Monday, April 9, 2012

Maria, noli me tangere - Mary Magdalene encounters the risen Jesus


(Go HERE for details of the painting)

Today's Gospel is John 20:11-18, the encounter of the risen Jesus with Mary Magdalene in the garden. On Easter Sunday, 2003, the Most Rev'd Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, preached on this passage: 

'Jesus said, "Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father."'

Mary Magdalene wants Jesus back as she remembers him; failing that, she wants his corpse in a definite place, she wants a grave she can tend. Jesus appears to her – in one of the most devastatingly moving moments of the whole Bible – and her first instinct is to think that yes, he is back as she remembers, yes, she has hold of him after all. He has not disappeared, he has not been taken away to an unknown destination. 

But Jesus warns her: he is being taken to a destination more unknown than she could imagine. He is going to the Father. From now on, there will be no truthful way of speaking or thinking about him except as the one who lives alongside the source of all things. These simple, abrupt words already contain all the mysteries we celebrate when we say the creeds, when we break the bread of the Holy Communion; they tell us that Jesus gives exactly what the Father gives – life, glory, forgiveness, transfiguration. Through death he has passed into the heart of reality; he has returned where he came from. At the very beginning of John's gospel, we read of the Word of God living 'nearest to the Father's heart' from all eternity. He comes to us in the flesh and blood of Jesus and shows the glory, the radiant, solid life, of God pouring out in love: the fullest showing of that love is in his free acceptance of suffering and death, and if we are able to accept that this death sets us free once and for all, the glory of the divine life is shared with us. Jesus goes to the Father and from his place next to the Father's heart sends out the gift of the Spirit of Truth which allows us a share in his own closeness to the Father. 

Yet to realise this is to realise that we cannot have Jesus just on our terms. After the resurrection, with its demonstration that Jesus's life is as indestructible as God the Father's life, we can't simply go back to the Jesus who is humanly familiar; and –obviously – we can't have Jesus as a warm memory, a dear departed whose grave we can visit. He is alive and ahead of us, clearing a path to the Father's heart. Christian faith does not look back to a great teacher and example but forward to where Jesus leads, to that ultimate being-at-home with God which he has brought to life in the history of our world. 

So: 'Do not cling to me', he says; instead, go and bring others along on the journey. 

The rest of the sermon is HERE.


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