Mary Magdalene meets Jesus in the Garden on the first Easter morning: a sermon for Eucharist on Easter Day, preached on 4th April 2021 by Canon Charles Mitchell-Innes.
(Genesis 28: 10-17 and John 20: 11-18)
I am going to start today by talking about Titian’s painting ‘Noli me tangere’: so I hope you all have a copy to look at. It depicts a moment in St John’s account we heard as our second reading – the moment when Mary of Magdala finds Jesus’ tomb empty in the garden. Already immeasurably saddened by his grim death, and desolate at his loss, she is now beside herself with grief and fear at the apparent removal of his body and pleads with the gardener for information about it. He simply speaks her name – “Mary” – and we have a moment of pure, ecstatic joy as the revelation of who he really is floods in on her. “Rabboni”, she responds, in amazed rapture, and reaches out to him. Titian’s picture captures this and what happens next, as Jesus gently says to her, “Do not touch me” – “Noli me tangere” – or perhaps, “Do not hold on to me.”
This might sound a little curt. But just look at how Jesus stands in the picture: he bends away from her hand, but also leans towards her to reassure her. She has gone to the tomb to anoint his body, a final expression of her love. But Jesus at this moment shows how earthly human love must see its limits and be transformed into divine love. “I am not yet ascended”: it is a transition period between these two loves, which are yet part of the same process. Look at the composition of the picture. The tree divides it in half. On the left (where Jesus stands) is a rich, pastoral landscape, the sheep perhaps reminding us of his role as the Good Shepherd; it has intimations of heaven, with its rich blue line of hills in the distance. On the right, where Mary for the present remains, we see a brown, more human scene, the edge of a town, where life goes on as usual. The man coming down the hill walking his dog is a particularly homely touch.
Yet these very different scenarios are not entirely separate. The tree, at an angle between them, continues the line of Mary’s back into the left half; whilst Jesus clasps a hoe – very earthy – at a corresponding angle into the right half, which he leans into. Like most of the really valuable things in our life, it is not cut and dried. There is a constant and subtle interaction – here between the spiritual and the bodily realms, between divine and physical love, between God and humans. You may notice that the line of the hills continues to the right of the tree and does not abruptly stop. A E Housman’s “blue remembered hills” were “a land of lost content” where he could not go again. By contrast, Mary is positioned towards them: perhaps she is just beginning to comprehend that she too, like Jesus, will in due course be with “my God and your God”. That is what her Jesus’ resurrection promises.
Titian’s painting hangs in the National Gallery. Neil Macgregor, when he was the Gallery’s Director, wrote this: “Mary’s gesture concedes that what she loves is now unattainable in the terms familiar to her, that the fulfilment of her love will not be physical, but spiritual. And her anguish of a few minutes before is resolved; because a lord who cannot be touched is a lord who can never be taken away.” *
What, then, are the other disciples doing, while Mary is having this revelatory experience which alters the future and transforms the past? They are very much stuck in the present, locked into a house, fearful, anxious what the world will throw at them next. And in the middle of this all-too-human concern, the risen Christ is suddenly there in their midst, saying, “Peace be with you”. “Then were the disciples glad” – not unnaturally. But just as the risen Lord breaks once more into the physical realm, so they are bidden to do God’s work, the work of the Spirit, in the world. They must leave their holy huddle, reassuring as it may be, and get out to continue Christ’s ministry, to be his hands and feet, to look out on the world with his eyes. Jesus specifically commissions them at this point to be the ministers of his gospel. And, by Heaven, they do, a number of them surrendering their lives in the process.
It is often when things are bleakest that we are most aware of our need for faith – not as a comfort zone, but as God’s strength and love breaking into our lives, drawing us, as they drew Mary Magdalene, towards the heavenly community even as we remain in our own human communities.
In August 1939, Kenneth Clark, then Director of the National Gallery, arranged for the evacuation of its paintings. By direct order of Churchill, a year later, none was allowed to leave the country. They were stored instead deep in a disused slate mine near Blaenau Ffestiniog in North Wales. But in February 1942, a particularly bleak moment in the course of the war, Clark decided that one picture a month should be brought back to London and displayed. The first to be requested by members of the public and hung in solitary splendour was the picture you have in front of you. It is not hard to see why this image of salvation, of God at work in a dark world, was so appealing and spoke directly to the 10 thousand imperilled Londoners who came to see it. The spiritual impinges forcibly into the stark realities of life and death, as so many have discovered recently.
Jacob, in our 1st lesson, dreamed of a ladder “set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven: and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it” (Genesis 28:12). He glimpsed, in other words, God breaking into our world. The poet Francis Thompson, who himself knew much of desolation, expressed it like this:
“But (when so sad thou canst not sadder)
Cry; – and upon thy so sore loss
Shall shine the traffic of Jacob’s ladder
Pitched betwixt Heaven and Charing Cross.” (‘In No Strange Land’)
That is what Christ’s conversation with Mary in the garden is all about. And it is for all of us what Easter is about: God’s love conquers the death of the body. So that, one day, we, like Jacob, shall exclaim in wonderment, “This is none other but the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven” (Genesis 28: 17).
And it will not be a dream.
*“Seeing Salvation” (BBC 2000) p.189