Magdalene and Thomas – Easter 2009

Easter garden - St Augustine's

Easter garden - St Augustine's

Easter - St Augustine's

Easter - St Augustine's

Easter Day 2009
John 20:1-18

Marian Free

In the name of God, as close as breath and as distant as a star. Amen.

One of the most memorable pictures of Princess Diana is that of her visiting and  touching AIDS patients. At a time when AIDS misunderstood and feared and its sufferers despised and isolated, Princess Di had both the courage to believe that AIDS was not something to be feared and she had the compassion to realize that those who had been shunned by society were in need of the touch of and the reassurance that they were valued as human beings.

Touch has always been a very confronting thing. Its intimacy not only indicates knowledge and acceptance but risks contagion from the one touched. Centuries before Diana, St Francis shocked his contemporaries by embracing a leper – equally despised by society and equally feared as presenting a risk of infection. Mother Teresa and her nuns similarly faced censure and misunderstanding when they offered touch and comfort to those rejected by their own society.

The fact that Francis’ act is remembered centuries later and that Diana’s action led to media attention around the world is evidence that in our society touch can be considered both daring and dangerous. Touch carries with it the risk not only of contamination, but also the danger of being made vulnerable in the sense of exposing oneself to another. Touch implies intimacy and knowledge and can therefore be both welcome and unwelcome. Touch can be violent and it can be gentle, it can be affectionate or demeaning, life-giving or life-destroying. Touch can be used to draw someone near or to push them away.

In our generation, touch has become a matter of such controversy and mistrust that it has had to be legislated. With good reason, boundaries have been set on how and when we touch others, especially the vulnerable.

Touch is important in Jesus’ story. Jesus touches and is touched in order to facilitate healing. He himself is touched in the most personal and intimate of ways. He is held by his parents and by Simeon, he is anointed by Mary and by an unknown woman, he is touched by the guards who flog him and the soldiers who crucify him. He is held by Joseph of Arimethea and others who took him from the cross and laid him in the tomb. Even after his resurrection, touch remains an important factor in the story. According to Matthew, the disciples grasp his feet when they see him. Next week we will hear once again that Thomas was invited to put his finger in Jesus’ wounds. Jesus is certainly not afraid to be touched by those around him –  before or after the resurrection.

This makes his statement to Mary Magdalene today all the more confusing: “Do not hold on to me” “Do not touch me.” Why, when Thomas is specifically invited to touch, is Mary specifically asked to refrain? Is it that Mary wants to hold him to herself rather than free him to do what must be done? Is it that she hasn’t grasped that while he is really alive, he has also really died and cannot stay long on this earth? Does Jesus have more compassion for Thomas’s weakness than understanding for Mary’s strength?

Of course we do not know the answers to questions such as these, but as I struggled with these conflicting stories of touch post-resurrection, it seemed to me that they illustrate something of the paradox that is Jesus. He is both God and human, both present and absent, he truly died and yet we know him to be live. He is completely known and yet utterly unknowable. He is as close as a breath and yet as distant as a star.

There is a tension then between the closeness and intimacy of our relationship with Jesus and our knowledge that Jesus is God and therefore beyond the reach of human understanding. It is important for us to understand and maintain that tension if we are not to bring Jesus down to our level and to deprive him of his Godliness. We have always to be careful lest our intimacy lead to familiarity and familiarity to a casualness which would strip the relationship of its meaning.

This tension is revealed in the different stories of Thomas and Mary. Thomas lacks the intimacy of Mary and needs the reassurance of the closeness of Jesus. Mary knows what it is to be close to Jesus and perhaps needs to understand that closeness needs to be tempered by a certain amount of detachment, a recognition that Jesus as God cannot be contained and limited, but must be set free. So Jesus comforts Thomas and challenges Mary.

We who know the risen Lord must also live with the tension with the paradox, that Jesus who is very present to us is always just beyond our grasp. We are reminded that while we can have a personal relationship with Jesus, we do ourselves, and him, a disservice if we endeavour to hold him too close and to define the relationship on our own terms. We can come know Jesus through his teaching and through our experience of him, but ultimately we have to accept that he is ultimately unknowable. Jesus is ours to know, but not ours to hold.

That Jesus is risen and alive today gives each one of us the possibility of entering into relationship with him. Our knowledge of Jesus is not based on historical recollection, but on our own present association with the risen Christ. We are not limited by stories of the past, but know Jesus through our own present experience of him.

There will be times in our lives when, like Thomas, we need and are given the comfort of Jesus’ presence and times when, like Mary we become so comfortable that we will need to be challenged to let go. Somewhere in the middle we will find the balance – one that is not made so complacent by Jesus’ presence that his divinity is obscured, and one that does not so over emphasise his divinity such that he is never near.

The risen Christ is with us now. Let us not make him so familiar that we reduce him to one of us, nor so remote that we have no relationship with him at all.

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