What Does Jesus Mean When He Tells Mary Magdalene Not to Cling to Him Because He Has Not Yet Ascended?

As the Easter Octave unfolds, we have in the Gospel this 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 that rendered “Do not cling to me” as “Do not touch me.”

The latter 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 because something is different. Something deeper is being shown to her and she is missing that. Mary actively sees Jesus but passively needs to receive something new about Him. This is the middle voice, containing elements of both 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.” What the Lord asks of Mary is that she not merely cling to what is familiar but step back and see what is new. Jesus 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 summarizes St. Augustine and St. John Chrysostom on the meaning of the Lord’s ascending:

[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” (Summa Theologiae III, Q. 55, Art. 6, Reply to Obj. 3).

In other words, Jesus’ ascent must take place in Mary (and in every other follower). 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. 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 Jesus’ public ministry, 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 has done this, she runs to the apostles and says, “I have seen the LORD” (Jn 20:18). I show the word “LORD” in uppercase in this quote because up until this point, Mary used the word “Lord” as a title of human respect. She said, “They have taken my Lord and I don’t know where they have put Him.” Of course, one doesn’t take Him and put Him anywhere! He is LORD, and He does as He pleases. No longer clinging to Him in merely a familiar way, Mary now says, “I have seen the LORD,” 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. Has He ascended for you?

Finally, what of the Lord’s expression that He is 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 the 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 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 Christ’s Father, He is Christ’s Father in a far richer and more profound way.

Jesus says, “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 that provided we do not go on clinging to Him in a merely human and familiar way.

Let the Lord ascend in your life.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: What Does Jesus Mean?

Fearful Yet Overjoyed – The Journey to Resurrection Faith

The Gospels of the Easter Octave describe not just an event but even more so a journey. It is tempting to think that the disciples and apostles, having seen the risen Lord, were immediately confirmed in their faith, stripped of all doubt.

That is not the case, however. Nearly all the resurrection accounts make it clear that although seeing the risen Lord was “mind-blowing,” it was only a beginning. As it is with any human experience, no matter how intense, encountering the risen Lord was something that the disciples needed to process. They needed to come to live its implications in stages.

This description of a journey, of a coming to resurrection faith in stages, is presented in the resurrection accounts. We notice that the first awareness occurred “when it was still dark” and “at the rising of the sun.” It does not suddenly become fully light at dawn, however. Rather, the light manifests itself and increases over time; so it is with awareness of the resurrection. It begins to “dawn” on the disciples that He is Risen, truly; He has appeared to Simon.

The first reports are sketchy and there is a lot of running around: Mary Magdalene to Peter and John, Peter and John to the tomb, the women to the rest of the apostles. Yes, there is an awful lot of running about! It is still dark, and the cobwebs of recent sleep aren’t completely gone; the light is just dawning, not yet at full strength.

The disciples wonder what it all means and how it has changed/will change their lives. The answers to questions like these will require a journey; they are not to be answered in a mere moment.

In Matthew’s Gospel there is a beautiful line that describes the experience well:

Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went away quickly from the tomb, fearful yet overjoyed (Matt 28:8).

Yes, such a beautiful description: fearful yet overjoyed (φόβου καὶ χαρᾶς μεγάλης (phobou kai charas megans, which means fearful and of great joy))!

What is one to make of all this? Yes, He is alive, but what does it mean? One’s life is changed, but how? One is filled with joy yet draws back in a kind of reverential fear at the unknown, the unexperienced.

So we see the women, encountering the risen Jesus on the road, and they are fearful yet overjoyed. Again, while we might suppose that such an appearance would “seal the deal,” it is not that simple. Consider the following occurrences in the aftermath of the resurrection appearances and notice that a journey of sorts is required to make sense of it all.

  • Mary Magdalene doesn’t even recognize Jesus at first. Her eyes must be adjusted by the faith that comes from hearing—in this case, hearing her name, Mary, spoken by Jesus.
  • Mary also has to make the journey from merely clinging to Jesus as “Rabboni” and running to others to proclaim Him by saying, “I have seen The LORD.”
  • The disciples on the road to Emmaus don’t recognize Jesus at all until their eyes are opened in the breaking of the bread.
  • When the apostles first see Jesus, they draw back, thinking He is a ghost. Jesus has to reassure them and clarify things for them.
  • Simon Peter, even after seeing the Lord several times, falls away from his mission and announces to the others that he is going back to fishing. The Lord has to stand on the shore and call him anew from his commercial nets to the sacred shepherding of the Petrine ministry.
  • Even after witnessing forty days of appearances by Jesus and having been summoned to the mountain of the ascension, some still doubt.
  • After the ascension, the day of Pentecost still finds the apostles and disciples huddled together behind closed doors. It is only after the coming of the Holy Spirit that they are really empowered to go forth.

Yes, there is more to experiencing the resurrection than merely seeing it. Faith comes by hearing and deepens by experience. They have to make a journey to resurrection life and so must we.

Even for us who were born in the teaching of the resurrection, the truer and deeper meaning of it all is not something that can be learned simply by the reading the Catechism; it must be grasped through a journey.

As a priest and disciple, I have both observed and experienced that Good Friday is powerful and moving for many people. Most of us know the cross; we have experienced its blows and its presence is quite real and plain to us. On Good Friday there are often tears shed during the Stations of the Cross, the Trae Horae, and the evening service of the Lord’s Passion.

