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TOUCH Song of Songs 3:1-4; John 20:1-2, 11-18

In the National Gallery there is a painting by Titian dated about 1514 of Mary Magdalene with Jesus in the garden of the tomb on Easter morning. It is entitled “Nolo me Tangere” which means: “Do not touch me!” It shows Mary, on her knees, reaching out with her right hand but not quite touching Jesus. He is still in his grave clothes which he is pulling away from her with his right hand as he also bends his body away from her, whilst in his left he is holding a gardener’s tool, like a scythe. I want to focus on touch as a way of reflecting on Mary Magdalene this morning as we gather to celebrate our saint after whom this church is named.

The Resurrection
In our gospel reading we hear of the first resurrection encounter as told by John. The four gospels don’t tell exactly the same stories in their detail, but all four give the resurrection prominence in their accounts of Jesus. If they did tell exactly the same story we could be suspicious that they were all in a conspiracy together, to fabricate the facts. However, there is strength in the fact that they bear witness from slightly different perspectives. However, on one thing they are all agreed: how it was the women followers of Jesus who were the first to the tomb before daybreak on the third day after the crucifixion. Here at Willen Church we take pride that our saint was one of the first to bear witness to Jesus’ risen from the dead and to take the message to the other (male) disciples. One of the other things that the gospels agree on is the way in which Jesus was not instantly recognisable after his resurrection. There is something different about him and ordinary ways of telling who someone is no longer seemed to be appropriate. Jesus on the way to Emmaus, Jesus by the lakeside in Galilee and Jesus in the garden are only recognised when a decisive word is spoken or an action is taken: breaking the bread; the miraculous catch of fish; Mary’s name uttered by one she took to be a stranger, a gardener. Another feature of the resurrection stories is that sadness is turned to joy, despair to hope, doubt to belief. This is all because in the resurrection death is turned to new life. The role that touch plays in the resurrection is also key to the truth and reality of what has happened, what has changed.

Noli me tangere
The Latin words that give Titian’s painting its title (and many other paintings of the same scene) mean “do not touch me”. They are a translation of the original Greek words: “µ? µ?? ?pt??” (me mou haptou). These three words can be translated in different ways: simply “do not touch me”, or more subtly “do not hold onto me” or even, “do not approach me”. The particular way in which the Greek words work, the grammar of them, suggests that Jesus stopped something happening as it was about to happen or starting to happen. In other words Mary began to reach out to Jesus and he stopped her. John doesn’t say so, but Matthew describes how Mary took hold of Jesus’ feet. It is hardly surprising that Mary wanted to take hold of Jesus. What upset her so much when she discovered the missing body was not being able to touch him. She had come with the intention of caring for the dead but beloved body of Jesus. She had pleaded with the one she took to be the gardener to show her where the body had been taken so that she could express her care, respect and affection for Jesus. So why does Jesus stop her in her tracks? It only seems natural! And why, a week or so later, does Jesus encourage Thomas to do the opposite: to put his finger in the wounds in Jesus’ hands and side? What is so decisive about touch in these resurrection stories?

To answer that, we have to look at what Jesus said at the same time. To Mary he says, “do not touch or hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father but go and tell my brothers.” To Thomas he says “Put your finger hear; your hand at my side. Do not doubt but believe.” John doesn’t say whether Thomas actually touched Jesus. For him what is more important is that at that moment Thomas declared his belief and exclaimed: “My Lord and my God!” What are we to make of these accompanying sayings along with the touching or not touching? They are to do with how each disciple is now to relate to Jesus. Mary is to bear witness to the risen Christ. Thomas is to be driven by his conviction that Jesus really has risen from the dead. In other words, their relationship with Jesus has changed. Indeed, these two examples stand for the rest of the disciples, too. I say “disciples” for that is what they were during Jesus’ earthly life and as they followed him about, joining in with his mission. But after the Resurrection they are apostles – their role has changed from followers to ones sent out to proclaim the good news of Easter: Jesus has risen! Death is overcome! Believe and be baptised! The fearful disciples could never found the Church for it could only take Spirit-filled apostles to carry out such a task. Foremost among them is the apostle to the apostles, the first to bear witness to the risen Lord: Mary Magdalene.

Changed by the Resurrection
Mary Magdalene, whether she wanted simply to reach out and feel that Jesus was really there, or whether she wanted to really take hold of him, could no longer relate to Jesus in the way she had before. Previously she had been amongst the women who provided for Jesus and the other followers. They had done what countless women do for their children and their men: preparing their food, possibly washing and mending their clothes, maybe tending sore feet or weary limbs or even tending to them when sick. It’s all very physical, down to earth, practical. Mary coming to the tomb having helped lay Jesus’ body there before the Sabbath, naturally wanted to perform the last rites, do what she may well have done before for dead family or relatives. She and the other women had come equipped with the customary things that were used in those days to lay a dear dead one out and prepare them for their final resting place. Thank God for all the people, (mostly women) who do these practical tasks for us, take care of us, use their care and their touching hands to see to our needs!

But the thing about the Resurrection is that is changes everything! Jesus does not need caring for physically any longer. Nor can Mary sustain her relationship with Jesus by touching him, holding on to him, expressing her love for him in physical ways. This operates at two levels. On a more mundane level, as with anyone who dies, she has to learn to let go of them. Grieving is a process of letting go, of accepting that someone’s earthly and physical presence is no longer true of them. Mary has to let Jesus ascend to his Father in heaven. On another level, though, Mary has to begin to relate to Jesus not as a follower who looks after his needs, but as an apostle who proclaims him risen again and present for all to believe in. She must now show her love for him in taking the good news of the resurrection to all, starting with those closest to Jesus. She is apostle to the apostles and then apostle to the world.

The Appropriate Touch
It is because of this that I rejoice, along with so many others, that finally the CofE leadership has seen sense and cleared the way for women to become bishops. If the apostle to the apostles was a woman, then why can’t modern day leaders of the Church also be women as much as men?
Women and men are all called to touch the lives of others, of those to whom they are called to minister. I use the word “touch” here metaphorically – as in a touching story, or a moving message. However, we are in a mess about physical touch these days, aren’t we? Inappropriate, abusive touch has been uncovered in the criminal actions of even the most famous. They are rightly given jail sentences and judged to have caused a huge amount of pain for their victims. Touch is so powerful that it can cause great harm as much as it is vital for good. There’s nothing quite like a good hug from someone appropriate! There’s nothing like the healing touch of many types of therapy – skilled touch which eases pain and tension. We celebrate good touch in our worship: sharing the peace, accepting the bread and wine, being there for each other by our presence. Like Thomas, being invited to touch can be important when it bolsters our faith and helps us believe in the risen Lord and his presence among us. But like Mary Magdalene, we also have to learn to let go. Trying to keep hold of something or someone may hamper our ongoing progress in life’s pilgrimage. No longer is keeping hold appropriate in our relationship with Jesus – it is for us to proclaim our witness that Christ’s loving and forgiving touch in our spirits and souls sets us free. We, too, are to go and tell! Staying put, trying to pursue the old, familiar ways are all like Mary trying to keep hold of Jesus. We will only really discover him whom our hearts love when we let go and go out. That is the true celebration of Mary Magdalene!

Copyright © Rev Paul Smith.