I remember the day my husband and I loaded the car and drove our children to summer camp. We stayed long enough to carry suitcases into their rooms and meet their counselors. I lingered, offering to help them unpack and put sheets on their bed, but my husband caught my eye and mouthed the words, “It’s time.”
The desire to cling to someone we love is so natural. But the time finally comes when we have to let them go so they can fulfill their purpose.
Mary Magdalene was among the group of women who followed Jesus during his earthly ministry. Luke tells us that each of these women, whether privileged like Joanna who lived in Herod’s palace or tormented by evil spirits like Mary Magdalene, had been healed by Jesus from both physical and spiritual ailments (Luke 8:1–3). Her sense of need must have run deep. Fears would have chased her as evil spirits oppressed her. We can only imagine how long this had been going on before she finally met Jesus of Nazareth.
Mary was also among the women who went to Jesus’s tomb on Easter morning. Luke tells us that she went with two other women at dawn (Luke 24:10), intending to bring more spices for his decaying body. But finding the tomb empty, all three ran home to tell the others.
Peter and John responded quickly to their report, racing to the tomb to see for themselves. Having verified the women’s story, they returned home. But Mary stayed.
She couldn’t believe that the one who had healed her was gone. She had watched him suffer, heard him struggle to speak, seen him breathe his last. Now the tomb was empty. He wasn’t there. Nothing was left for her to do.
Would she ever hear his voice again?
Mary stood, weeping. Blinded by tears, she heard someone speak. A man’s voice asked, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking (John 20:15)?” It was the same question the angels had asked her when she peered into the tomb. Mary didn’t waste time explaining herself, instead, she demanded the stranger show her where he’d put the body. She was determined to find it so she could care for him, even if that meant carrying him home herself.
Then she heard one word spoken in that most familiar voice, “Mary.” Instantly Mary turned and cried in recognition, “Rabboni!” She flung her arms around him and held him tight.
Instead of receiving and returning her embrace, though, Jesus said, “Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God’” (John 20:17).
Jesus’s words were a puzzle to me for a long time.Why would he push Mary away in her moment of joyful recognition? According to his own words, it seems he has some unfinished business: “I have not yet ascended to the Father” is how Jesus tells Mary—and us—that his ascension is absolutely necessary for his redeeming purposes to be brought to completion.
If Jesus had not ascended, I would not be saved. His ascension is the exclamation mark at the end of his earthly ministry, the last heavenly act that completes his saving work. Why? Because Jesus had to ascend and present his perfect sacrifice on the true altar, the heavenly one of which all earthly ones are mere copies.
The book of Hebrews supplies the explanation for his ascension:
But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption.” (Heb. 9:11–12)
God established in the Old Testament a foreshadowing of Jesus’s work. The high priest offered the prescribed sacrifices on the day of atonement. Then, when the sacrifices were complete, he presented the blood of the sacrifice to God in the Most Holy Place. There were two stages—sacrifice and presentation. There was the moment of sacrifice, then there was one more step—presenting the blood of the sacrifice before God in the holy of holies. Jesus fulfilled the first step in his death, and he fulfilled the second step by ascending to present himself, the Lamb of God, in the presence of God for us. In his ascension, our redemption was secured. We can rest! The Old Testament pattern has been completed by the true Lamb and the true Priest.