Come Easter Sunday, though, the experience seems less certain. People are joyful yet somewhat unsure of why or how. The joy of Easter seems more remote than the brooding presence of Good Friday or the gloomy silence of Holy Saturday. Although those days are unpleasant, they are familiar—Easter Sunday is different. What does it mean to rise from the dead? What are we to do in response? During Lent we fasted and undertook practices designed to focus us. Easter is more open and vacuous: Joy! Alleluia! Now what?

It remains for us to lay hold of this new life that the Lord is offering. It is not enough to think of or see the resurrection as an event of the distant past. It is that, but it is so much more. It is new life for us. We rise with Christ.

How and what does this mean? That is discovered through the journey. It is the deeper and more personal experience of the historical event that the Lord accomplished for us. He has raised us to new life.

In my own journey I have had to move from the event itself to a deeper, more personal, truer experience of that event. I have come to experience the new life that Jesus died and rose to give me. I have seen sins put death and new graces come alive. I am more chaste, generous, joyful, hopeful, serene, and zealous. My mind is clearer; it is new. My priorities are in better order and I have clearer vision. My heart is more spacious. I have learned more deeply of God’s love and mercy for me and can thus show it more easily to others.

So, Easter is an event, but it is also a journey. The faint light of early dawn gives way in stages to ever-brighter awareness as we lay hold of the new life that Christ died and rose to give us. There is a beautiful line in the King James translation of the Bible that captures Simon Peter’s journey, which at that time was only just beginning:

Then arose Peter, and ran unto the sepulcher; and stooping down, he beheld the linen clothes laid by themselves, and departed, wondering in himself at that which was come to pass (Luke 24:12).

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard:  Fearful Yet Overjoyed – The Journey to Resurrection Faith

Why Didn’t Christ Stay with His Disciples Continuously from the Resurrection to His Ascension?

After Christ rose from the dead, He appeared to His disciples at certain places and times, but did not seem to stay with them continuously. On the first Easter Sunday, He appeared six times in rather rapid succession: first to Mary Magdalene, then to the women at the tomb, third as the women left the tomb, fourth to Peter, fifth to the two disciples going to Emmaus, and sixth to the ten Apostles in Jerusalem (when Thomas was not present).

In His public ministry, Jesus seemed to be with His disciples nearly all the time. However, after His Resurrection he would appear, converse, and teach, but then be absent from them bodily. For example, John 20:26 says that “after eight days” Christ appeared to the disciples, suggesting that He was not otherwise present to them during that period.

While it is true that we do not have an exact calendar of His appearances and not every appearance is necessary recorded, it seems apparent that the Lord was not constantly with the disciples during the forty days prior to His ascension.

Why is this?

St. Thomas Aquinas reflected on this question and offers two basic reasons. In so doing he does not propose an absolute explanation, but rather demonstrates why it was fitting that Christ was not with them continuously during the forty days prior to the ascension. St. Thomas writes,

Concerning the Resurrection two things had to be manifested to the disciples, namely, the truth of the Resurrection, and the glory of Him who rose.

Now in order to manifest the truth of the Resurrection, it sufficed for Him to appear several times before them, to speak familiarly to them, to eat and drink, and let them touch Him. But in order to manifest the glory of the risen Christ, He was not desirous of living with them constantly as He had done before, lest it might seem that He rose unto the same life as before … [For as Bede says] “He had then risen in the same flesh, but was not in the same state of mortality as they.”

That Christ did not stay continually with the disciples was not because He deemed it more expedient to be elsewhere: but because He judged it to be more suitable for the apostles’ instruction that He should not abide continually with them, for the reason given above.

He appeared oftener on the first day, because the disciples were to be admonished by many proofs to accept the faith in His Resurrection from the very out set: but after they had once accepted it, they had no further need of being instructed by so many apparitions (Summa Theologiae, Part III, Q. 55, Art. 3).

While St. Thomas observes that there may well be appearances that were not recorded, he is inclined to hold that there were not a lot more of them. He writes,

One reads in the Gospel that after the first day He appeared again only five times. For, as Augustine says (De Consens. Evang. iii), after the first five apparitions “He came again a sixth time when Thomas saw Him; a seventh time was by the sea of Tiberias at the capture of the fishes; the eighth was on the mountain of Galilee, according to Matthew; the ninth occasion is expressed by Mark, ‘at length when they were at table,’ because no more were they going to eat with Him upon earth; the tenth was on the very day, when no longer upon the earth, but uplifted into the cloud, He was ascending into heaven. But, as John admits, not all things were written down. And He visited them frequently before He went up to heaven,” in order to comfort them. Hence it is written (1 Corinthians 15:6-7) that “He was seen by more than five hundred brethren at once … after that He was seen by James”; of which apparitions no mention is made in the Gospels (ibid).

St. Thomas strikes a balance between the Lord’s need to instruct them and summon them to faith in the resurrection, and the need for them to grasp His risen glory. Christ did not merely resume His former life. The disciples were not to cling to their former understandings of Him as Rabbi and teacher; now they were to grasp more fully that He is Lord.

Though Thomas does not mention it here, I would add another reason for the Lord’s action of not abiding with them continuously: It was fitting for Him to do this to accustom them to the fact that they would no longer see Him as they had with their physical eyes. Once He ascended, they would see Him mystically in the Sacraments and in His Body the Church. Thus, as the Lord broke the Bread and gave it them in Emmaus, they recognized Him the Eucharist (Luke 24). Thereupon He vanished from them. It was as if to say, “You will no longer go on seeing me in the same manner. Now you will experience me mystically and in the Sacraments.”

The Fruits of Mass, as Seen in a Gospel Passage

Supper at Emmaus, Jacopo Bassano (c. 1538)
I have written before on how the Gospel Passage of the encounter of the two disciples with Jesus on the road to Emmaus is (Luke 24:13-35), from start to finish, in the full form of a Mass. It is a kind of “Mass on the move.” I detail that understanding here: Mass on the Move.

