"Don't Cling To Me": An Easter Missional Immersion in the Christ of Faith
The Text: This year on Easter Sunday, one of the texts from the Revised Common Lectionary is from the Fourth Gospel, of John, from the original finale of that gospel. It is the section narrating Mary of Magdala's discovery of the empty tomb, of Jesus, and faith. The story of Mary’s encounter at the tomb in John, goes like this, from Eugene Peterson's The Message interpretation:
“ Early in the morning on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone was moved away from the entrance. She ran at once to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one Jesus loved, breathlessly panting, "They took the Master from the tomb. We don't know where they've put him." Peter and the other disciple left immediately for the tomb. They ran, neck and neck. The other disciple got to the tomb first, outrunning Peter. Stooping to look in, he saw the pieces of linen cloth lying there, but he didn't go in. Simon Peter arrived after him, entered the tomb, observed the linen cloths lying there, and the kerchief used to cover his head not lying with the linen cloths but separate, neatly folded by itself. Then the other disciple, the one who had gotten there first, went into the tomb, took one look at the evidence, and believed. No one yet knew from the Scripture that he had to rise from the dead. The disciples then went back home.
But Mary stood outside the tomb weeping. As she wept, she knelt to look into the tomb and saw two angels sitting there, dressed in white, one at the head, the other at the foot of where Jesus' body had been laid. They said to her, "Woman, why do you weep?" "They took my Master," she said, "and I don't know where they put him." After she said this, she turned away and saw Jesus standing there. But she didn't recognize him. Jesus spoke to her, "Woman, why do you weep? Who are you looking for?" She, thinking that he was the gardener, said, "Mister, if you took him, tell me where you put him so I can care for him." Jesus said, "Mary." Turning to face him, she said in Hebrew, "Rabboni!" meaning "Teacher!"
Jesus said, "Don't cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. Go to my brothers and tell them, 'I ascend to my Father and your Father, my God and your God.'" Mary Magdalene went, telling the news to the disciples: "I saw the Master!" And she told them everything he said to her.
The Turning Points: This is a text full of turnings, and of naming. When we get into the story deeply, it is literally spinning us around, as good faith will, as for the early church the whole world was now being turned around, being named, being created anew….It is the turning of the day from darkness to light, so important in the Johannine gospel and view of Christ as the light of the world. Mary comes to the tomb, probably slowly, mournfully, dutifully, then sees the stone gone and fearing the body has been stolen, more mocking, more shaming, she immediately turns and runs quickly to the male disciples. Then she presumably turns again and follows the beloved disciple and Peter back to the tomb where they do their dance of authority on who will go inside the tomb first and what conclusions of belief and remaining doubt they will have, and then they turn again and leave.
Mary stays this time. Mary weeps. She kneels to get a closer look this time. And she sees two angels whom no one had seen before, located at the two ends of where Jesus’ body had been; had they been there before when Jesus’ body had been laid out there before, had they gone when the two male disciples showed up but returned when Mary came back? Mary continues still, not turning back and prompting an angel to call her Woman, exerting power by the name used, and the angel calls into question her very weeping, as if accentuating here emotions, perhaps her gender, and her reason for being there.
There the story takes a quick turn itself. She expresses her fear that the authorities have taken, have spirited, the body away. The body is important to Mary. Blessing the body is important. And then she turns again, as if toward a presence just around the turn of a corner, just out of sight, and sees someone she doesn’t recognize. Should she? Is her emotion blinding her? Is it another example of her not being a true disciple as much as the male disciples or else she would have recognized Jesus right away? Has her old default mode of believing dead is dead, that the Empire always wins, blinded her instead? In the presence of two angels, which biblical witness says is often a scary fearful thing, and in the presence of someone she doesn’t know, right away at least, and who calls her also by the dismissive title of “Woman” and questions her state, why she weeps, all of this in the realm of the dead and buried, still Mary does not turn and flee mute and terrified, even if awestruck here, as in Mark.
And as if her standing her ground is standing on holy ground, she is rewarded by the pivotal question, the question that turns all of our Easters upside down for us: Who is it she is looking for? Who are we looking for on this day and in this season, this year, this day? Mary, still not recognizing Jesus, answers back, that powerful act of speaking from her heart and truth to the power of those in her midst, turning his question back on him: Mister, she says directly to the nameless man she thinks may hold the keys to her despair, if it is you who has done this, undo it, return the body to me, so I may care for it. So I may do what needs to be done. So I may act in an “as if” world, as if the community of love and support and traditions still exists even despite the crucifixion, anointing the body of Jesus as Jesus anointed and blessed so many bodies in pain himself.
And then Jesus symbolically turns on the light, revealing himself in response to her attention, her faithfulness to love, even justice in caring for the shamed body of an executed criminal. Jesus does this by calling her by her name, that powerful act of relationship, breaking through the boundaries of the system of power and the honor/shame mode, becoming present in the vulnerability of the mutual relationship. That is all it took for Jesus to be revealed, saying her own true name. And she turns toward him. And she names him Rabbi. What had been, which had been taken, has now been restored.
Then the story turns again: She has gone to him and has taken hold of him, for Jesus says “Don’t cling to me.” Peterson and more liberal biblical scholars agree that this is a more accurate phrase than the “Don’t touch me” phrase. It definitely implies there is something there to hold onto, yet as Jesus goes on to explain, his new body is in transition; he is the old body and he is the new body. Don’t cling to the old body. Don’t cling to what was. Let him go to God, as he tells Mary to turn one more final time and go tell the other disciples that he is going on, returning to God. And so she does, telling, teaching them what her Teacher has just taught her.
The Take Away: There is much of what has been thought of as “the feminine” in this story foundational to Christianity, even if much of John overtly may try to sideline Mary’s role and lift up male disciples. Vulnerability, persistence, intimacy, bodily caring; elements present in Jesus as well, though here as in other parts of the gospel of John particularly Jesus himself is revealing of himself through encounters with strong women (such as his mother at the wedding of Cana). Even deeper though this resurrection story seems to signal to us that it isn’t just what we know about Jesus, what we have experienced of Jesus in the past, what we think we can recognize as his shape and his voice, or argue about, but that we shouldn’t cling to all that precisely because Jesus is becoming something new for us, something we will only perhaps be able to understand and appreciate in community, in teaching one another and sharing our experiences of empty tomb moments.
It is as if Jesus is saying if you want to be in my presence from now on, go cling to one another, and cling to those I brought close to me. It might not even be your own personal encounter with me that I am now desiring; it is your becoming me in community with others.
That is what I call the Christ of faith, the shape of the historical Jesus becoming and unfolding in new ways, becoming clear and powerful, giving that power away to others, all in the midst of others. Especially on Easter do we celebrate the truth of this transformation, especially in the places and through the people who are like tombs where we witness the stones being rolled away and the shame give way to Love and we hear our own name called, and turn toward it to be restored and to go restore others. Especially right here, right now, with you.