Someone asked me recently where Jesus’ spirit went between the crucifixion and the resurrection. I replied that Christians have debated that issue for 2000 years since the Bible doesn’t answer the question with total clarity. Then came a second question. What is the meaning of John 20:16-17, which tells us about an incident involving Mary Magdalene and Jesus early on the first Easter morning. Soon after she and the other women found the tomb empty, Mary met a man she did not recognize. When she heard him say, “Mary,” she knew it was Jesus. Evidently she began clinging to him, as if to say, “I’ve got you back now and I’m never going to let go of you again.” Every mother and every wife knows exactly how Mary felt and why she did what she did. This is how Jesus responded to her desperate embrace: “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet returned to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am returning to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” When he said, “I have not yet returned to my Father,” he was referring to his bodily ascension which did not happen for another 40 days. Mary was trying to hold on to him because she feared losing him again. In essence Jesus is replying, “Mary, I won’t be here forever but I’m not leaving this very moment. In any case, you’ve got more important work to do than clinging to me. Go tell the others what you have seen and heard.” It is a gentle form of rebuke and a way of refocusing Mary on more important issues.
Often our fear causes us to hang on to people and to things longer than we should. Mary’s love for Christ is admirable but it must be redirected to a higher purpose. Christ could not and would not stay by the empty tomb forever. He must be seen by others and eventually he would return to his Father. In the meantime, Mary must not cling to the past, even a past as wonderful as knowing Jesus in the flesh. Soon, all too soon, he will return to heaven. And in his place he will send the Holy Spirit to indwell all his disciples. While he was on the earth, he could only be in one place at one time. But through the Holy Spirit the Lord Jesus is now with all his people all the time.
The first step in moving forward into the future is letting go of the past. Easter reminds us that there is still work to do. We must put our own agendas aside and tell the world the good news: He is risen! He is risen indeed!