The liturgy begins with two disciples gathering as they make their way to Emmaus, just as we pilgrims gather for Mass. Jesus joins them, just as Jesus joins us in the opening procession and greeting by the celebrant. Jesus engages them in a sort of penitential rite by asking them what they were discussing on their journey and why they look so downcast. After hearing their complaints, He engages them in a kind of Liturgy of the Word, as He both quotes and explains scriptures to them. The Liturgy of the Eucharist follows, as Jesus take the bread, blesses it, breaks it, and gives it to them. It is then that they recognize Him, that the Bread He gives them is His very self. In a kind of Ite missa est (rite of dismissal) they go forth joyfully to share what they have seen and heard. Yes, the basic structure of the Mass is there.

Beyond the structural elements, the Emmaus Gospel also sets forth some of the expected fruits of Holy Mass. Let’s consider some of them.

I. Course Correction (conversion) – As the story begins the two disciples are traveling in precisely the wrong direction. Christ rises in the East, in Jerusalem, but they are headed West, away from Jerusalem, away from the Lord and His Body the Church, which is gathered and already announcing the truth of the resurrection. It’s never a good thing to have your back toward the heavenly Jerusalem or the Church, which is Heaven’s outpost and doorway. The effect of the “Mass on the move” will be to have them turn and “re-turn” toward Jerusalem and toward the Church gathered in the growing light of the resurrection. They return that very evening.

For us, too, the goal of the liturgy is our ongoing conversion, our increasing turning to the East, to the light, to the resurrection, and to the Body of Christ gathered—the Church.

II. Fuller Fellowship (koinonia) – Whatever their struggles, at least the disciples on the road to Emmaus are not alone; they are together and pondering the events of the Lord’s paschal mystery. Jesus said, Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them (Mat 18:20).

This is an important antidote to the tendency of many (especially among the Protestants) to reduce the faith to a “Jesus and me” experience. Many speak of Jesus as their “personal Lord and Savior.” He is surely that, but this description can easily miss the communal aspect of the faith: that Jesus is Shepherd of the flock. The Lord has a Body, the Church, with many members.

By insisting that we gather, at a minimum each Sunday at Mass, the Lord and the Church dictate that we not walk alone. As we walk together, Jesus joins us and journeys with us.

This “fellowship” is about more than coffee and doughnuts. It is about a shared liturgical experience, a shared instruction in the faith and in the Sacrament of Holy Communion that unites us to the Lord and to one another. When the “Mass on the move” is complete the disciples say, “Were not our hearts burning within us as he spoke the word to us?”

They then return to Jerusalem to join the wider fellowship of the Church gathered there to share their experience and have it affirmed by others. All of this indicates a fuller fellowship, which the Lord expects of us. He expects that we maintain communion with His Body, the Church. Our celebration of Mass in our parishes should unite us to the wider Church throughout the world and across time.

III. Transformative Teaching – The two disciples go from being downcast to having their hearts set on fire. They go from blindness to seeing, from confusion and doubt to clarity and deeper faith. The Lord accomplishes this for us in the Mass by Word and Sacrament.

Consider, first, the Liturgy of the Word. After hearing their concerns and fears, Jesus applies His word, quoting Scripture extensively and explaining it. This sets their hearts on fire and brings clear light to their minds. So, too, for us if we faithfully attend to the Liturgy of the Word. We may come with many doubts, fears, questions, and concerns, but a lifelong formation in the Word of God through the Liturgy of the Word sets our hearts ablaze and clears our minds, which are darkened by sin and worldliness.

The Word of God is a prophetic declaration of reality. It says to us, “Regardless of what you think is going on, this is what is really happening.” Scripture is replete with stories of victory for those who remain faithful. Its steady message is what Jesus says: In this world you shall have tribulation, but have confidence, I have overcome the world (Jn 16:33; Rev 2:10).

This is a vision for our life and a roadmap of ultimate victory if we remain faithful unto death. Formed in this word that the Messiah would suffer but rise on the third day, the disciples move from gloom to glory.

We, too, formed by a steady diet of God’s Word, will see our hearts encouraged and set ablaze, our minds instructed and brought to the light.

IV. Deepening Disclosure – The text says that the disciples’ eyes were opened, and they recognized the Lord in the breaking of the bread. Even as the Liturgy of the Word accustoms us to the Lord’s voice and His wisdom, the Eucharist accustoms us to recognize Him, not only in the Eucharistic elements but in our lives and throughout our day. Through our coming to know Him in Word and Sacrament, we grow spiritually and are able to remain in living, conscious contact with Him throughout every day. We learn of Him in the liturgy and thereby recognize Him active in creation—in the events of our lives and in the people we encounter.

V. Promised Presence – As soon as they recognize the Lord Jesus in the Breaking of the Bread, He vanishes before their eyes. Here, the Lord teaches them that they will not see Him in the earthly way; now they will see Him in the Sacraments and encounter Him in the liturgy.

This teaching is important for us, too. Some seek visions or invocations; others go to mountaintops or deserts to find Jesus. Good though such settings are for quiet prayer, the Lord is not so far away. He need not be sought in visions and invocations. He is as near as the closest tabernacle, as the nearest liturgy.

In Holy Mass or any other liturgy, the Lord speaks to us and ministers to us. He is present in those who gather, in the Word proclaimed, in the priest who celebrates, and above all in the Eucharistic elements. The gift of the Liturgy is Christ Himself.

