Noli me tangere

The Revd Dr William Lamb
Easter Day

10.30am

Podcast

John 20.1-18

The little town of Vezelay lies in Burgundy just to the south-east of Paris. Standing above the town on a hill is a very fine Romanesque basilica dedicated to St. Mary Magdalene. It is one of the starting points for the pilgrimage to Santiago da Compostella. I visited this church while staying with friends a few years ago on my way back from a visit to the ecumenical community at Taize.

If you go into the basilica, one of the pillars in the south aisle of the nave has a particularly fine carved capital. It is called le Moulin Mystique. The top of the pillar depicts a miller holding a bag of wheat over a mill, while another gathers the flour underneath. It is an image which intrigues pilgrims and tourists alike. Like any image or symbolic representation, it carries a range of different meanings. For some, the two millers represent Moses and Paul the Apostle – the raw material of the old Jewish Law is poured by Moses and refined into the spiritual food of the Gospel and gathered by Paul.For others, the image of the mill provides a suggestive parable for the complex interactions at work in the interpretation of scripture. Indeed, there were a number of writers in the early church who took the text in Isaiah, “Take the millstones and grind meal” (Isaiah 47.2) to refer to the labour and practice of Biblical interpretation. In Judaism also there is an ancient rabbinic teaching that ‘when God gave humankind Torah he gave it in the form of wheat for us to make flour from it, and flax for us to make a garment from it: Torah is the raw material, to be ground, woven, and spun (out)’.

So the mill marks that point where the germs of wheat are ground, sifted, and refined – in other words, the point at which the ancient words of scripture are translated, interpreted and transformed. And this describes the way in which the reading of scripture provides bread for the soul.

The basilica I have described is dedicated to Mary Magdalene. And Mary Magdalene plays a pivotal role in the story which we have just heard. Peter and John have raced to the tomb, Peter as usual taking his time to catch up. The evangelist records that ‘they saw and believed’, but almost as quickly they retreat from the scene. Mary is standing alone. We do not know how long she has been there by the tomb. She is grieving. The image of Mary Magdalene alone, isolated, suffering the disorientation and confusion of loss, resonates with our own experience of grief or any moment when our hearts have been broken. Why does she stay here by the tomb in this place of desolation?  In one of his commentaries, Gregory the Great comments on this passage and says that ‘to have looked into the tomb once (like Peter and John) is not enough for love. Love makes one desire to look over and over again’.

I suspect that sometimes we rush too quickly over this experience of grief. We are sometimes too quick to sing our Alleluias on Easter Day. I wonder if this silence that surrounds grief is of a piece with our culture’s discomfort with death. Dame Sue Black, a Professor of Anatomy and an anthropologist, notes that we often shy away from death. We ignore it and avoid speaking of it. She says, ‘Life is light, good and happy; death is dark, bad and sad.’ We choose ‘to neatly categorise life and death as opposites, giving us the comforting illusion of an unambiguous sense of right and wrong that perhaps unfairly banishes death to the dark side’. We have lost sight of the wisdom that saw ‘holy living’ and ‘holy dying’ as part and parcel of human experience. We hesitate at the Prayer Book’s unyielding phrase, ‘In the midst of life we are in death’. We struggle to find the words to describe our mortality. And Mary Magdalene? Whatever Mark the evangelist may say, she is not afraid. Compelled by love, she looks directly into the tomb.  

But he is gone. He is no longer there. And Mary weeps.

‘They have taken my Lord away and I do not know where they have laid him’. When she had said this, she turned and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away. Jesus said to her, ‘Mary!’

There are two things about this account of the resurrection from John which strike me as curious. The first is this sense of mistaken identity. The resurrection appearances, almost all of them, have this ambiguous quality about them: of Jesus being recognised and not being recognised. Perhaps this ambiguity is the way in which the evangelists suggest that we are being taken to the very limits of our understanding. And Mary assumes that Jesus is ‘the gardener’. Commentators have puzzled over this for centuries. But one of the explanations that I find increasingly persuasive is that John the evangelist sees in the unfolding story of his gospel the same pattern and insight which St Paul describes in his epistles in terms of ‘a new creation’. Remember the way in which John’s gospel begins ‘In the beginning’, that direct echo of the Book of Genesis, the Book of Creation. He speaks of the Word active in creation: ‘All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being’. He speaks of the Word made flesh in Jesus Christ. And as the sequence of events unfold in the early chapters of John, he recounts the next day, the next day, the next day, like the days of creation. Here as the story reaches its climax, Mary Magdalene greets the risen Lord in a garden, like that first garden of Eden. Here Paradise is restored. There is a new creation.

But then there is this curious turn in the conversation when Jesus says to Mary, ‘Do not cling to me’, literally, ‘Do not touch me’. It’s a passage which has provoked all sorts of speculative interpretations among theologians and artists. Think of the curious vacillation of Fra Angelico’s Noli me tangere, where the outstretched hand of Jesus seems both to offer a consoling embrace to Mary and to keep her at a distance all at the same time.  It’s a phrase which has a particular resonance during these days of social distancing.

‘Do not cling to me!’ Perhaps Jesus is acknowledging Mary’s natural human response. In her grief, Mary wants Jesus back. Of course, she does. And yet, that is not what the hope of the resurrection offers us. At the heart of the Christian faith is the extraordinary paradox that ‘death itself is the path to new life’ and ‘death insists that we let go of what we’ve grasped and understood’(Mark Vernon, 'Easter and the End of Christianity'), even though that may be completely bewildering. As John puts it ‘Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains but a single grain, but if it dies, it bears much fruit’(John 12.24). For only in letting go will we discover the truth that ‘the process of living is also the process of dying; and the process of dying is also the process of resurrection’ (Lash, Seeing in the Dark, 117). As we celebrate the mystery of Easter, we bear witness to the risen Christ, who has overcome the powers of sin and death. Caught as we are between living and dying, in these desperate days of a global pandemic, we do not succumb to fear or despair. For as we listen to the words of the Exsultet, we receive the assurance and the consolation that our life is hid with Christ in God: ‘Christ is risen from the dead and his flame of love still burns within us’. In these words, we discover not only bread for the soul but also a deep yearning to discover anew the fire of God’s love, the beauty of hope, and the promise of a new creation.