In John’s account of the Resurrection, there is a confusing encounter between Jesus and Mary Magdalene. At first, she doesn’t recognize Him, mistaking Him for the gardener. When she finally realizes who He is, she’s overjoyed. But He responds to her by telling her not to hold on to Him. Here’s how it’s presented in John 20:11-17,
But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb, and as she wept she stooped to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had lain, one at the head and one at the feet. They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “Because they have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” Saying this, she turned round and saw Jesus standing, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom do you seek?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rab-bo′ni!” (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, “Do not hold me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brethren and say to them, I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.”
Is Jesus saying that there’s some reason that His Risen Body can’t be touched prior to the Ascension? That doesn’t really make sense. After all, John goes on to tell us about Jesus’ encounter with the doubting Apostle, Thomas. There, He says (John 20:27), “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side; do not be faithless, but believing.” Yet the encounter with Thomas occurs a week after Easter, well before the Ascension (John 20:26; Acts 1:3-11). And it doesn’t seem plausible that this is a contradiction, as if Jesus (or John the Evangelist) immediately and unwittingly switched positions on whether or not it’s okay to touch the Body of Christ.
Another theory, advanced by atheists like Marshall Brain, is that the Mary Magdalene and Thomas appearances are “proof” that Jesus is sexist, “as though the touch of a woman is somehow improper,” when only “a few verses later, [He] is happy to have Thomas touch him.” Of course, that doesn’t make sense, either. The appearance to Mary is the most intimate of the recorded Resurrection appearances. Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene individually, and gently waits for her to realize who He is. He then proceeds to send her to announce the Resurrection to the Apostles (John 20:17-18), leading to her moniker Apostolorum Apostola, “Apostle to the Apostles.”
And what about the idea that Jesus is scolding Mary Magdalene, as if she’s doubting Him? Perhaps, but nothing in the text seems to suggest that she’s being punished in any way.
So we’re left with a puzzle: Jesus, who has a true Body after the Resurrection, a Body capable of being touched, prevents Mary Madgalene from holding on to Him. St. Thomas Aquinas (the one who coined Apostolorum Apostola as a title for the Magdalene) presents the clearest solution to this difficulty, in Part III, Question 55 of the Summa Theologiae:
Or as Chrysostom says (Hom. lxxxvi in Joan.): “This woman wanted to converse with Christ just as before the Passion, and out of joy was thinking of nothing great, although Christ’s flesh had become much nobler by rising again.” And therefore He said: “I have not yet ascended to My Father”; as if to say: “Do not suppose I am leading an earthly life; for if you see Me upon earth, it is because I have not yet ascended to My Father, but I am going to ascend shortly.” Hence He goes on to say: “I ascend to My Father, and to your Father.”
In other words, Mary isn’t doubting Jesus’ Resurrection. She’s just not comprehending the gravity of it. She’s so overjoyed at seeing her Friend again that she hasn’t taken in the radical reality that He has risen from the dead, that He has a glorified Body, that He’s never to die again, that He’s just demonstrated His divinity in no uncertain terms, or that He’s preparing His followers before He ascends to Heaven.
To aid her in coming to these more profound truths, Jesus deprives her of the easy comfort of simply clinging to Him. He does this to call her to something greater, an evangelical service to witness even to His Apostles. In other words, He denies her the ability to cling to His Body for the same reason that He instructs Thomas to touch His wounds and side: to lead them deeper into faith. Or as He says to Thomas: “do not be faithless, but believing” (John 20:27).
Sometimes, our growth in faith requires us to have something tangible to cling to; other times, we need Him to take the training wheels off. “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe” (John 20:29). That’s no contradiction, and it’s not sexist. It’s the Divine Physician prescribing the spiritual medicine that each patient needs most.