By Michael Savard
It did puzzle me, those words of our Lord, and I suppose I did hop over them, as though it were a puddle you’d avoid on the street, while meditating on the Glorious Mysteries of the Holy Rosary. So, I kind of made an unspoken pact between the parties involved -- our Lord, Mary Magdalene, the Holy Spirit, the Church Fathers, myself -- that, you know, we’d get along well enough as long as nobody brought it up to my face again. Sooner or later, some clarity would sink in, I’d profit by those decades, the puddle would dry up, I’d skip and not slosh through, we’d figure it out.
I forgot the issue until I attended one, and then another, and then another Pure in Heart meeting. The puddle tragically appeared again, and again, and again.
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, etc (John 20: 15ff, emphasis mine).
Why, I wonder, is Mary Magdalene forbidden from holding Jesus’ glorified body in John’s Gospel? What would prevent this from happening? These words seem strange, absurd even. Saint Thomas Aquinas, in his commentary on the Gospel of Saint John, notes the difficulty. First, because in the Gospel of Saint Matthew, the women -- among whom is Mary Magdalene -- on coming to the tomb the Sunday after Good Friday, saw the risen Lord Jesus, “and they took hold of his feet and worshiped him” (Matthew 28:9). Secondly, the Apostle Thomas is encouraged -- commanded, even -- to put his fingers and hands not only on the risen Lord’s feet but in His wounds of love (John 20:27). Why, then, can Mary Magdalene have been prohibited from spontaneously and joyously holding the risen Lord in Saint John’s Gospel?
One answer is purity. In the beatitudes, Jesus states that the pure in heart will see God (Matthew 5:8). Jesus’ glorified body manifests Him to be God, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, the Lord to whom “all authority in Heaven and on earth has been given” (Matthew 28). If the pure in heart will see God, and Mary Magdalene sees the risen Lord Jesus, then Mary Magdalene must be pure in heart. By forbidding her to touch Him, the Lord invites her, as it were, to prove and exhibit her purity. In the same way a circus juggler can prove their mastery by juggling with eyes closed, Mary Magdalene can prove that she sees the living God without physically handling Him, and believes, quite unlike the disciples on the road to Emmaus, who need several more proofs (cf Luke 24:13ff).
In paragraph 2337 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the virtue of chastity is defined as the “inner unity of man in his bodily and spiritual being.” Chastity is further said to be attained by “purification of the heart” (CCC 2532). The connection between our glorified bodies, wherein our bodily and spiritual beings will be perfectly united, and the virtue of purity, whose final goal is the unity of body and spirit, is perhaps never more apparent than in Mary Magdalene’s encounter with the risen Lord. “Do not hold me,” says the Lord Jesus, as though He were saying, “Do not only cling to what is visible and to what is apparent to your senses. Grasp, rather, your final purpose, your final hope, your final end, the entire destination of your existence, which my resurrection now manifests.”
I suspect that our Lord’s words to Mary Magdalene do not condemn carnal affection. That, neither do they condemn Mary Magdalene’s grief, or relief. Nor, that our Lord desired to treat her unjustly in distinction to his Apostle Thomas. What I hear in our Lord’s words is an invitation. An invitation to love in a supernatural way and to hope for -- that is, to “hold” -- a supernatural consolation.
What we can take back to prayer is a great gratitude for the mysteries of our faith, which are assuredly inexhaustible, and a solemn commitment to attaining the virtue of purity here and now, bearing in mind the eternal reward such a virtue will undoubtedly bestow. Purity’s entire purpose is to unite the physical and the spiritual dimensions of our being and, consequently, to unite our being to God. The Resurrection and Ascension of our Lord accomplish precisely these two things. Let us, then, endeavor more zealously to acquire this virtue, without which no one will see God. Mary Magdalene, pray for us!