The Empty Tomb: Seeking the Resurrected Christ with Mary Magdalene and Elizabeth Ann Seton

by | Apr 23, 2022 | Formation, Reflections

With St. Mary Magdalene, let us accept Christ’s ‘Do not touch me’ with the certainty that His words give us a new mission, and a new way to be with Him, just as St. Elizabeth Ann Seton met the hardships of her life with renewed faith and strength.

This reflection was published in 2020, during the height of the pandemic, but its theme of separation, and trust in God’s presence in our lives, no matter the circumstances, is never dated. 

This year we celebrate our great and holy Feast, the Resurrection of Our Lord, in the most unexpected circumstances, most of us separated from physical participation in the Mass and the opportunity to receive Communion.

We are cut off from our family and friends and our parish communities. And we wonder: how can we live in this new situation, separated from the Body of God—both in the Eucharist and the living Church?

If we look to the Resurrection narrative (John 20: 1-18), we see that separation is there, too, at that precise moment when Mary Magdalene discovers Jesus as the Risen Lord for the very first time. Convinced that He is the gardener, she discovers the truth when He calls her name, ‘Mary!” She instinctively throws her arms around Him. But Jesus resists her embrace. “Stop holding on to me,” He tells her, “For I have not yet ascended to the Father.” The Latin is yet more blunt: noli me tangere—Do not touch me!

Today, we are told to remain at home and if we must leave, to create at least six feet of distance between ourselves and others. We are being told, in one way or another, “Do not touch me!” And we are unable to touch Jesus, to take him into our physical bodies. We are in the same place as Mary Magdalene.

So it can help in our situation to look at what Jesus says to Mary: “Go to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am going to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” Mary went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord,” and what He told her (John 20:17-18).

Jesus loves Mary. He resists her embrace not to reject her, but to redirect her. He gives her a new mission. To be with Him now she must be with them—with the disciples, who are holed up at home, anxious and afraid. And Mary Magdalene accepts this new way of being with Christ. She has to un-pry her fingers from Him to do it—and she does. She says “yes” to the mission.

This “yes,” expressed in the most trying circumstances (who, really, would want to let go of the Risen Lord?) is what God is asking of us right now. We are living our own Mary Magdalene moment.

And we can, in this moment, learn a lot from St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, too, whose life was filled with such moments. Elizabeth suffered the early death of her mother and the untimely loss of her husband and two daughters. She held numerous vigils at the sickbeds and deathbeds of her family members and her daughters in faith. At so many times when she was able to “take hold” of some person, some situation in her life, it was taken from her. Each time she tried to grasp hold of Christ, He seems to have said “Do not touch me.” He repeatedly gave her new tasks, re-directing her energies as a daughter, friend, wife, mother, caregiver, widow, teacher and foundress.

In each of these moments, Elizabeth Ann Seton found herself, like Mary Magdalene, pushed away from the work she thought the Lord wanted her to do and steered toward something else. How did she handle this? How did she say “yes” so resolutely in these circumstances? How did she do it with joy?

St. Elizabeth Ann Seton’s letters and journals show that she remained alive to God’s presence even in desperate moments. From them we learn how she, her husband William, and their daughter Anna Maria were forced into quarantine as they arrived at the port of Livorno, having traveled to warm and beautiful Italy for the express purpose of William’s health and consolation. But it was not to be. Nervous authorities, fearing William’s tuberculosis, pushed the family into a drafty, cheerless cell for twenty-five days. If William was not dying before he entered, he was certainly dying when he left.

In the isolation, Elizabeth tended her ailing husband and she felt her heart sliding into despair. Yet she recognized this as a temptation to slam the door on God, “voluntarily shutting out from my soul the only consolation it could receive.” So, she opened the door. She turned to prayer, “pleading for mercy and strength.” And this “brought peace.” In fact, prayer—frequent, and from the heart—became her refuge in the long days in quarantine. And such prayer, as it does, brought her ever-closer to her suffering William in his great moment of need.

This is where we are, too. And the great temptation now is to separate ourselves from Our Lord, who seems to have taken Himself away from us. But, like St. Elizabeth Ann, we can avoid suppressing our hearts. We can let them breathe, let them plead, let them cry out. We can pray like we have never prayed before. We can throw ourselves open to God, our help.

Today Christ might seem absent. But let us not despair. With Mary Magdalene, let us accept Christ’s “Do not touch me” with the certainty that, with these words, He gives us a new mission, a new way to be with Him. And with St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, let us meet despair with a “pleading for mercy and for strength.” For we long to see Him in this moment. We long to see Him right where we are.

Show us your face, Oh Lord, that we may be able to share the news with others. Grant that we might be able to rejoice and say, “I have seen the Lord!”

LISA LICKONA, STL, is Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology at Saint Bernard’s School of Theology and Ministry in Rochester, New York, and a nationally-known speaker and writer. She is the mother of eight children.

Image: Christ’s Appearance to Mary Magdalene after the Resurrection, Alexander Andreyevich Ivanov (1806 – 1858)