One of the more difficult lines in the Gospel of John is Jesus’ reaction to Mary: Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father” (verse 17). What does Jesus mean?
It may be the case that he has only just resurrected, and cannot be touched until he ascends. The KJV makes the problem more difficult by translating the verb as “touch,” rather than “cling.” But the ascension takes place forty days later, and later in this chapter Jesus tells Thomas to touch the wounds on his hands and side. Unless we assume that there is an ascension sometime during that day which “completed” the resurrection, this cannot be what Jesus means here.
A more likely explanation is that Mary is not just touching Jesus, but “clinging” to him. The verb ἅπτω is not uncommon in the New Testament, but is used by John only here (and 1 John 5:18, the evil one cannot touch the believer). It is likely that Mary fell at Jesus’ feet and was clinging to him in a way we might expect since she thought he was dead! Mary is holding on to Jesus so tightly that she does not want to let him go ever again!
Coupled with the allusion to the ascension, this line probably means something like, “Mary, you do not have to cling to me, I have not yet ascended to heaven! I’ll be here for a little while longer.”
It is possible that Mary’s emotional response to seeing Jesus is a hint that she has not fully understood the resurrection, perhaps thinking that Jesus had not actually died. Mary returns to the disciples, who are likely discussing where the body of Jesus might have gone. When she arrives, she announces that she has seen the Lord and that he is alive. At this point, she does not say “he has risen from the dead.” It is only after he appeared to his disciples that they begin to understand what has happened.
John’s gospel is a well-constructed piece of theology and it is hard for me to believe that John did not intend a little more here than simply warning Mary that he was not immediately leaving her again. What might be the theological point John is making in this unusual story? It is also possible that John is making a pastoral point as well by describing Mary’s emotional response to the resurrection.