When the Lord was resurrected, He was met by Mary Magdalene, who at first mistaken Him for a gardener (see John 20:17). When she recognized Him, the Lord commanded her not to touch Him, for He “ had not yet ascended to the Father ”. What is the meaning of this prohibition? Why did He forbid Mary Magdalene to touch Him, and at the same time we read (Matt. 28: 9) that she and the other Mary, having seen the resurrected Jesus, “came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshipped him ”? Also, the Lord commanded the Apostle Thomas to reach out his hand and put it in His side (see John 20:27), suggesting the other apostles to touch and examine His hands and feet (see Luke 24:39). What is the meaning of the prohibition given to Mary Magdalene, reported only by John the evangelist?
According to one interpretation, the Lord prevented Mary from touching Him, since she had not yet come to proper judgement about Him, perceiving the Messiah in an “earthly” way, as did many of the Apostles before the Holy Spirit enlightened them at Pentecost. Magdalene mourned her Teacher and, coming to the tomb and seeing the stone rolled away from the sepulcher, she did not find the Body of Christ there. The Lord appeared to her, but her spiritual eyes were closed, and she did not recognize Jesus. However, when Jesus called her by name, her heart was touched, and she recognized the Risen Lord. Apparently, she was filled with joy and wanted to embrace Christ, and perhaps she did (we do not know exactly how St John saw it). In response, Christ says the famous words: “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” (John 20:17).
St Augustine, St Gregory of Nyssa, Blessed Hieronymus of Stridon, Venerable Maximus the Confessor and other saints agree that Mary has not yet professed Jesus as equal to the Father, and is distanced by Christ due to her false understanding. St Gregory the Great writes that “In our hearts, Jesus ascends to the Father when he is recognized as equal to the Father. For the Lord does not yet ascend to the Father in the hearts of those who do not believe that He is equal to the Father. Therefore, Jesus can only be touched by those who believe that He is coeternal with the Father” (Talk 25). As we can see, by “ascending to the Father” the Pope means not the Ascension of Christ, but a specific spiritual state of a believer who can mystically touch Christ if he confesses Him equal to the Father.
This interpretation was also rooted in worship: “Not in vain were the tears of Mary warmly shed. Behold, she was deemed worthy of having angelic teachers and of laying eyes on You, O Jesus. But still her thinking was mundane as a weak woman that she was. And therefore she was sent away and not allowed to touch You, O Christ.” (8th Gospel stichera of the Octoechos).
And yet, speaking on the concordance of the Gospels, the Fathers disagree on the question why John says that the Lord forbade Mary to touch Him, while Matthew writes that Mary touched the feet of Jesus without causing any prohibitions. St Hieronymus suggests that at first Mary was rejected due to inappropriate disposition of her soul, but soon went “from error to confession” and received the permission (Letter to Marcella). St John Chrysostom (“On the Myrrh-Bearing Women”) says that first Magdalene touched Christ (while accompanied by the other Mary) but later she was individually rejected, because her faith in the Resurrection was shaken. However, researchers believe that this opinion belongs to the “spuria” category (of dubious authorship).
Change in the Body of Christ
An equally common interpretation is the transformed and heavenly state of Christ after the Resurrection. Venerable Ephraim the Syrian in the Four Gospels asserts that “His body was already clothed with honor and glory, showing that all people were given authority over His body only while He was a slave, allowing tax collectors and sinners to come close to him”. The glorification of Jesus, was making a start of a new kind of communion with Christ, the communion in “love and fear”, when people were no longer allowed to freely touch His body (an allusion to the deacon’s words “With fear of God, faith and love draw nigh”. Greek Service Book) St Ephraim writes that Mary Magdalene has not yet received the Holy Spirit, and therefore cannot yet partake of the Eucharist, i.e., of Christ Himself. The Holy Spirit will descend when the Son ascends to the Father, which explains the words of Christ “ have not yet ascended to the Father”.
In a similar vein, St Cyril of Alexandria, claims that the Lord ate and drank with tax collectors and sinners, “giving free access to those who wanted to touch His Holy Flesh,” in order to sanctify and bring everyone to the knowledge of the truth. After the Cross and Resurrection, having deified His flesh, Jesus completes the economy of salvation and “does not easily allow all those who come to touch His most holy flesh, thus giving an example to the holy churches and His sacrament” of the Eucharist, which can only be partaken of by those who have been cleansed in Baptism (Commentary on the Gospel of John 12, 1). The saint says that even those who believe in the Divinity of Christ, but are not enlightened by the Spirit, are not given the Eucharist. This is why the priest proclaims “The Holy Gifts, for the Holy people of God”, signifying that those who have received the Spirit of God can “touch our Savior Jesus Christ”.
These are the main interpretations of the Holy Tradition related this Gospel episode. They speak of both the flawed Mary’s faith and the proper reverence for the incorruptible Body of the Savior, touching which “may do harm” (St Maximus the Confessor) to a soul which is disposed “unspiritually”.