine life is so much more than that. Within the past couple of weeks, we saw photographs of a black hole for the first time. According to the NASA website, “A black hole can not be seen because strong gravity pulls all of the light into the middle of the black hole.” When there is too much light in a “small space” all we can perceive is darkness. The mystical tradition speaks of this in terms of personal experience. The more we walk in the light, the darker it seems to us. The more we “know” experientially that the life we live is the life of Jesus, the less we know “about Jesus.”
Jesus invites us, as he did Mary, to cease clinging to what we know and think we love. He invites us to risk loving in a new and transformed way, which is to let go of all we cling to and then to go out to the world to proclaim what we know only in the darkness of faith.
In this way, I am not so much present to Christ as He becomes present to me in an undeniable mysterious manner. I feel bored with any attempt of reasoning, imagination, or vital emotion in my following of Him. I feel bored now with any preoccupation with my uniqueness and how it relates to living His life. On the positive side, there is, deep down, the delicate tender beginning of a spontaneous awareness of His Presence in my innermost self. This Presence is experienced as beyond any of my efforts, concepts, vital emotions, and imagination. He is somehow here in me. I am somehow in Him.Adrian van Kaam, On Being Yourself, pp. 187-188
At such graced moments, I fail in any attempt to see Christ as my model separated from me, and to see myself as the eager imitator separated from Him. I entertain no longer clear and distinct ideas and images about the life of Jesus. Active imitation is out of the question. I want only to be wholly present to the silent Presence of Christ in me, to the welling up in me of His love for the Father. The time for silent at-oneness has come.