Intrepidly Mary Magdalene stands at the empty tomb and asks the question which all of us have probably asked many times in our lives: “Where is the Lord?” But the Risen Lord is in no geographical space like a garden. The Bible account denotes an indwelling, that is, the communion between Jesus and the Father. What Mary Magdalene beholds is Jesus fully revealed as the eternal Christ in embodied form. Jesus’ historical presence has ended in his ascent into the presence of God through his glorification on the cross.
The fact that the return to the Father has begun may explain why Jesus said to Mary Magdalene, “Stop holding on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father.” Jesus is not so much forbidding touch, but Mary’s selection of the object to touch, namely, the Jesus who stands before her as an individual. What Mary is told not to do is try to continue to touch Jesus, that is, encounter him as if he were the earthly Jesus resuscitated. Jesus is redirecting Mary Magdalene’s desire for union with himself from his earthly body (which in any case no longer exists because it is the glorified Lord who stands before her in a temporary appearance) to the new place of his presence in the world, that is, the community of his brothers and sisters.
Jesus then gives a commission to Mary Magdalene: “Go to my brothers and sisters and say to them: I ascend to my Father and [who is now] your Father, to my God and [who is now] your God” (20:17). The message is that Jesus’ Father is now truly Father of the disciples who have become Jesus’ sisters and brothers. The return to the Father shows that the Spirit is now handed over to the disciples. In short, the message Jesus entrusts to Mary Magdalene is that all is accomplished and that by his exaltation on the cross Jesus has become the source of the Spirit and of the new covenant to every one of his brothers and sisters, children of the Father and members of the same covenant.
The line “I am not yet ascended to my Father” might be better translated as “Am I as yet not ascended?” The proper answer would be, “No, you are indeed ascended, that is glorified.” In effect, the Risen Lord is saying, “It is no longer in and through my earthly individuality that you can continue to relate to me. Rather go to the community, the new place of my earthly presence.” In other words, the main message of John’s gospel is not so much “I have risen” but that all has been accomplished. The work of the Word made flesh is completed, and its fruits are available to his disciples. He has returned as he promised to fill them with a joy no one can take from them: “I will not leave you orphans. I am coming to you….On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you” (Jn. 14:18, 20).
The promise is fulfilled. Alleluia!