Do not hold on to me: Mary’s early-morning encounter (John 20; Easter Sunday Year A)

A sermon written by the Rev. Elizabeth Raine for the celebration of Easter Sunday, 9 April 2023, at the Tuggeranong Uniting Church

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All four Gospels tell of women, coming to the tomb where Jesus had been lain, early in the morning. In this more intimate narrative of John’s Gospel (John 20:1–18), Mary Magdalene comes alone to the tomb in the dark, not bearing myrrh, not expecting anything. The presence she encounters in the garden is not what she has previously experienced or understood.

When Mary realises that it is Jesus she sees in the garden, she instinctively reaches out to him, only to be rebuffed by the words ‘Do not hold on to me’. 

It is both a tender and painful moment that sits between intimacy and distance, love and loss. It reminds us of how it was at the beginning of the pandemic, where the normal, natural instinct to reach out to touch and hold one another became a potential source of danger.

But there was no pandemic in Jerusalem when Mary heard her name being spoken in the unmistakable tones of her beloved teacher and friend, whom she had thought was lost to her forever. Mary’s seeking to touch Jesus would have been the most natural form of greeting in any circumstances, never mind in this extraordinary moment. So why does Jesus respond with what must have felt like a hurtful rejection?

We have the sense that the Gospel is picking up that Mary had a hard time letting go of the physical Jesus. It is no wonder. We all feel like this in our grief. Yet, Jesus is pointing to the broader context of God’s liberating power at work in the Easter story.

John is making the point that the risen Jesus is not a return to the ‘old normal’ but the start of something new. Life is not going to continue as before, whatever Mary’s initial hopes may have been.

The ‘new normal’, which John’s readers were already having to live, did not include Jesus’ physical presence in a recognisable, huggable human body. For a short time, resurrection appearances would convince the disciples that he was, indeed, alive, but the message was that they must not become dependent on him.

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“Do not hold onto to me”. Like much of John’s gospel, there is a deeper meaning to the words. John is advising us. Do not cling to the holy as you once knew the holy. The time is here for you to learn, see, hear and perceive anew. Open your consciousness and awake to the dawn of something entirely transformed and transforming.  

We can also pick out the events of Simon Peter’s dash towards the tomb with the ‘other disciple’, and the events that unfolded there, as worthy of thinking about. When they entered the space, only the linen was there. We are told that the other disciple “saw and believed”. This is an interesting comment. What did he believe? What exactly did he see that turned his heart from despair to hope? What belief exactly did he come to?

We are told that the disciples still did not understand the scriptures in relation to Jesus’resurrection, yet something clearly happened in their understanding as they left transformed by the encounter.

Surely transformation sits at the core of the mystery of resurrection. It is not a magical replacement of the old with something new, but an innovating change from deep within. We are reminded in this story of the first Easter that God’s action often takes place in the liminal spaces—on the edges of things, at the boundary points between ‘this and that’: despair and hope, hate and love, death and life.

William Brodrick, in a thoughtful reflection used by the Northumbria community, notes that the faithful have to be like candles, “burning between hope and despair, faith and doubt, life and death” and that this is the “disquieting place where people must always find us.”

We need people like Mary who will blunder through the garden blinded by tears but also with a willingness to be curious and open to the impossible. We need people like the male disciples to wonder out loud, stay present in the moment and take risks rather than living life in fear. We need people who somehow generate more hope than we believed could be possible.

While Easter morning brings joy and hope, and a fresh start after grief and brokenness, it also encourages us to be those candles shining brightly between hope and despair in our world. It encourages us to transform and to recognise that the world cannot be the same either in a post-covid era or indeed, a post-resurrection one.

May we not cling on to things that we imagine will keep us safe: may we learn instead to let go in order to findour true selves; and die in order to rise to newness of life.

Author: John T Squires

My name is John Squires. I live in the Australian Capital Territory. I have been an active participant in the Uniting Church in Australia (UCA) since it was formed in 1977, and was ordained as a Minister of the Word in this church in 1980. I have served in rural, regional, and urban congregations and as a Presbytery Resource Minister and Intentional Interim Minister. For two decades I taught Biblical Studies at a theological college and most recently I was Director of Education and Formation and Principal of the Perth Theological Hall. I've studied the scriptures in depth; I hold a number of degrees, including a PhD in early Christian literature. I am committed to providing the best opportunities for education within the church, so that people can hold to an informed faith, which is how the UCA Basis of Union describes it. This blog is one contribution to that ongoing task.

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