Noli me tangere (Don’t cling to me) altarpiece: Jacopo Di Cione ca. 1368–70
John 20: 15b
She thought he was the gardener. “Sir,” she said, “if you have taken him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will go and get him.”
“Don’t cling to me”, said the risen Lord to Mary Magdalene as she reached out to the one she loved. Jesus’ words have a particular poignancy in these Covid-19 times, when touch is barred and love is expressed by keeping your distance. Yet, we are still asked to reach out to those who need our fellowship and comfort.
There is an intensity to Jacopo Di Cione’s Mary. Her world has been shattered, and things are about to be flipped over again. The new reality is being superseded by an even newer reality. The Lord is moving away from her again. But this time it is He who is choosing to move on rather than being forced to stagger to his death cross. This time his leaving is tender, loving and reassuring.
And then there is that garden hoe that Jesus carries in his left hand; harshly set against delicately draped gold and pink fabric. He won’t be weeding with it, but it signals a mystical promise, to cultivate the soil of our hearts.
The etched gold leaf background gives the painting a timeless immanence, as if the Lord is speaking to us now. And what he’s saying is this: “Do not cling to what you know. Do not seek me where you left me… Best to seek me in your new situation – I will be there. Seek and you will find. Just don’t hold me back from what must be done”.
The staff at the St. Annes foodbank are caught in this dilemma; how to express our closeness to the clients without putting them in harm’s way. It has involved radical changes to our operating procedures which restrict our face time with each client to a matter of seconds, making it so difficult to read the unwritten clues of their body language. Likewise, it is easy to miss the Lord in the anxiety of these times. But through these messy, rushed interactions he meets us in our confusion and calls us by name.
We are denied the physical experience of congregation and community, but we trust that the master gardener will tend the Word he is planted in our hearts; we just need to move on to where he is now calling us to be.
John 20: 17
“Don’t cling to me,” Jesus said, “for I haven’t yet ascended to the Father. But go find my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”