VI. Exuberant Evangelization – The disciples are then filled with joy and zeal to share what they have seen, heard, and experienced. When one is joyful, one doesn’t need to be told how to share the good news; it comes naturally. When we hear good news we instinctively want to tell others.

These disciples cannot wait to rejoin the others to proclaim what and whom they have seen and experienced. If we are open to experience the Lord, we too will exuberantly go forth to tell others.

When the priest or deacon says, “The Mass is ended. Go in peace,” He is not simply saying, “Go home now and have nice day!” He is saying, “Go tell people what you have seen and heard. Tell them that you encountered the Lord. Tell them what the Lord said and how He fed you. Tell them what He has done for you!” Even if every Mass does not have this effect on you, can’t you at least tell people what a difference going to Mass has made in your life?

How is it possible to encounter the Lord and not come away with joy and a zeal to tell others? Yet many do just that. Moribund and perfunctory celebrations of the Liturgy do not help, of course. A little fiery preaching and the devout celebration of the Eucharist help. All of us need to be more aware what the Mass is; we must go with high expectations of meeting the Lord!

These, then, are some fruits of the liturgy set forth by today’s Gospel about the disciples on the road to Emmaus.

The video below does a good job of imagining some of the Scriptures that the Lord broke open for them. (The Eucharistic dimension is less well developed.)

The Journey of Mary Magdalene to Resurrection Faith

All of the resurrection stories depict the Apostles and other disciples on a journey of sorts to understand the resurrection. A completely new reality was breaking into their world and challenging their understanding. Far from depicting the disciples as credulous, the texts describe them as shocked, troubled, and even quite dubious. These were not men and women prone to naiveté or to concocting stories to assuage their grief. They are quite stunned by a new reality and struggling to get their minds around something they do not fully understand.

A beautiful example of a journey to resurrection faith is that of Mary Magdalene, who begins her journey on resurrection with the intention of finalizing burial rituals for the corpse of Jesus, and ends by acknowledging that she has seen “the Lord.” Let’s examine her journey as described in the Gospel of John, and see what it has to teach us about our own journey.

By way of background, recall that Mary had gone to the tomb very early, “when it was still dark,” and found the stone rolled back and the tomb empty. She ran and got Peter and John, who then investigated. Although John believed, there was no conclusion announced after their investigation. Peter and John leave and Mary Magdalene is left at the tomb by herself, at least temporarily (for we know from other Gospels that other women were near at hand). Here is where the text picks up:

Then the disciples went back to their homes. But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb, and as she wept she stooped to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had lain, one at the head and one at the feet. They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “Because they have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” Saying this, she turned round and saw Jesus standing, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom do you seek?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabboni!” (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, “Do not hold me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brethren and say to them, I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” Mary Magdalene went and said to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her (John 20:10-18).

Mary Magdalene makes a journey in this passage from fear to faith. Let’s prayerfully examine her journey of faith.

I. Her Fearful Fretting Mary Magdalene is looking for a corpse. She’d come out to the tomb that morning for one purpose: to finish the prescribed burial customs for Jesus. His body had been placed in the tomb hurriedly on Friday evening, for it was almost sundown and the Passover feast was near. Now the Passover and Sabbath were complete; it was time to anoint the body and finish all the usual customs.

On Friday, Mary had been through immense trauma, seeing her beloved Jesus, her Messiah, brutally tortured and slowly killed through crucifixion. It seemed as if things could not possibly get worse, yet they just did. It would appear, according to her, that grave robbers had broken in and stolen the body. Strangely, they had left the expensive linens behind. But never mind that, things were now a total disaster. Now it would seem that she could not even perform a final kindness for Jesus.

Because of her fearful fretting, Mary is not able to look at the information before her properly. Jesus had promised to rise from the dead, on the third day, and this was the third day. The empty tomb does not signify grave robbers; it manifests resurrection! In her fear and fretful grief, though, Mary draws only the most negative of conclusions.

This, of course, is our human condition. So many of us, on account of fear and perhaps past trauma, tend to place the most negative interpretations on the events of our daily life. We are quick to seize on bad news, and we dismiss good news too easily, or barely notice that every day most things go right. Instead, we focus on the few things that go wrong. So easily we are negative and forget that even in painful transitions, as certain doors close, others open. New possibilities often emerge even in painful circumstances.

Mary is about to encounter something astonishingly new, but for now, her grief has locked her into only the most negative of interpretations.

A. Rhetorical Question There comes to her, from the angels, a kind of rhetorical question: “Why do you weep?” A rhetorical question is really more of a statement in the form of a question. It is meant to provoke thought and to rebuke, or at least to invite reconsideration. The angels, it would seem, are inviting her to recall that this is the third day and Jesus promised to rise. Therefore, why would she weep over an empty tomb? Jesus, who had raised others from the dead, cast out blindness, calmed storms, and healed lepers, had said that He would rise on the third day. Why weep over an empty tomb? Rather, she should rejoice!

B. Rueful Response Mary will have none of it, and in her grief she does not take up the consideration offered her by the angels. She states flatly, “I’m looking for a corpse that they’ve taken away. Tell me where you put this corpse so I can continue to go to work.”

Grief does that. It takes away our capacity to see more clearly other possibilities, other interpretations. So easily we turn things into catastrophes in our mind; we assume the worst. Mary is at her lowest, locked into fearful fretting and colossal grief.

II. Her Faulty Finding The text says, she turned around and saw Jesus there, but did not know it was Jesus. Jesus speaks to her: Woman why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for? Mary thought it was the gardener and goes on speaking of Jesus as a corpse she is looking for.

