Noli Me Tangere: Easter Sermon
Jesus said to Mary, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father.”
You cannot know someone in their entirety. Indeed, I wonder whether I can honestly say that I know even myself entirely. Certainly each of Jesus’ disciples must have known Him each in their own particular way, only in part, only as each one’s individual sum of memories of Him. So, Mary knew Jesus differently from Peter, say, and Peter from John, or Judas, or Andrew.
When somebody dies, especially if they die too young and they ended their lives blighted by illness or violence, people often say, “I don’t want to remember him like that. I want to remember him how he used to be.” A natural response, but such selective memory comes with a danger: the danger of remembering the person how we wanted them to be, and confusing what we remember with the person they really were. A danger, then, of delimiting, defining, even controlling that person’s memory to fit our own needs, desires and projections.
So to the empty tomb. When Mary Magdalene met the supposed gardener there, she did not recognise him as Jesus:- as though His resurrected self did not match her cherished preconceptions. This, I think, is why He warns her: noli me tangere.
“Do not hold on to me. Do not cling to me.” It is as though He were saying, “You cannot grasp me, cannot keep me here: my journey is not yet done. I am more than the sum of your memories of me.”
So far, I have been talking only of the danger of grasping too firmly in our memories a fellow human being. With Jesus, the danger is by far amplified if He indeed is, as Christians believe, God Incarnate among us, and His warning far more urgent: because, in the the words of the great African bishop St Augustine, si comprehendis, non est Deus: “If you think you have grasped it, it is not God.” Try to impose your ideal onto God, try to grasp Him and contain Him and mould Him in your image, and you are guilty of the grave sin of idolatry.
“Idolatry” is a loaded word and often misused, even by many of our Christian brethren. There are many who suppose that idolatry quite simply means worshipping statues, and walking into this church would accuse us of just that. But they miss the point. I have a photograph of my late and beloved grandfather on which I look with great emotion and yes, at times, sometimes, when I look at it I talk; but I do not for a moment suppose that the bit of paper actually is my grandfather, nor am I talking to the image of him. So with our images of the saints: they prompt us to devotion and love, but we do not worship them. This is not idolatry.
Real idolatry is setting up something, anything, in place of the true and living God whom we know in the life, the death and the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. “There is nothing unChristlike,” said Archbishop Michael Ramsay, “in God.” So whenever we are confronted with images of a god who seeks the death of the infidel, the persecution of the sinful, the satisfaction of the chosen faithful few, a god bound up in a book of human words and laws, we need to ask: does this conform to Christ? Or is it not rather an idol made up of all-too-human fears and fantasies, far more dangerous than any graven image; a life-raft god clung to desperately by those who fear to sink.
One might of course raise the objection that Jesus Christ is not God, that He was just an exceptional prophet or rabbi, and that when He died, He stayed dead. If so, then granted, God could match any idol you care to choose in the great supermarket of religions. If Jesus were just a prophet, then on Easter Day, all we have is a dead prophet; if Jesus were just a rabbi, then all we have left on Easter Day is a dead rabbi: and neither of these scenarios tell us much about God. But if Jesus was as we claim God Himself in human form, He tells a different story indeed, the story of a God who refuses to captured, categorised, tamed, contained; a God who empties Himself of everything we might attach or attribute to Him so that we might attain that divinity which we cannot even imagine.
God in Christ empties Himself so utterly that He gives us nothing to cling to. In the beginning of time, from utter inconceivable emptiness, He poured out His Spirit to bring the fulness of Creation; He descended into the emptiness of a Virgin’s womb, emptying out the fulness of His Divinity here into the mess of a stinking stable cave of a world to be born one of us; on the Cross, He emptied Himself even of His humanity, immortal God becoming man so that He could die, and as though that were not enough, further still He descends, right into Hell on Holy Saturday, into the sheer absence of God, utter nothingness, as it were cancelling Himself out, the God who knows God-lessness: “O why hast Thou forsaken me?”
I have not yet told you the first words someone said to me when I arrived for the first time in clericals in Camden Town. An old man, it was, and it took me a moment after he passed me to work out what he had just said: “There is no God.” Well, perhaps he was half right. The first Christians, after all, were accused of atheism for refusing to bow to the idols of the Roman gods. The God we know in Jesus Christ is God because He is not a God, not one in the pantheon somewhere among Mithras the bull-god and Cloacina, goddess of sewers. He resists such classification. But more fundamentally, the God we know in Jesus Christ is God only because He completely empties Himself of His divinity for our sakes. There is no Resurrection without Crucifixion, no Easter without Good Friday. Again, to paraphrase Augustine, the immortal God became mortal so that he could die: because it is by dying that He could give us mortals His eternal life. God became human so that humans could become divine. Such beautiful symmetry: such incomprehensible paradox.
Many like Mary seek to grasp hold of God; but if God is as Jesus reveals, then there is no purchase, nothing to get hold of. As much as we might wrestle with Him, He slips from our grasp, utterly free, from all our striving and projections. And yet it is precisely that freedom which He offers us on this Day of Resurrection. It is the invitation to be as free as He is, free from the bonds of false projections that others place on us and we on ourselves, free from the attachments to this world, the layers of false self and ego by which we are so easily dragged down and held back, the freedom to shed all that dead weight and realise the true self that lies deeper within our hearts than we can imagine, and is the very image of God in which every one of us is made. It is the freedom to be Crucified; and once Crucified, even as we joyfully accept that we cannot grasp God and drag ourselves up to a salvation of our own making, that is the very moment when just as surely, Jesus finally grasps us and lifts us to Perfection in the Father’s Kingdom as He at last Ascends.