For the three days of Easter (in the afternoon), I will be discussing three Resurrection Appearances of Jesus: (1) to Mary Magdalene (John 20:11-18), (2) to the disciples on the road to Emmaus, and (3) to Thomas. Interestingly, these persons are hardly even mentioned elsewhere in the Gospels. As for Mary Magdalene, her presence at the tomb, with Jesus’ early appearance to her, is a fixture in Gospel tradition—indeed, it is one of the indisputable facts in the Resurrection Narratives. And, while the basic outline may be the same in all four Gospels, how different are the precise details! John’s account is perhaps the best known, but is complicated by the presence of Peter and the Beloved Disciple (20:2-10)—the narrative makes more sense (and is more consistent with the Synoptics) if one reads 20:1 followed by vv. 11-18.
Looking at the episode in vv. 11-18, I highlight three principal motifs: First, an initial lack of recognition of the risen Jesus (vv. 14-15)—a motif which occurs in other Appearance stories (Luke 24:13-35; John 21:1-14). However, in John we also find repeatedly the motif of the audience misunderstanding what they see or hear Jesus saying or doing; in this instance, it is Jesus himself that Mary misunderstands (“…supposing that he is the gardener”). The verb here is doke/w, which has a fairly wide range of meaning: “think, consider, seem, appear, recognize”; a derived word is do/ca (usually translated “glory”), but which has the general sense of “thought, consideration, what seems (to be), what appears (to be)” (only secondarily does one speak of do/ca as “reputation, esteem, honor, glory, etc”). In the context of the Person of Christ, one naturally also relates the word to “docetic/docetism”—that Christ only appeared or seemed to be fully human. So, the word may have a deeper meaning here than it appears at first glance. It is only when Mary hears Jesus say her name, that she recognizes him.
This leads to the second Johannine motif of seeing and hearing. These appear frequently in both the narratives (miracle stories) and the discourses, and are often a source of misunderstanding (cf. 9:39-41, etc) for the audience. Jesus stresses repeatedly that he only says (and does) what he sees and hears the Father saying/doing (5:19-20, 30; 12:49-50, etc); similarly, believers will see and hear what Jesus says and does (5:24; 8:47; 12:47-49; 14:10, 24; 17:24, etc), which leads to the experience of (eternal) life in Christ (5:25, 28; 6:63, 68; 8:51; 12:50; and cf. the raising of Lazarus, 11:1-44). So, when Mary hears Jesus say her name, and recognizes his voice, it is not merely a dramatic narrative detail: one may say she is herself coming out of the tomb at the sound of his voice (5:25, 28); for she truly hears his voice (10:3-5, 16, 27; 18:37 [“all who are of the truth hear my voice”]). She also sees, that is, she recognizes Christ; just as only those who belong to the truth can hear God’s voice, so only those who are “born from above” can see the kingdom of God (3:3).
However, Mary’s understanding is not complete. This brings me to the third motif of ascension. Perhaps the most famous (and controversial) part of this narrative is in verse 17. Upon recognizing Jesus, Mary turns to him and calls to him (“Rabbi/Teacher”); Jesus’ response is: mh\ mou a%ptou ou&pw ga\r a)nabe/bhka pro\$ to\n pate/ra, “do not touch me, for not yet have I gone up toward the Father”. The verb a%ptw generally means “connect, fasten, bind”, or, more figuratively, “touch”; in this regard, one may “touch” either lightly or strongly (“handle, cling to”, etc). The exact context and meaning of Jesus’ words here remain in dispute, with any number of suggested interpretations (many exotic or implausible); however, since the precise action is not specified, I believe they should be taken in a more symbolic fashion. Mary responds to Jesus in a natural, human way (addressing him as “Teacher”); whether or not she might actually try to embrace or “cling to” him physically, that would seem to be the underlying reality—she seeks to “touch” Jesus at the physical, rather than spiritual, level. So we have Jesus’ answer: “I have not yet gone up [i.e. ascended] to the Father”. This image of going up, taking up, lifting up, etc. occurs in Jesus’ teaching throughout the Gospel, related to both his death and resurrection, and to his return to the Father. Particularly, in the last Discourses, does he refer to this “going away” (13:33-36; 14:2-4, 16-19, 26-31; 16:5-16, 19-24, 28; 17:11-13), back to the Father, which, in many instances at least, Jesus connects directly with the sending of the Spirit/Paraclete. It is by the Spirit that we are able to “touch” and “cling to” Christ, and only by the Spirit (being born from the Spirit, “from above”) that we can see and enter into the Kingdom of God. This Kingdom is also reflected in the powerful language of union/unity expressed by Jesus throughout the Gospel (see especially chapter 17), and, I think, stated clearly again in Jesus’ closing words to Mary: “but go toward my brothers and say to them, ‘I go up to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God‘”.