Why does she not recognize Him? Has He changed his appearance? Or perhaps there were tears in her eyes and she could not see well. We cannot say, but either way, she’s looking right at Jesus but does not recognize Him.

Too often, this is our condition as well. The Lord is more present to us than we are to ourselves; He is more present than anyone or anything in this world. Yet we seem to see everyone and everything except Him. This is our spiritual blindness. We must make a journey in faith and learn to see Him. We must come to the normal Christian life, which is to be in living, conscious contact with Jesus at every moment of the day. Does the sun cease to be present simply because the blind man cannot see it? Of course not. Neither does the Lord cease to be present to us simply because we cannot see Him. We must make the journey of faith wherein our eyes are opened, the eyes of our faith to see God’s presence everywhere.

III. Her First Faith One of the paradoxes of our faith is that we learn to see by hearing. For Scripture says that faith comes by hearing (Rom 10:17), and faith is a way of knowing and seeing by way of that knowledge.

Jesus speaks and says “Mary.” With this, her faith is enlivened; her eyes are opened and she recognizes Jesus.

We, too, must allow the Lord to speak to us through His Word, so that we can learn to know Him and to see Him by faith, not by fleshly sight.

However, Mary’s faith is only a first faith, an initial faith. It needs maturing, as we shall see in the next point.

IV. Her Fuzzy Focus Having come to recognize the Lord Jesus, Mary initially wants to smother Him, to cling to Him. Her excess is not merely physical, but bespeaks a kind of clinging to the past. While it is true that the actual body of Jesus is risen and restored to her, the humanity that has been raised is a glorified humanity. There is something new that Mary must step back and behold.

A. Status quo ante – Thus Jesus says to her: Do not hold me. That is, “do not cling to me.” Mary’s gesture of embracing the Lord, and His reaction to it, suggest that something has changed that Mary has not yet fully understood. She clings to Him as He was. It’s as if to say, “Jesus, it’s you! Let’s pick up where we were before the crucifixion.” She thinks of Jesus of Nazareth alive again, but she must also now see the Lord of glory. His crucifixion has led to His glory. That is why Jesus speaks further of the fact that He is ascending to the Father.

We, too, must lay hold of a deeper understanding of Jesus as we make our journey. Or to put it in Jesus’ terms, we must let the Lord “ascend” in our own estimation. Scripture says elsewhere,

From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once regarded Christ from a human point of view, we regard him thus no longer. Therefore, if any one is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation (2 Cor 5:16-20).

B. Summons Mary is then given a summons by Jesus: Go to my brethren. Note that this is the first time that He ever called the Apostles “brethren.” It seems that it took the passion, death, and resurrection to accomplish this. Scripture says,

  1. I will tell of thy name to my brethren; in the midst of the congregation I will praise thee: You who fear the LORD, praise him! all you sons of Jacob, glorify him, and stand in awe of him, all you sons of Israel! (Psalm 22:22-23)
  2. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the first-born among many brethren (Romans 8:29).
  3. For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through suffering. For he who sanctifies and those who are sanctified have all one origin. That is why he is not ashamed to call them brethren, saying, “I will proclaim thy name to my brethren, in the midst of the congregation I will praise thee.” And again, “I will put my trust in him.” And again, “Here am I, and the children God has given me” (Heb 2:101-3).

Mary is further told that she should say to them, I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to My God and your God.

V. Fullness of Faith In this last stage, Mary makes a significant step in her journey. She comes to a fuller faith based on this interaction with the Risen Jesus. How? When she goes to the apostles, she says, I have seen the Lord. She does not merely say, “I have seen Jesus.” She calls Him “the Lord.” It is true that the term “Lord” could simply be a term of respect like “Sir,” but there seems to be a shift in Mary’s understanding. She goes from using the term “Lord” to refer to a corpse that has been taken and put somewhere, to simply and authoritatively saying, “I have seen the Lord.” That is, “I have seen Jesus, who is Lord and God. He is risen and is ascending, and He has given me a word for you endowed with plenary authority.” This is resurrection faith: to see the glory of Jesus and understand that He is the Lord of glory and the Word who is God.

Here is true Easter faith. Not merely to see a corpse come back to life, but also to be able to see who He really is: “the Lord” (ton Kyrion). Jesus is Lord and is risen from the dead. Scripture says elsewhere,

Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Therefore, God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Phil 2:5).

Mary Magdalene has made a journey from fear to faith. She began by looking for a corpse to anoint. She ends by making the mature Easter declaration: “I have seen the Lord.” It is truly Jesus who is risen in the self-same body. But He is glorified and now shows forth fully the refulgence of His glory as the eternal Son of God and Son of Man. To come to Easter faith is not only to see Jesus of Nazareth raised from the dead, but even more so to behold that He is the Lord of Glory.

Mary has made the journey. How about you?

Why Was the Resurrection Such a Hidden Event?

easterThere is something of a hidden quality to the resurrection appearances that has always puzzled me. St. Peter gives voice to this when he says to Cornelius,

God raised Jesus from the dead on the third day and granted that he be visible, not to all people, but to us, the witnesses chosen by God in advance, who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. He commissioned us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one appointed by God as judge of the living and the dead (Acts 10:41 to 42).

Note that Jesus did not appear openly to all but rather only to some. Why is this? It is so different from what most of us would do.

If I were God (and it is very good for you that I am not), I would rise from the dead very dramatically. Perhaps I would summon people to my tomb with trumpet blasts and then emerge amid great fanfare (including a multitude of angels), inspiring awe and striking fear in the hearts of the enemies who had killed me. Or maybe I would ride down on a lightning bolt right into the temple precincts and then go up to the high priest and tell him to seek other employment. Surely to accomplish such a feat would be an event that would never be forgotten! It would draw many to faith, would it not?

