What Does Jesus Mean When He Says, “I Am Ascending”?

Even as Easter moves swiftly on, it is valuable to ponder some of the puzzling aspects of the resurrection. In this, St. Thomas Aquinas remains our teacher, along with the Fathers of the Church whom he references.

Let’s explore the enigmatic statement of our Lord Jesus to Mary Magdalene:

Do not cling to me, for 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).

There is much to ponder and distinguish here.

First, we should set aside certain previous translations (e.g., the King James and the Douay-Rheims), which rendered “Do not cling to me” as “Do not touch me.” The Greek text has subtleties that were missed in these early English translations. “Do not touch me” sounds almost rude. The Greek expression Μή μου ἅπτου (Me mou haptou) is best rendered, “Do not go on clinging to me” because haptou is a verb in the middle voice.

The middle voice is one that English lacks. It is midway between the active and passive voices and indicates that the subject of the verb (in this case, Mary) both acts and is acted upon. Mary lays hold of the Lord, but needs to do so in light of the fact that something is different. Something deeper is being shown to her and she is missing that. Mary actively sees as alive the Jesus she has known, but passively needs to receive something new about Him. This is the middle voice, with elements of the active and the passive.

Further as Strong’s Greek dictionary sets forth, ἅπτω (haptou) means, “to fasten to,” “to adhere to,” or “to cling to.” The translation “Do not touch me” misses a subtle difference. What the Lord asks of Mary is that she not merely cling to what is familiar, but step back and see what is new. He is no longer a mere rabbi or teacher. He is not merely the Jesus she knew; He is Lord and He is risen.

Second, we must ponder what Jesus means when He says that He is ascending. St. Thomas Aquinas teaches that these words can be understood in two ways.

As Augustine says (Tract. cxxi super Joan.), “these words of our Lord, ‘Do not touch Me, for I am not yet ascended to My Father,’” show “that in that woman there is a figure of the Church of the Gentiles, which did not believe in Christ until He was ascended to the Father. …” (Summa Theologiae III, Q. 55, Art. 6, Reply to Obj. 3)

This seems weak to me because although Scripture does speak to later ages, it also speaks to those who experienced it contemporaneously. Thus, to say that it refers to the Church of the Gentiles should not be understood exclusively, for it also must have spoken to Mary and the non-Gentiles of the time. St. Augustine is and was far holier than I, so if there is doubt, listen to him, not me, but I don’t believe that we should reduce the Lord’s meaning only to this.

[Augustine says] “… Jesus would have us to believe in Him, i.e. to touch Him spiritually, as being Himself one with the Father. For to that man’s innermost perceptions He is, in some sort, ascended unto the Father, who has become so far proficient in Him, as to recognize in Him the equal with the Father … whereas she as yet believed in Him but carnally, since she wept for Him as for a man.” Or as Chrysostom says (Hom. lxxxvi in Joan.): “This woman wanted to converse with Christ just as before the Passion, and out of joy was thinking of nothing great, although Christ’s flesh had become much nobler by rising again.” And therefore He said: “I have not yet ascended to My Father”; as if to say: “Do not suppose I am leading an earthly life; for if you see Me upon earth, it is because I have not yet ascended to My Father, but I am going to ascend shortly.” Hence He goes on to say: “I ascend to My Father, and to your Father” (Ibid).

In other words, Jesus’ ascent in Mary (and in every other follower) must take place. He is far more than a man resuming mortal nature. He is more; He is Lord. We must come to see Him as Lord and God. In this way, He must ascend in our sight. We must see Him at a higher level and in a higher way. He is no mere sage or rabbi; He is Lord and God! He must ascend in this way, in our understanding.

In recent years, Mary had rightly reverenced Jesus as teacher and rabbi, but Jesus the Lord is doing more now than merely leading an earthly life and fitting into earthly categories.

In effect, Jesus is saying to Mary, “Don’t go on clinging to what in Me is familiar to you. Step back, take a good look, and then go tell my brothers what you see.”

When Mary Magdalene did this, she ran to the apostles and said, “I have seen the LORD (emphasis mine)” (Jn 20:18). I presented “LORD” in uppercase here because up until this point, Mary had used the word “Lord” as a title of human respect. She had said, “They have taken my Lord and I don’t know where they have put him.” Of course, regarding the divine LORD, you don’t take Him and put Him anywhere. He is LORD and He does as He pleases. Now, no longer clinging to him in merely a familiar way, Mary says, “I have seen the LORD (emphasis mine),” meaning it in a plenary and divine sense.

For Mary, the Lord is ascending. She is seeing Him in a higher way. The Lord has ascended for Mary Magdalene. How about for you?

Finally, what of the Lord’s expression that He was ascending to “My Father and your Father, to My God and your God”?

In English, we can use the word “and” in either an equivalent or a comparative sense. I could say to someone, “You are my brother and my friend.” This uses the “and of equivalence” because it indicates that you are both a brother and a friend to me in the same, or in an equivalent way.

Other uses of the word “and” indicate a more comparative sense. When we say that Jesus is “Son of God and Son of Mary,” we mean that He is the Son of His Father in a different way than He is Son of Mary. He is Son of both, but in very different ways. In the liturgy, when the priest says, “Pray, brethren, that my sacrifice and yours may be acceptable to God the almighty Father,” he indicates that while both his sacrifice and the sacrifice of the people are both sacrifices, they are sacrifices in different ways. The priest acts in persona Christi capitis (in the person of Christ the head), while the faithful act as members of the body. Both are rightly called sacrifices, but they are so in different ways.

Thus, when Jesus says that He is ascending to “My Father and your Father,” He does not use the “and of equivalence” but the “and of comparison.” As a man, Jesus can speak of God as His Father, but His human nature is hypostatically united to His divine nature as God, the Second Person of the Trinity. So, although God is our Father and also Christ’s Father, He is Christ’s Father in a far richer and more profound way.

He says to them, “My God and your God,” not by way of equivalence, but by way of comparison.

In all these ways, the Lord Jesus must ascend in our understanding. He will do so, as long as we do not go on clinging to Him in a merely human and familiar way.

Let the Lord ascend in your life.

2 Replies to “What Does Jesus Mean When He Says, “I Am Ascending”?”

  1. This is a wonderful topic. My understanding of this is similar to the Chrysostom’s and Msgr. Pope’s, I think. The Lord’s words imply that we are to cling to Him after He ascends.

    When He walked the earth, He had to convince the people that He is truly God. After, He ascends, we need to remember that He is truly man. Thus, after He ascended the Church needs to cling to the memory of His time on earth, especially His Sacrifice for us, which is done in the Mass in a way that surpasses human memory. That is my understanding of the clinging that is to be done now.

    Or something to that effect.

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