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Thursday, April 16, 2009

"Touch me not" (John 20: 17). Why did Jesus say that?

Μη μου άπτου

Noli me tangere

Touch me not

11 But Mary stood at the sepulchre without, weeping. Now as she was weeping, she stooped down, and looked into the sepulchre, 12 And she saw two angels in white, sitting, one at the head, and one at the feet, where the body of Jesus had been laid. 13 They say to her: Woman, why weepest thou? She saith to them: Because they have taken away my Lord; and I know not where they have laid him. 14 When she had thus said, she turned herself back, and saw Jesus standing; and she knew not that it was Jesus. 15 Jesus saith to her: Woman, why weepest thou? whom seekest thou? She, thinking it was the gardener, saith to him: Sir, if thou hast taken him hence, tell me where thou hast laid him, and I will take him away. 16 Jesus saith to her: Mary. She turning, saith to him: Rabboni (which is to say, Master). 17 Jesus saith to her: Do not touch me, for I am not yet ascended to my Father. But go to my brethren, and say to them: I ascend to my Father and to your Father, to my God and your God. 18 Mary Magdalen cometh, and telleth the disciples: I have seen the Lord, and these things he said to me.

It is a wonderfully strange scene on the morning of Jesus' resurrection: As sovereign Lord, Jesus keeps Mary Magdalen - out of whom he had cast seven devils - from recognizing him. Thinking him to be the gardener, she tearfully asks where he has taken the body of Jesus. Then the Lord reveals himself by speaking her name in a familiar manner, and at the same time allowing her to recognize him. Naturally, she is overjoyed and embraces him. Then he utters those memorable but puzzling words: Touch me not.

The puzzling part to those who read the narrative in English is, why did he command the Magdalen not to touch him, while a week later he commanded Thomas to do so? Compare the accounts:

26 And after eight days again his disciples were within, and Thomas with them. Jesus cometh, the doors being shut, and stood in the midst, and said: Peace be to you. 27 Then he saith to Thomas: Put in thy finger hither, and see my hands; and bring hither thy hand, and put it into my side; and be not faithless, but believing. 28 Thomas answered, and said to him: My Lord, and my God. 29 Jesus saith to him: Because thou hast seen me, Thomas, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and have believed.

The resolution of this seeming discrepancy is very simple when we look at the shades of meaning in the Greek phrase: Μη μου άπτου. Apto means to touch, but also means to embrace and cling to another. It is used in this latter sense in 2 Corinthians 6: 17: 17 Wherefore, Go out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing: 18 And I will receive you; and I will be a Father to you; and you shall be my sons and daughters, saith the Lord Almighty. Saint Paul is exhorting us not to embrace or cling to anything in this present world that defiles our soul.

With this in mind it is easy to see what Jesus meant by his words to Mary Magdalen: Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended, etc. As if he would say: We are now reunited in life by my resurrection, but do not attempt to cling to me even in this glorified condition, for I will not be remaining here with you but will soon ascend to my Father. And the great grace I give you, Mary, is to announce these glad tidings to my disciples, who will proclaim it to the world: "I ascend to my Father and your Father; to my God and your God."

On the other hand, with Thomas he invites touch in the sense of tactile investigation of his wounds in order to give infallible proof that he was not merely an apparition, but the same Jesus who had died on the cross now resurrected in a glorious manner. It was fitting to Thomas' office as an apostle, a witness of Jesus risen from the dead. And Thomas' response is that of every true disciple through the ages: "My Lord and my God!"

Most interestingly, these very words of the Apostle Thomas have been incorporated into the Holy Liturgy of the Universal Church, at the very moment when the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus have been made present and we are about to have them touch our lips. In the Latin Rite, after the major elevation, the faithful are instructed to say privately the confession of Saint Thomas as their own response to seeing the Eucharistic Gifts: "My Lord and my God." In the Byzantine Rite we see the priest raise the Holy Discos and Chalice with arms crossed, proclaiming "We offer You Yours of Your own, in behalf of all and for all." And we respond, "We praise You, we bless You, we thank You O Lord, and we pray to You, our God." More poetic, indeed, but still the same adoring confession of the deity of Jesus, risen and ascended, who is in our midst in the Holy Eucharist.

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