And yet the Lord does none of this! Not only did He appear only to some after His resurrection, but the actual dramatic moment of the resurrection itself seems to have been witnessed by no one at all. Instead of emerging from the tomb in broad daylight to the sound of trumpets, the Lord seems to have come forth before dawn to the sound of nothing but crickets chirping. Although St. Matthew mentions a great earthquake causing the rolling back of the stone and the guards stunned into unconsciousness, it seems that Jesus had already risen from the dead before the stone was rolled back.

Such a hidden event! It was the greatest event the world has ever known, and yet it was hidden from human eyes. No, this is not our way at all; Cecil B. DeMille would not be pleased.

And then when the Lord does appear, it is only to some. Two of the appearances have often intrigued me because the details are so sparse; they are really mentioned only in passing:

One is the appearance to Peter. It would seem that the Lord appeared to Peter before appearing to the other apostles on that first resurrection evening. For when the two disciples return from Emmaus they are greeted with the acclamation, The Lord has truly been raised, he has appeared to Simon (Luke 24:34). Shortly thereafter, the Lord appears to ten of the apostles, along with some of the disciples.

Why is there so little information about this appearance to Simon Peter? We are told in great detail about a conversation between Jesus and Peter two weeks later in Galilee (John 21), but of this first appearance in Jerusalem we get only this passing reference.

In a certain sense it is a very significant appearance because it elevates the resurrection from just “some news” that the women were sharing, to the apostolic proclamation, the Lord has truly been raised. What moves it from rumor to fact? The difference is that he has appeared to Simon. Here is a kind of early and seminal act of the Petrine office and the Magisterium! But of this crucial apparition, no details are supplied.

The other appearance cloaked in obscurity is His appearance to the five hundred, which Paul relates here:

He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. After that He appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom remain until now, but some have fallen asleep (1 Cor 15:5-6).

This is an amazing appearance; it’s not to two or three, or even to a dozen, but to five hundred at once. And yet no details are supplied. Where did it happen? When? For how long? What did the Lord say? What did He do? Silence.

And then there are the resurrection appearances that never happened (but to worldly minds should have): Jesus’ appearance to His accusers and persecutors, to Caiaphas, to the Sanhedrin, to Pilate, and to all who jeered at Him as He hung on the cross. Surely they deserved a good dressing down—and they probably could’ve used it. Who knows, maybe they would have fallen to their knees and converted on the spot; maybe they would have worshiped Jesus.

Such are my thoughts on the strange and hidden quality of the resurrection. Why so hidden, why so selective an audience? Ultimately, I cannot say why; I can only venture a guess, a kind of theological hunch, if you will.

My speculation is rooted in the identity of God: God is love (1 Jn 4:16). Love is not merely something God does, nor is it just one of His many attributes. Scripture says that God is love. And it is the nature of true love (as opposed to lust) to woo the beloved, to invite rather than overwhelm, importune, force, or coerce. The lover wants to be loved, but to force the beloved to love or to overwhelm the cherished into a fearful love would mean not receiving true love in return.

It is in the nature of Satan to pressure, tempt, and overwhelm, in order to coerce us into sin. Satan is loud and loves to use fear as a motivator.

By contrast, God whispers. He calls us and gently draws us in. He supplies grace and evidence but does not overwhelm us with fearsome or noisy events. He is the still, small voice that Elijah heard after the fire and the earthquake (1 Kings 19:12). He is the One who has written His name in our hearts and whispers there quietly: Seek always the face of the Lord (1 Chron 16:11). At times He does allow our life to be shaken a bit, but even then it is more often something that He allows rather than directly causes.

God is not interested in loud, flashy entrances or in humiliating His opponents. He does not have a big ego. Even if He chose to compel the Temple leadership to worship Him by using shock and awe, it is unlikely that their faith response would be genuine. Faith that needs to see isn’t really faith; one doesn’t need faith to believe what he can plainly see with his own eyes.

Thus the Lord does rise from the dead and He does supply evidence to witnesses who had faith—at least enough faith to be rewarded. He then sends these eyewitnesses, supplies His graces, and gives us other evidence so that we can believe and love. But none of this is done in a way that overwhelms us or forces us to believe.

God is love, and love seeks a free and faithful response. The hiddenness of the resurrection is an example of tender love. There’s only so much that the human person can take. So the Lord rises quietly and appears (but only briefly) to some and then seems to withdraw—almost as if respectfully giving them time to process what they have experienced. He gives them time to deepen their faith and to come to terms with what was, for them, a completely new reality, one that would change their lives forever.

How different this is from the way we operate! So many of us think in terms of power, fame, glory, vindication, conquest, and so forth. How different God is! He is so often tender, hidden, and whispering. He doesn’t need to get “credit” for everything He does. He doesn’t need to crush His enemies. Rather, ruing the day on which their “no” might become a forever “no,” He works to win their love, always hoping for their conversion. Until then, He is always calling, willing, and giving grace. His mercies how tender, how firm to the end, our maker, defender, redeemer, and friend.

Why was the resurrection so hidden? God is love. And love woos, it does not wound. It invites, it does not incite. It calls, it does not crush. It respects, it does not rule or seek revenge. Yes, God is love.

Of her glorious Groom, the Church and Bride says,

Listen! My beloved! There he stands behind our wall, gazing through the windows, peering through the lattice … [He speaks to her and says], “Arise, my darling, my beautiful one, come with me” (Song 2:9-10).

