Catholics easily overlook the feast of the Ascension. Instead of being fixed on a Thursday—which highlights both the numerologically significant 40 days and the connection with the institution of the Eucharist on Holy Thursday—it is frequently grandfathered into the following Sunday. In terms of theological significance, its meaning seems more obscure and less able to inspire delight or understanding—at least relative to Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost. The image of Jesus floating up into the sky while the apostles gape can seem embarrassing and cosmologically primitive, as if heaven were “way up there somewhere” and Christ needed to return to the elderly bearded Father seated forever beyond our atmosphere. However, the Ascension is neither an extraneous curiosity nor the flotsam of an outworn world-picture; it is a mystery that perpetually pours forth divine life and offers insight into the whole economy of salvation.
First of all, the Ascension should be understood as situated between Easter and Pentecost not only in liturgical time, but also in theological development. The Ascension clarifies that Christ was still a pilgrim on earth after the Resurrection. It anticipates the gathering of the apostles and the Mother of God in the upper room awaiting the arrival of the Holy Spirit in a uniquely permanent way. It is crucial to understand that Christ has truly left, and that he does not leave us as orphans.
Nothing captures this liminal moment like Mary Magdalene’s encounter with the risen Christ in the Garden. In brief but weighted lines of dialogue, Mary moves from misunderstanding to harrowing misunderstanding. First, she thinks that the body of her friend and teacher was removed. Second, after recognizing Christ—through his simple recitation of her name—she reaches out to embrace him only to meet with what seems like a rebuke! After risking her life by associating with this renegade prophet and miracle worker, after watching him be tortured and killed without abandoning or disowning him, after coming alone to his tomb to weep in the early morning, Jesus’s first words to her are stop clinging to me.
Noli me tangere, the Latin translation of μή μου ἅπτου does not quite capture the continuous nature of the action implied by the tense, but it certainly renders the stark and bewildering character of this emotionally fraught event. Christ’s initial command must have felt like a wholesale rejection. But in many ways Do not touch me more vividly evokes the vertigo produced by Christ’s denunciations of sympathetically understandable questions elsewhere in the Gospels. “Let the dead bury their dead,” or “Why do you call me good?,” or “What is this to you and to me, woman?” It seems to me we are supposed to feel aggrieved for Mary Magdalene here.
This brings to mind a scene in John’s Gospel between Jesus and another Mary, Mary of Bethany. It should be noted that Pope Gregory the Great, and the subsequent medieval Latin tradition, conflated Mary Magdalene with Mary of Bethany—and both with the sinful woman in Luke 7. Though each of these saints deserve distinct veneration, there are advantages to considering the women associated with Christ as a kind of composite character or archetype. The Gospel’s narratives of the women disciple-caretakers of Jesus (Luke 8:2-3), the women of Jerusalem (Luke 23:28-31), and the three Marys at the foot of the cross (John 19:25-27) almost establish a choral feminine. The enigmatic address “woman,” which Christ uses so frequently with his mother, is also used by the angels to address Mary Magdalene. It evokes a connection running from Eve to the Theotokos to every daughter of God who sits at the foot of the cross and waits at the tomb. In many ways, this female choral gathering remained faithful where the incipient apostolic choir was riddled with betrayal and cowardice; it was fitting that Mary Magdalene should be the first to receive the news of the Resurrection and preach it to the apostles.
With this choral feminine in mind, the structural similarities, between Christ’s visit to Mary’s home in Bethany and Christ’s appearance to Mary Magdalene at the tomb, become even easier to spot. When Mary of Bethany suddenly left her house to meet Jesus those gathered with her in mourning supposed that “she was going to the tomb to weep” (John 11:31). After begging Christ to answer why he did not prevent this death, the God-man himself wept over the death he was about to reverse through divine power. After weeping, Christ asked to see where the body had been laid. The one, who had just proclaimed himself to Martha as the Resurrection and the Life, is said twice to be groaning in agony as goes to the tomb of Lazarus. After Christ’s resurrection, Mary Magdalene is weeping in front of Christ’s tomb and she asks to be shown where the body has been laid. We could imagine Mary Magdalene’s two misunderstanding as her own groanings, which take place in the midst of the triumph of the accomplished Resurrection. She could not call him forth or unbind Christ as Christ did for Lazarus, but she sought to take care of him even after death with ointments, laments, and proper burial.
However, Christ does not leave her to her groaning there alone in the garden. She mistook him for the gardener but this mistake was a happy one for it evokes the Garden of Eden and makes us remember that he is in fact the Gardener. Medieval depictions of the event emphasizes this by placing a hoe or shovel in Christ’s hands. As in the Garden of Eden, a mysterious prohibition is given. In Genesis our first parents were forbidden to taste of the fruit of the Tree of Life until their maturity. Now, Christ commands Mary Magdalene not to cling to him “until I have ascended.” The Catechism (citing St. Maximus the Confessor) reminds us that the primordial prohibition was neither permanent nor arbitrary. We are meant to be like gods:
Constituted in a state of holiness, man was destined to be fully "divinized" by God in glory. Seduced by the devil, he wanted to "be like God", but "without God, before God, and not in accordance with God" (CCC §398).
