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Noli Me Tangere

Noli Me Tangere

by Linda McMillan

John 20:1-18

When someone precious is no longer there — through death or distance — look for the love. It may be hard to recognize, but it’ll be there. Somewhere.


Jesus was betrayed, he has died, he has been laid in a tomb, and now he is risen… Alleluia! On this happy Easter Sunday morning, we are glad to have that death and betrayal behind us. It has been a long hard Lent, after all, and now we can get on with some good old Easter hymn singing and a big celebration. Whew… I don’t know about you, but I am breathing a big sigh of relief. I need a little Easter.


Something happened, though, very early in the morning on that very first Easter day. According to John, it was still dark. The new light of Jesus’s resurrection had not yet dawned in any heart. It was a time of unknowing. Try to imagine for a moment that you were at the tomb too and that you do not know what is going to happen next either. I know you’ve heard the story before, but here’s the recap:


Mary Magdalene discovered that the stone covering the entrance to Jesus’s tomb had been rolled away. She assumed that someone had stolen Jesus’s body and went to report that to Peter and John. Of course, Peter and John ran to the tomb right away — Peter is so dramatic — and they also saw what Mary had seen. Seeing the burial cloths, though, they deduced that the body had not been stolen. A thief would have taken the body, burial cloths and all. One of them believed Jesus had been resurrected, but the text doesn’t say what the other one thought, it just says that they didn’t understand and went back home.


Mary hung around, though. She wept at the entrance to the tomb in the same way that any of us would weep over the death of a friend. Her life would never be the same again. Jesus would never again laugh with her, or share a secret, or be there to talk her through a hard time. There would be no more quiet afternoons just sitting together, or walking along the seacoast. Even his body was gone. The man had died and there was no trace of him. To us, Jesus is the Messiah. To Mary, Jesus was her friend, maybe more… irrelevant speculation abounds. Maybe she longed for more time, maybe she had left something unsaid, or maybe she just missed him. We can’t know. But, if God was truly human, then this was more than an ordinary messiah, this was a real flesh and blood man too, and he had friends.


There were a couple of angels at the tomb that day. That’s what the story says, anyway. One of the angels asked Mary, “Why are you weeping?” Isn’t that an odd question?

  • Her friend was dead.
  • She was sad.
  • She wept.


Those three statements go together logically. What was wrong with that angel? But, then Jesus asked her exactly the same thing because he was there now too. “Woman,” he said, “Why are you weeping?” Surely Jesus could have figured it out, Son of God, and all.


When we see something like that twice — the exact same question — in only three verses we have to stop and ask some questions about it.

  • What’s the deal with the weeping?
  • Why didn’t Mary recognize her friend?
  • And, finally, why wouldn’t Jesus let Mary touch him?


Those of us who are mere mortals know what the weeping is about. We’ve known death, and one day we will have our own. We’ve wept over the loss of loved ones, the loss of the life we shared, and the hopes we had, as well as a myriad of smaller deaths that come disguised as disappointment, betrayal, failure… I could go on.  But, we know tears.


We know something about why Mary didn’t recognize Jesus too. It is because their relationship had forever changed. The day my most-loved aunt died, a long time ago now, I thought I smelled roses all day, and I think it was her way of relating to me in a new way. Like Jesus’s disciples, though, I just didn’t get it. Only later did I think, “Aunt Katherine?” And then I knew.


Mary and Jesus’s friendship and love remained, but death had changed Jesus so profoundly that their ways of relating had to change too. Oh, how she must have longed for the good old days when Jesus was knowable and physically present. She wept over it. I don’t want to fiffle-faffle with the nature of Jesus during his resurrection days, but the fact is that the Jesus she knew and loved was gone, and the resurrected Jesus presented in a way that was so distinctly different that she didn’t recognize him.



The very next thing Jesus asked her, “Mary, who are you looking for?”

“The sheep hear my voice, and they follow me.”


When Jesus called her by name, Mary really listened and she recognized him. How often have you spoken to your children and it seems as if they are not listening, and then called their name? When you call someone by name they pay attention. It’s personal. That is why baptism and naming are so closely related in our liturgy. It’s personal. You have to pay attention. Mary heard her name, and she found the one she was looking for. Imagine the bemused smile on Jesus’s face.


“Oh, my teacher…” she said, but as she moved toward him Jesus pulled away. Things are different now, remember. “Don’t touch me,” he said, “I have not yet ascended.” And you just have to wonder what that means. A lot of people have speculated on that. Everything from Jesus was unclean, because of being dead, to Mary being unclean, because of being on her period… Honestly, a lot of people have written about this. Later, Jesus will urge Thomas to him. It’s confusing. But, I don’t think it’s about touching.


We want to hold on, don’t we? We want our loved ones to remain present and in their bodies because we don’t want our lives changed, now or ever. Not like that. There is attachment to the way things are. But, when Jesus was on his way to whatever is next, he said, “Let me go.” It’s not about cleanliness or uncleanliness, though John talks about that a lot. Nor is it about touching. It’s about attachment.


Earlier Jesus had said, “It is the spirit which gives life, the flesh is of no avail.” He knew that it was the spirit of God which would prick hearts and move the world, not his physical presence.


We don’t want to be let down, we don’t want to be disappointed, we don’t want to fail, we don’t want to be betrayed, or even to be a betrayer. Yet, all those things happen. We don’t want our loved ones to die, either. But, they do. If this is a day for Alleluia, and Christo Anesti, and the hymns and everything, then it is also a day for letting go.


I hope that Mary had read the poetry of the Song of Solomon and consoled herself with the words, “…The fire of love stops at nothing…. Flood waters can’t drown love, torrents of rain can’t put it out.” Even so, it was a devastating loss. It happens. Life can be forever changed in a moment and there is nothing to do about it. But, there is the love. The love remains.


When someone precious is no longer there — through death or distance — look for the love. It may be hard to recognize, but it’ll be there. Somewhere. Maybe it will even show up in your own heart as you carry the spirit of the one you love out into the world with you.


It’s a thin hope, I know. And it’s a far cry from a triumphant alleluia. But sometimes that’s all we’ve got, and — dayneu — it’s enough.


Linda McMillan lives in al Jouf, Saudi Arabia.


Image:  Waldburg ( Upper Austria ). Saint Mary Magdalene parish church: High altar ( 1520 ) of Mary Magdalene, by Lienhart Krapfenbacher – Mary Magdalene meeting the resurrected Christ ( Noli me tangere ). 

  • Song of Solomon 8:7… Hang my locket around your neck, wear my ring on your finger. Love is invincible facing danger and death. Passion laughs at the terrors of hell. The fire of love stops at nothing— it sweeps everything before it. Flood waters can’t drown love, torrents of rain can’t put it out. Love can’t be bought, love can’t be sold— it’s not to be found in the marketplace. My brothers used to worry about me: (The Message)
  • John 10:27… My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me. (NKJV)
  • John 6:63… The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you—they are full of the Spirit and life. (NIV)

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