Here’s how Cecil B. DeMille would do the Easter fire:

Jesus is Real: A Homily for Easter Sunday

At the Tomb, Peter Cornelius (1815-22)
One of the possible Gospel readings for Easter is from John (I have written about that account here.) This year I present a reflection on Matthew’s account (28:1-10) of Easter morning, which is another option for the Easter liturgy.

Nearly all of the resurrection accounts in the Gospels present the apostles and disciples on a journey to deeper faith. In stages they come out of this world and the darkness of despair into the light of faith. Matthew’s account, which is read at the Easter Vigil and can also be read at Masses during the day, is no exception.

Let’s look at the Easter journey that Mary Magdalene and Mary (likely, Mary the Mother of James and Joses) make out of darkness into light. Mark’s Gospel account adds that Salome (the wife of Zebedee and the mother of James and John) went with them. Luke’s Gospel account has Joanna (wife of Herod’s steward, Chusa) accompanying them as well. Hence, even though Matthew only mentions Mary Magdalene and Mary by name, it would seem that there were four women. As the women journey through the events of Easter morning we see their faith deepen and brighten. In a condensed sort of way, we also see the whole life of the Christian, who in stages comes to deeper faith and a brighter vision of the paschal mystery that is our life.

Let’s observe their journey in four stages.

Disturbance at Dawn

After the Sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary came to see the tomb. And behold, there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven, approached, rolled back the stone, and sat upon it. His appearance was like lightning and his clothing was white as snow. The guards were shaken with fear of him and became like dead men.

In this first stage it is still quite dark. The text here notes, with hope, that the new day was dawning. The Greek word that is translated as “dawning” more properly means “approached,” or “drew on,” without specifying the time so closely. In Mark’s account he notes that it was very early in the morning, at the rising of the sun. In other words, the sun was not already risen but about to rise. Luke notes that it was “very early in the morning” (the Greek text indicates that it was “deep twilight” or when there was scarcely any light). John’s Gospel says that it was “very early, while it was yet dark.”

The point is that it is still quite dark but dawn is near. This creates for us readers an air of great expectation. An old song by the Taizé community says, “Within our darkest night, you kindle a fire that never dies away.”

Next, there is a great earthquake. Sometimes God has to shake things up to open new doors and new vision. In our life, too, there are often violent shakings, but remember that in just a few short years we’ll be with God if we are faithful. So it is that this earthquake is not unto destruction but is unto the opening of the tomb that has claimed our Lord and unto the opening of tombs that have claimed us emotionally, spiritually, and mentally. This earthquake, frightening though it may seem, serves only to draw these women deeper into the paschal mystery and toward the risen Christ.

Note that they have yet to see Him or even hear that He is risen. For now, there is only this earthquake, but it has a purpose. Now it is barely dawn and things are still very unclear to them.

Declaration: Do Not Be Afraid

Then the angel said to the women in reply, “Do not be afraid! I know that you are seeking Jesus the crucified. He is not here, for he has been raised just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay.

Note that the angel summons them to deeper faith. He exclaims, “Do not be afraid.” To many of us this may seem like a throwaway line, one we often hear when others perceive us to be as anxious. Sometimes when others say this to us it can be both annoying and unhelpful. In this case, though, the angel presents a basis on which their faith should grow and their anxiety dissipate.

That they should not be anxious or afraid is rooted in the Lord’s promise and in His word. The angel is reminding them that the Lord promised to rise on the third day and that He has done just that. The Lord, who has raised others from death and healed multitudes, has done exactly what He promised.

Hence, the angel summons them to grow in their faith by pondering the Word of Jesus Christ and coming to trust in His promise.

The angel also presents evidence to them—the evidence of the empty tomb. He invites them to connect the dots between Jesus’ promise and the empty tomb before their eyes.

It’s getting brighter, by the power of God’s Word and its application to the present situation.

We, too, must journey through this stage as we become more deeply immersed in God’s Word and apply it to our circumstances. As we grow in knowledge and remembrance of God’s promises and His word, our anxiety begins to dissipate. This happens especially when God helps us to connect His word to what is actually happening in our life. We start to notice the empty tombs, the many signs of God’s favor and blessing. Things start to add up and we begin to connect the dots between faith and experience. As we do this it gets brighter and our faith grows stronger.

Deepening Dispatch

Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and he is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ Behold, I have told you.”

Learn by teaching – Having been instructed in the paschal mystery and grown deeper in their faith, they are sent by the Lord to inform others. An interesting side effect of teaching is that we often learn more by teaching than we learned as a student. We grow in our faith as we begin to teach and testify to it. The acts of teaching and witnessing cause us to grow.

Note that the text says, Behold, I have told you. True faith is received from God; we do not invent it. St. Paul says, “Faith comes by hearing.” Do not go out and invent your own faith; that would be a very bad idea! We receive the faith from God through the Church and the Scriptures approved by the Church. These women have first been instructed by God’s angel. Only after that are they told to go and tell others. We too are instructed by the Church. Our faith comes from what we hear, and we pass that on.

So, these women are sent. As they go they have a great breakthrough, but prior to that breakthrough, they are sent to witness, to proclaim. This very act deepens faith even more.

The Discovery that is Definitive

Then they went away quickly from the tomb, fearful yet overjoyed, and ran to announce this to his disciples. And behold, Jesus met them on their way and greeted them. They approached, embraced his feet, and did him homage. Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid. Go tell my brothers to go to Galilee, and there they will see me.”