This theme of divine adoption, divinization, or deification is prominent in the Gospel of John. In the tenth chapter, Christ reminds those about to stone him that the Law clearly proclaims to the recipients of the divine word that “you are gods.” And in the fifteenth chapter, Christ intimates that we are no longer slaves but friends of God, and that everything that he has received from the Father he gives to us to share. So if God had intended from the beginning to make us partakers of the divine nature and the Son’s mission is to usher us into this communion, why does Jesus Christ tell Mary Magdalene not to touch him until he has ascended?
Pope St. Leo the Great, in his profound sermons on this mystery, offers an illuminating answer. Christ’s body was resurrected in triumph but that triumph had not yet been handed over the Church. As Christ’s mystical body, the Church would inherit the salvific power of the God-man and be the cause of the whole of Creation being able to participate and ascend to the Father in the flesh and blood of Christ. Quod redemptoris nostri conspicuum fuit, in sacramenta transivit. Or, as Dom Odo Casel would famously translate it, “What is visible in our Redeemer has now passed into the mysteries.” Christ ascended not to escape the embrace of an old friend, but to offer that intimacy to all through the sacraments and liturgy of the Church of God.
An old tradition—attested to by St. Augustine among others—speaks of Christ’s footprints remaining at the summit of Mt. Olivet. This idea of a Christic imprint might be read as combining the theological truths of Bonaventure’s signatures of the Trinity in creation and Athanasius’s argument that the Incarnation was meant to reinscribe the imago dei. Christ remains permanently united to our humanity in his Ascension and even presses down further into the very turf of all created natures. St. Paul argues forcefully in the Letter to the Ephesians for the necessity for Christ’s imprint to gather up all things. Through a creatively Christological reading of Psalm 68, Paul infuses the mystery of the Ascension with the imagery of a warrior in a victory procession granting gifts and favors from the spoils:
“When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men.”
In saying, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is he who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things (Eph 4:8-10).
From there, Paul identifies these gifts with the Church and her offices and ministries which are meant to lead the people of God into the measure of Christ’s fullness. All of this bolsters Pope Leo’s decision to explicitly identify Mary Magdalene with the Church:
Hence comes that which the Lord said after His Resurrection, when Mary Magdalene, representing the Church, hastened to approach and touch Him: Touch Me not, for I have not yet ascended to My Father that is, I would not have you come to Me as to a human body, nor yet recognize Me by fleshly perceptions: I put you off for higher things, I prepare greater things for you: when I have ascended to My Father, then you shall handle Me more perfectly and truly, for you shall grasp what you can not touch and believe what you can not see (Sermon 74).
These sermons make clear that this spiritual perception is not one opposed to the flesh. It is a spiritual perception that seeks the flesh in the Eucharistic presence and in the hope for Christ’s bodily return and our own resurrection. As Paul Griffiths so eloquently puts it in Christian Flesh, by ascending Christ’s body becomes “available to every moment measured by the metronome, and every place located by map grid” (50). Christ does not wish for a vacuously pure immaterial worship, either from us or from Mary Magdalene. Through his ascended Eucharistic flesh he “is again touchable, and in the most intimate way, by the tongue” (Ibid., 49). This desire for mystical and erotic intimacy with the flesh of Christ leads us naturally to Pentecost where the Holy Spirit is poured out in the birth of the Church. The medieval reading of the Song of Songs as applying to the Mother of God, the Church, and the individual soul is a beautiful manifestation of these spiritual-bodily desires. Christ staying Mary Magdalene’s hand is not the destruction of eros but the preparation for its fullest manifestation in the Mystical Body of Christ.
Again, Pope Leo’s reading reminds us that we may not interpret any of the negative divine prohibitions from Genesis to the Gospels as arbitrary punishments meant only to humiliate. Every seed that falls to the ground and dies bears much fruit. Dom Prosper Gueranger’s reflections on the Ascension in his book The Liturgical Year frequently mention the ancient customs of blessing bread and firstfruits and how the month of May in which we celebrate this feast manifests the freshness and beauty of nature. Neither the gift of the Church, nor the gifts given to the Church, are meant for humanity alone. Whatever transformation takes place through adoring and consuming the ascended flesh of Christ is meant to reverberate through the entire created order.
The unsettling quality of Christ’s words and actions is the sign that the ineffable glory to come anchors our striving and agonizing maturation. It is the birth pangs of divine adoption and the revelation of the sons of God to a groaning cosmos. These groans and longings that characterize Christ in Bethany, Mary Magdalene in the garden, and all of creation are the necessary third aspect of Ascension, which complements the joys of Easter and Pentecost. When we celebrate the mystery of the Ascension, we are walking the pilgrimage of all flesh by the power of the Holy Spirit to the Father through the mystical body of Christ—his Church.