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Saint John Chrysostom on the meaning of “Touch Me Not”

Filed in Easter by on May 14, 2016 • views: 1318

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How tender-hearted and inclined to sympathy is womankind! I am mentioning this that you may not wonder why in the world it was that, while Mary was weeping bitterly at the tomb, Peter displayed no such emotion. “The disciples,” the Evangelist stated, “went away to their home, while she remained standing there weeping.” …

Yet the sight of the tomb was a great source of consolation …. Do you see how, the better to revive her courage, she leaned forward and tried to look at the spot where the body had lain? Therefore, she received no small reward for her great earnestness. For it was the woman who first saw what the disciples had not seen: namely angels sitting, one at the feet and the other at the head, in white, and with a manner radiating great brightness and joy. Since the woman was not sufficiently spiritual-minded to grasp the fact of the resurrection from the grave-clothes, further evidence was added and she beheld angels sitting in bright array, so as to afford her gradual relief from the suffering caused by the empty tomb, and to give her conso­lation.

However they said nothing to her of the Resurrection, but led her on only by degrees to this teaching. She beheld their shining faces-out of the ordinary in their-brightness; she beheld their splendid appearance; she heard a sym­pathetic voice. What did it say? “Woman, why art thou weeping?” And by means of all these things, as if through a door gradually opening, little by little she was brought to an understanding of the Resurrection. Moreover, the way they were seated led her to question them, for they certainly app­eared to know what had taken place. For this reason they were not sitting together, but separated from one another. Since it was not likely that she would venture to begin the inquiry herself, they led her to start conversing with them by asking her a question and also by the way they were sitting.

What reply, then, did she make? She spoke warmly and tenderly: “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” What are you saying? Do you not yet know about the Resurrection? Are you still thinking about the location of the body? Do you perceive that she had not yet accepted this sublime doctrine? “When she had said this she turned around.” But how was it logical for her to turn around, when she had just begun to talk with them and had not yet heard any information from them? It seems to me that as she said these words, Christ suddenly appeared behind her and startled the angels who, on beholding the Master, immediately showed by their attitude, by their gaze, and by their movements, that they were looking at the Lord. This awakened the curiosity of the woman and caused her to turn around.

He appeared to the angels, then, as He was [that is, in His glorified body], but did not show Himself to the woman in the same way, so as not to awe her from the start by the sight. On the contrary, He appeared to her under a humble and ordinary guise. And it is evident from her words that she even thought He was a gardener. However, it was not desirable to lead so lowly a person as this woman suddenly to lofty considerations, but rather, to do so gradually. Therefore He in His turn asked: “Woman, why art thou weeping? Whom dost thou seek?”

This implied that He knew what she desired to ask, and induced her to reply. Since the woman also was conscious of this, she did not yet mention the name of Jesus, but said, as if her inquirer knew about whom she was seeking information: “If thou hast removed him, tell me where thou hast laid him and I will take him away.” Once again she was talking of placing and taking away and removing, as if the conversation concerned a corpse. That is, her words meant: “If you have taken Him away from there out of fear of the Jews, tell me and I will take possession of Him.” What great good will and tenderness the woman showed! But her thoughts were not as yet fixed on the sublime. That is why He finally revealed His presence to her, not by the sight of Him, but by His voice.

But why is it that she now “turned” and spoke to Him, if He was actually already conversing with her. It seems to me that when she had said the words, “Where thou hast laid him,” she turned back to the angels to ask them why they had seemed so amazed, and then, when Christ called her by name, she turned toward him again from them, and He revealed Himself by His voice. For, when He called her “Mary,” then she recognized Him. Thus her recognition was brought about, not by the vision of Him, but by His voice. Now, if some are inclined to ask: “How do you know that the angels were struck with astonishment and that it was for this reason the woman turned around?” they also inquire here: “How is it evident that she touched Him and fell at His feet?” However just as this is evident from the words, “Do not touch me,” so also the other is implied in the fact that the Evangelist states that she turned around. But why did He say: “Do not touch me”? Some maintain that she was asking for a spiritual favor, since she had heard Him speaking of it to His disciples: “If I go to the Father, I will ask him, and he will give you another Advocate” [John 14: 16].

Yet how could she have heard Him say this, when she was not in the company of His disciples? Besides, such an interpretation as this is far removed from the meaning of this passage. Moreover, how could she be making a request, when He had not yet gone to the Father? What does it mean then? It seems to me that she wished to enjoy His presence still, in the same way as before, and because of her joy at seeing Him, had no realization of His greatness, even though He had become much more excellent in bodily appearance. Thus, to lead her to abandon this notion and to refrain from addressing Him too familiarly (for He does not appear after this con­versing so familiarly even with His disciples), He elevated her thoughts so that she would treat Him with a more reverential attitude. Accordingly, if He had said: “Do not touch me as you did before, because things are not the same now, and I will not associate with you in future in the same way as before.” it would seem somewhat harsh and boastful. But when He said: “I have not yet ascended to my Father,” even though the words were without offense, they meant the same thing. By saying “I have not yet ascended” He meant that He was going to do so without delay; and that, because He was on the point of departing and of ceasing to be among men any longer, she ought not to regard Him in the same way as before.

St. John Chrysostom, Commentary on Saint John The Apostle and Evangelist. Homilies 1-88. 2 voJs. New York, 1957-60. (The Fathers of the Church: A New Translation. vols. 33, 41).

 

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