I have agonized for years over why Jesus said to Mary Magdalene in the resurrection garden, “Do not hold me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father” (John 20:17). Where did Mary Magdalene go wrong?

Ironically, I understood this Easter conundrum for the first time last Christmas. While contemplating the mystery of the Incarnation and singing all the wonderful carols, I realized how much the whole story of the Incarnation, not just the royal road of the Cross, has to say about our redemption. I shall never fathom the full meaning of grace and redemption, but my insight last Christmas was that the Magdalene’s honor as the first witness to the Resurrection in John’s Gospel did not simply parallel Moses’ experience of not being able to see God’s face and live (Exod. 33:20) but went beyond it. Mary Magdalene’s experience is a witness to the transformation of eros into agape.

Why shouldn’t Mary Magdalene touch the Risen Lord, the Rabbouni whom she had served all along his journey to Jerusalem?

Patristic wisdom associated the principle of apatheia (variously mistranslated as “dispassion” or “detachment”) with the Desert Fathers’ goal of becoming “all flame.”

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Abba Lot went to see Abba Joseph and said to him: Abba, as much as I am able I practice a small rule, a little fasting, some prayer and meditation, and remain quiet and as much as possible I keep my thoughts clean. What else should I do? Then the old man stood up and stretched his hands toward heaven, and his fingers became like ten torches of flame and he said to him: If you wish, you can become all flame.[1]

We might apply the lesson of this saying in this way: The Magdalene’s natural response in recognizing the Risen Lord was to cling to him, her Savior. She did not yet fully grasp the mystery of Christ’s divinity united to his humanity, nor his approaching Ascension. His words at the Last Supper about keeping the commandments for love’s sake, the Comforter, and abiding in his love made no sense to her, if she had even heard them (John 14:15-17).

Like Mary, my natural temptation is to want to reach out, to hold, and to depend upon those wiser and more loving than I, but I have learned it is a temptation to be “safe” and “comfortable” in an earthly sense, instead of seeking the relationship Christ would give me through grace.

“All flame,” on the other hand, is what it means to be a human being fully alive: made in the image of God that Jesus Christ teaches each of us on the road following him. Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his marvelous conclusion to The Cost of Discipleship shows how following Christ to our perfect end is possible.

If we regard this way as one we follow in obedience to an external command, if we are afraid of ourselves all the time, it is indeed an impossible way. But if we behold Jesus Christ going on before step by step, if we only look to Him and follow Him, step by step, we shall not go astray. But if we worry about the dangers that beset us, if we gaze at the road instead of at Him who goes before, we are already straying from the path. For He is Himself the way, the narrow way, and the strait gate. He, and He alone, is our journey’s end. When we know that, we are able to proceed along the narrow way through the strait gate of the cross, and on to eternal life, and the very narrowness of the road will increase our certainty.[2]

And, incidentally, isn’t that the true message of God’s admonition to Moses that he could not see his face? When one follows the shepherd, of course we see only his back!

Yes, clinging was the natural response for the Magdalene, but it produces emotional cripples and is not the free “dance” that the persons of the Trinity have in their unity and that the Lord wants with the redeemed sons and daughters of his Father (John 14:20-23). It attempts to merge what ought to be distinct and free, and is the practical result of a Christological heresy, which wishes to see the divine and human natures in Christ merge into one. It does not grasp the genius of the Cappadocian resolution in the Council of Chalcedon, which

preserved the balance between the two Natures [of Christ] with its emphasis upon the Unity of the Godhead and the Manhood by declaring that Jesus Christ is one Person in two Natures without confusion, change, division, or severance, “the difference between the two Natures being in no way abolished because of the union, but rather the perfection of each being preserved, and both concurring into One Person and One Hypostasis.” [3]

Here is our entrance into eternal life. It is what St. Paul also means by being “in Christ” (Rom. 8:1; Eph. 3:17-19).

Ironically, our Western, sexually over-stimulated culture is losing the sensitivity to understand this. I began to learn it many years ago from the priest to whom I owe my awakening to a monastic calling. The wonder of perichoresis, the Trinitarian circumincession, is the preservation of freedom for God and human beings. The relationship, the communion, the forming of community, is a free choice — a wonderful, continual choice — that recognizes the integrity and uniqueness of the Other: no merging, no obliteration, and in due time life eternal through death. Such love and respect is our eternal home and abiding rest.

Mother Miriam is the superior of the Community of St. Mary, Eastern Province, and lives and teaches at St. Mary’s Convent within Christ the King Spiritual Life Center, Greenwich, New York. Her other Covenant posts are here.

The featured image is a detail of Giotto’s “Noli me tangere” (ca. 1305); it is in the public domain.


[1] Y. Nomura, Desert Wisdom: Sayings from the Desert Fathers (Image Books, 1988), p. 90.

[2] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, translated by R.H. Fuller (The Macmillan Company, 1949), p. 162.

[3] Georges Florosky, “The Message of Chalcedon,” symposium at St. John’s Cathedral, New York City, on the occasion of the 1,500th anniversary of the Council of Chalcedon (Nov. 13, 1951).

About The Author

Mother Miriam, CSM is the ninth Mother Superior of the Eastern Province of the Community of Saint Mary.

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