Jesus said to her, ‘Do not hold on to me…’
One of the most famous paintings in the National Gallery is Titian’s ‘Noli me tangere’. It is a beautiful painting: the attention to detail is remarkable: there are the farm buildings on the right, against the blue sky background, with the clouds on the left picking up the light in the sky as the sun comes up. The tree near the centre looks like an acacia, and the pale green of its leaf is struggling to dominate the golden brown of first light. The landscape in the distance still has the greys and blues of the morning mist. There’s a man coming down the hill from the farm with his dog, perhaps heading for the sheep grazing in the paddock on the left. Ordinary life is beginning at the dawn of an ordinary day.
Except that it’s not an ordinary day for Mary of Magdala. Having observed the Sabbath correctly by doing nothing, here she is, early on the first day of the week, come to anoint the body. For Mary it is not an ordinary day.
But the body is not there. Imagine the devastation. Helpless she watched the whole dreadful pageant on Calvary. Helpless she stood at the foot of the cross. And now, having come to do the little that she could do for the one she loves, she finds she cannot even do that. The body has gone; the tomb is empty. In the despair of grief she weeps.
She bends down to look inside the tomb and the angels ask her why she is weeping. ‘They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him’. She turns to see a man who asks her the same question, ‘Why are you weeping? For whom are you looking?’ In the painting he looks like the gardener, carrying a hoe and ready for work. But when you look more closely you can see the mark of the nail in the foot and the cloth draped around his body is not clothing; it is what remains of the linen shroud.
He speaks her name, ‘Mary’. She turns again and through the tears she sees who it is. She responds with the title she has always used, ‘Rabboni’. The painting captures that moment of recognition when Mary, her left hand leaning on jar of ointment, reaches out with her right hand in a gesture of excitement and love.
‘Do not keep hold of me’, says Jesus, and Titian captures that movement of the hip so that he is just out of Mary’s reach. ‘Do not hold on to me’, he says. It is a present imperative in Greek. If it had been an aorist imperative the right translation would be ‘Don’t touch me’, but it is in fact a present imperative so the right translation is ‘Don’t hold on to me’. Don’t hold on to me because I have not yet ascended to the Father. The work of salvation moves towards its completion in the Ascension when the Son rejoins the Father in heaven. That process must not be interrupted; Mary must let go of the this-earthly relationship she has with her Lord. She has to let go of the this-earthly relationship so that it can be transformed into a deeper and even more life-changing relationship – for the sake of the kingdom.
Letting go of the this-earthly is a hard lesson for us all. It is at the heart of the vows we make at profession. Letting go of money, of the control of property, having to account for everything is irritating, especially at the start of the journey. Letting go of the right to decide for yourself is harder, I think; obedience is specially difficult where you are not in a position to see the whole picture and have to trust the judgement of others. Letting go and trusting others takes you into the area of chastity, the letting go of the possibility of the kind of intimacy which comes with marriage and family life.
The worst of it is that making the vows is never the end of the matter. I may not call anything my own, but I am not exempt from taking responsibility for what is entrusted to me. And the longer you survive in religious life, the more responsibility you get: a librarian has to decide what books to buy; senior members of communities, just because of their experience and wisdom, are called on to enable the growth of ideas, and that could result in the buying and selling of property. Heads of houses and provincials know these sorts of headaches very well. We make lot of mistakes, I do anyway, on the personal level, and we make some mistakes as communities. But what the heck; you do what you can, as faithfully as you can, and that sometimes means ‘letting go’ of the things of the past in order to preserve the principle enshrined in the vow of poverty. It’s in the living of poverty that you come to see that material possessions do have value, not for their own sake, but for what you can do with them, for the sake of the kingdom.
Obedience is a more complicated kind of letting go because it involves our own will, and that most elusive concept, the will of God. Someone asked Fr Kelly once how you knew what the will of God was. He replied, and I quote, ‘You don’t – and that’s the giddy joke!’ SSM’s been living with that giddy joke ever since. You don’t know, and you have to be prepared to be a little agnostic in the religious life. You don’t know, so you live by faith. It’s worth remembering that the opposite of faith is not doubt; the opposite of faith is certainty -and there are very few things that you can be certain about. So you talk things through, you think things through, you try things out – in faith. We try to listen to one another; sometimes we are good at listening to one another, sometimes not so good. But we try – to listen to one another, and come to decisions together. After that we take our courage in both hands and put the decision into practice using all the talents God has given us. Listening and discovering our talents are two vital ingredients in obedience.
And where do we listen? Where do we discover and train talents? In the community, of course, the extraordinary alternative to marriage and family life into which we believe God has called us. Chastity may make us look wistfully at the families of our relatives and friends. They ask us to be godparents which is great, and it is lovely to see them – even lovelier, I think, because you know that at the end of the afternoon they will go home. Mind you, if you get stuck working in a children’s home it’s a different story… oh well! No, seriously, chastity makes us very aware that close personal relationships are a gift, and so we treasure the friendships we have with people inside the community and with people outside it. Friendship is a gift, and we discover that we ourselves are called to be gifts to other people. I suspect the greatest gift we have to offer anyone is our time: time to be with someone, sharing, learning, sometimes in silence as Mary must have done.
‘Do not hold on to me’, says Jesus. Let go, let go of the things that impede the proclamation of the kingdom. For us in religious life that takes the clear and specific form of the vows, with all their inconveniences and irritations. When I was professed the novice master at St Michael’s said quietly in my ear, ‘Don’t worry, the first 50 years is the worst’. So dear sister, you have only 25 years to go. After that, things can only get better.
In the meantime there are the inconveniences and irritations, but there are also moments of revelation when through our stumbling and tears we recognise the one who is calling us by name, for whose sake we have committed ourselves to letting go.
‘I have seen the Lord’, said Mary to the disciples - and my dear sisters, in some dim groping way, so have we.