This final stage is an important and powerful one. Unfortunately, too many Christians ignore it. In this moment they go from inference to experience. Up until this point their “knowledge” was based only on what others said, but now they know from experience. They can now personally vouch for the truth of what they proclaim. Inference is a necessary stage of our faith, but the Lord invites us deeper to more personally experience the truth of what the Church has always proclaimed and what her Scriptures have always announced.

These women heard from the angel that Jesus is risen, and they receive the teaching with joy, but on the way, on the road of their life, they come to personally meet the risen Lord Jesus Christ. Suddenly the truth of what they have been taught is made personal to them and experience it as real. They have gone from inference to experience. From now on they will tell not only what they have heard from others but also how they have personally experienced it as true.

We are invited to do the same. Each of us needs to be able to say, “In the laboratory of my life I have come to personally experience as true all that the Church and her Scriptures proclaim. I am a firsthand witness to Jesus, for I have experienced Him personally in my life. I have met Him in my prayer and in my experience. He is alive and real to me, and He is changing my life. I have done more than hear about the Lord; I have met Him. I do not merely know about Him, I know Him.”

Do you know the Lord, or do you just know about Him? Have you met Him or have you just heard about Him? On this Easter Sunday morning we have observed a group of women go from the darkness of this world to the light of the normal Christian life. What is the normal Christian life? It is being in living, conscious contact with God and personally knowing the Lord of all glory. It is being in a living and transformative relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ.

“And in the Morning Watch, the Lord … Cast a Glance” – A Meditation on the Look of the Lord

Lest the Easter Season slip away and I miss the chance, I would like to look back on a reading from the Easter Vigil.

There is indeed an astonishing verse in the Exodus account, which was read at the Easter Vigil. The Lord has parted the waters of the Red Sea by a strong eastern wind and the Israelites have just made the crossing with the Egyptians in hot pursuit.

And in the morning watch, the Lord in the pillar of fire and of cloud, cast a glance on the Egyptian forces and threw the Egyptian forces into a panic (Ex 14:24).

Just one look … that’s all it took! One can imagine many other ways that God could have despoiled them: lightning, angelic forces, etc. Instead, the Lord merely “cast a glance.”

Was it an angry glance? The text does not say. I would propose, based purely on speculation, that it was a look of love. For if God is love, then how could it have been anything else?

Why, then, the panic among the Egyptian forces? Perhaps it was like the reaction of those accustomed to the darkness, who wince in pain when beautiful light shines. Love confronts and drives out hate the way light drives out darkness. Love is what it is; it cannot be something else. To those held bound by hatred, though, love is like kryptonite. Thus the Egyptian army falls at the glance of God, panics at the weakness it experiences. Yes, love can be like kryptonite.

I propose that despite the panicked result, God’s glance was one of love. God does not change. Even when we speak of His wrath or anger, we are speaking more of our experience than of what is in God. God is love and so He looks with love. That we experience something other than love is a problem in us, not in God.

Indeed, sometimes we see the look but miss the love. In the Gospel of Mark is told the story of a rich young man who sought perfection, but somewhat on his own terms. Jesus looked at him with love and said to him, “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me” (Mk 10:21). The young man saw the look and heard the words, but missed the love. As a result, he went away saddened.

And lest we reduce God’s look of love to one of mere sentimentality, we ought to recall that God’s look of love can also convict us and move us to repentance. Peter’s denial of the Lord is recounted in all four of the Gospels. Simon Peter was in the courtyard of the high priest warming himself by the fire; he had just denied knowing the Lord for the third time when the cock crowed. The Gospel of Luke recounts, The Lord turned and looked at Peter. And Peter remembered the word of the Lord, how He had told him, “Before a rooster crows today, you will deny Me three times.” And he went out and wept bitterly (Lk 22:61-62). Here was a look of love that caused pain, but it was a healing pain that led to repentance.

For those of us with deeper faith, we learn to count on the look, the glance of God, to save us. An old hymn says, “Though billows roll, He keeps my soul. My heav’nly Father watches over me.” Another says, “His eye is on the sparrow and I know He watches me.”

Yes, the glance of God may make you feel sad, or mad, or glad; but it is the look of love, always seeking to console or to set us right and bring about healing.

I have a large icon of Christ in my room. In my opinion, what icons from the Eastern tradition do best is to capture “the look.” No matter where I move in the room, it seems that Christ is looking right at me. His look is intense, though not severe. In the Eastern spirituality, icons are windows into Heaven. Hence this icon is no mere portrait that reminds one of Christ; it is an image that mediates His presence. When I look upon Him, I experience that He knows me. He is looking at me with a knowing, comprehensive look.

The Book of Hebrews says of Jesus, No creature is concealed from him, but everything is naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must render an account (Heb 4:13). Christ’s look in the icon in my room is not fearsome; it is serene and confident.

Particularly in Mark’s Gospel, there is great emphasis on the eyes and the look of Jesus. The following expression, or one like it, appears more than 25 times in the Gospel of Mark: And looking at them He said, …

Looking on Christ and allowing Him to look on you is a powerful moment of conversion. Jesus Himself said, For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day (Jn 6:40). And in the First Letter of John we read, What we shall later be has not yet been revealed. We do know that when it is revealed we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is (1 Jn 3:2).

Keep looking to the Lord during this Easter season, through the art that most moves you and especially in the Most Blessed Sacrament. Look at Him and let Him look at you. Be not dismayed like the Egyptians of old. God is love and therefore His look is always one of love, no matter how we experience it.

The Lord is casting a glance at you right now. What do you see?

This video is a collection of clips from the movie The Passion of the Christ, set to music. It shows many of the looks of Jesus as well as some that come from us. Look for the “looks.”