Have you ever lost someone you love? When I was a kid, my dog was one of my best friends. I tried to name her Precious, but my family outvoted me and named her Mindy because she had Midnight Black fur. So her middle name became Precious because she was precious to me. (Note: I DID ask, “Shouldn’t it be Midny?” but I guess wordplay was not my family’s forte. And no, my middle name is not Gollum.) Anywho, I loved Mindy and she loved me. I played with her and fed her and bathed her gently with her face over the bathtub rim because she was deathly afraid of the water. She was a wonderful dog. She wasn’t especially well-behaved though. She liked to dig under the privacy fence so she could see everybody at the pool party next door. She didn’t exactly come every time I called her either. Sometimes she’d bark at passersby and shake the bushes violently next to the fence as if to say, “This is what I would do to you if you ever came near me!” She was all bark and no bite though – as gentle a dog as I’ve ever known. One day, I called for her, but she didn’t come. I called louder with a deeper voice so she would know I meant business. She still didn’t come. I went outside to find her. She was not in the back yard. I checked the gate, but it was locked shut. I checked inside, but no one had let her in. In a panic, I ran back outside and found the hole she had dug that was now big enough for her to crawl under and get into the neighbors yard. I looked over the fence, but she was nowhere in sight. I looked under the fence, but didn’t hear or see anything. Then I thought I heard splashing. I started sobbing. I thought she was drowning. She was terrified of water and wouldn’t even go in a bathtub without furious resistance. How would she be able to survive an outdoor pool with a deep end?! Emotionally, I went off the deep end. What am I going to do without her? Why didn’t I fill those holes sooner? Why did you do this to me, God, why?!
Unbeknownst to me, my dad had climbed the fence on the other side of the house and found Mindy, dripping wet but very happy. The neighbors’ dog was also wet and very likely saved her life. As I stood there sobbing, Mindy and my dad walked back home, both smelling of wet dog. I hugged her and didn’t want to ever let her go. Part of it was fear of losing her; part of it was trying to protect her. I HAD to let her go though. Had I not, I would never have experienced all the wonderful things that happened with and without her all the years I was blessed to have her after that day.
Letting go is never easy if we love the one we are letting go. But it is always necessary if we are ever going to move on to bigger and better things. A no more vivid example can be found than in John 20. Mary went to the tomb after Jesus’ death and found it empty. Assuming someone had moved the body, she asked Peter and John to investigate, but they found nothing. As she began to weep, she looked one last time into the empty tomb. This time it wasn’t empty. Two angels appeared and
They asked her, “Woman, why are you crying?”
Isn’t that an odd question to ask? A woman is crying in a cemetery and they ask her why she is crying? Her answer, though, is equally surprising.
“They have taken my Lord away,” she said, “and I don’t know where they have put him.” 14 At this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realize that it was Jesus.
If she was looking for Jesus, why didn’t she recognize Him when she turned around? No one knows for sure. Some say she was looking for the former Jesus rather than the Risen Christ. Some say she was looking for a corpse and the thought never occurred to her that she would see Him alive and well. It could be as simple as not being able to recognize Him through the tears, which blurred her vision. The point is she had given up any hope of finding Jesus before she had really even begun to look for Him. And yet when she turned around, He was right in front of her nose and she still didn’t recognize Him. So He asked the same question as the angels.
15 He asked her, “Woman, why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?” Thinking he was the gardener, she said, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.” 16 Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means “Teacher”).
Hello? Is it me you’re looking for? Jesus appeared before her, but she did not recognize him. Jesus spoke to her, but she did not recognize His voice until He said her name. Instantly, she knew it was Him, but there was something different about Him.
17 Jesus said, “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’ ”
Why would Jesus not want to be hugged? Was He not a touchy feely kind of guy? Did He only hug when he was wrasslin a bear in the woods because His twelve gauge was getting cleaned? This has been poorly translated “‘Touch me not.’ There seems to be no reason why Mary should not touch Him, and indeed Matthew tells us that when the women first saw the risen Lord they ‘came to Him, clasped his feet and worshiped Him.'” (Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John, NICNT, Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, p. 741-742) Even Thomas was allowed to touch Jesus, putting his fingers in the holes of His hands and feet and his hand in His side. Jesus is not being a tease here. If He wanted to be left alone and did not want to be touched, he would not have asked her why she was crying. If He did not want to be looked for, He would not have asked, “Who are you looking for?” If He did not want to be touched, He would not have spoken Mary’s name so lovingly and so tenderly that she would have had no other choice but to embrace Him and hold onto Him for dear life. Jesus called her by name so she WOULD embrace Him. But He also called her so He could empower her to let go.
A better translation than “Touch me not” is “Stop clinging to me!” given the context. Mary had just been hit with what she believed to be false hope. For a brief moment, she must have thought Jesus hadn’t died. Not finding His body was as if He had died again. Just when she had finally given up all hope, she heard His voice call her name. “The most natural interpretation is that Mary, in her delight at finding her Lord alive, clutches Him lest she should lose Him again.” (F.F. Bruce, The Gospel of John. Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, 1983, p. 389) She never wanted to lose Jesus again so she held onto Him tightly, but Jesus wanted something better for her which could only happen if she let Him go.
What could be better than Jesus? And why did He speak of ascending to the Father? “Part of the thought appears to be that Jesus was not simply returning to the old life. Mary was reacting as though He were. Since He had not yet ascended He could appear to her, but she must not read into this a simple return to the former state of affairs.” (Morris, 742) In other words, Jesus wanted very much for her to know that He was alive and had conquered death, but He could not stay with her forever. If He stayed, His death would mean nothing. Who wouldn’t believe that He was God if was still here 2000 years later? He had to go so Christians throughout the centuries would follow His example through faith in Him. If He had stayed, we would have expected Him to do all the “dirty” work of loving our enemies and taking care of the widows and orphans. When He left, it was all left to us to be His hands and feet. “Then Jesus told him, ‘Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.'” (John 20:29)
Sometimes we have to let go so we can have empty hands to receive. More often than I care to admit, I arrive home from the grocery store with one too many bags to make it inside the house in one trip. But does that stop me? Nooooo! I look at it as a challenge. I fit four plastic bags into my left hand and three in my right hand so I have room to open the door. At least in theory. Inevitably, something falls out of one of the bags and I lean over and two more things fall out. If I hold onto my worries, I will not be able to hold to anything and I will certainly not be able to grasp hold of anything else that might be better for me.
Sometimes we can hold on to things that are good, but God wants us to let go of the good things and grab hold of better things. Mary was holding on to the epitome of good Jesus Himself, but Jesus wanted something better for her. Whatever you are clinging to, your health, your finances, your very life, let it go. As a hospice chaplain, I often say to patients and families that the greatest step of faith we can ever do is the last thing we do: letting go and trusting God that He will be there at the other end. One of those patients is the reason I’m able to write this blog at all. He led by example, teaching me and all who loved him the true power of letting go. He didn’t want to leave his family behind and stayed as long as he could, but when God called his name, he didn’t linger. He died perfectly timed so his daughter could go to Good Friday service. Church was where he always wanted his family to be. You are missed, Jimmy O. Thank you for showing us all the power of letting go.
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