by Frances Young.
It’s funny how old long familiar things can take on new resonances. This Easter was a case in point. The set lectionary meant revisiting the Johannine story of Mary in the garden and the Risen Jesus’ insistence that she should not touch him. What struck me with fresh force, after recent months without hugs or handshakes, was how cruel that was. She had loved and lost, and the most natural thing in the world was to clasp the lost one to herself. And it was disallowed. Why?
Of course within the narrative of the Fourth Gospel it is possible to make exegetical sense of it. Jesus gives the reason: “I am not yet ascended to the Father.” He has not simply come back; things have not returned to “normal”; nothing will ever be the same again. Ancient and modern romances may have told of Jesus coming round in the cool of the tomb and starting a new married life with Mary Magdalen in Egypt, but the very idea is repudiated in this Gospel, whatever Mary might have desired. The message for the disciples is along the same lines: “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God,” a word which surely signifies that there is to be a quite different relationship.
Yet the apparently contradictory invitation to Thomas to touch will guarantee that the Risen one really is Jesus – the flesh-and-blood now wounded teacher they had known and followed. The old debates about whether the resurrection was literal or spiritual are surely way off beam: the stories show it was mysteriously “both-and.” This was not a resuscitation but a transformation; nor was it a ghost but a spiritual body – to borrow Paul’s phrase for the utter paradox of this abnormal normal. And when he has ascended to the Father, his presence with them, his relationship with them, will indeed be real but different: bread and wine will communicate his presence and life, the Church will be his body on earth, and blessed will be those who have believed without seeing or touching. Yet the first Epistle of John will testify to hearing, seeing and touching “with our hands.” (I John 1.1) The incarnation is about physical contact and the creeds affirm the resurrection of the body.
The Church down the ages has found this difficult, preferring to think of the soul going to heaven. “I’m tired of this old body,” said my mother in her nineties …
And yet it is through our bodies, our physical senses, that we have our identity, that we interact with the world – through our bodies others recognise us, through our bodies we cement relationships with handshakes, hugs and kisses. Zoom just doesn’t do it! And the notional brain in a vat surely has no thoughts or feelings! We are constituted as psycho-somatic wholes – embodied souls, ensouled bodies – indivisible if we are to be genuinely human creatures, a point constantly emphasized by the orthodox thinkers of the early Church. Indeed, it was affirmation of creation, of the material, physical reality of earthly life, as good and as God’s, which distinguished early Christianity from most other ancient religions and philosophies, and despite the pull of the culture and the pressures of ascetic and celibate ideologies, leading Christian writers always recognised that incarnation demanded that affirmation, so also the sacraments, and resurrection too required real continuity between our whole selves here and our whole selves in any future beyond death – Augustine even speculated on the purpose of gender differences in heaven where there would no longer be procreation.
Mary was not to touch – not to cling to the past, not to try and possess the Jesus she had known: for everything was changed. But Thomas was invited to touch, to prove it really was Jesus, the Jesus they knew, the Jesus who had suffered and died – to recognise and know that physical reality. Perhaps our longing for handshakes and hugs can challenge our thinking, hard though it is to envisage what it means.
Maybe an analogy can help our puzzled pondering. Music is profoundly physical: nothing without airwaves and ears, vocal chords, mouths to sing or blow, fingers to pluck strings or play keys … And yet it is perhaps one of the most spiritual things we experience. I was visiting my dying mother back in 2005 when the death of the Pope had just been announced. I mentioned it and added, “I expect there was rejoicing in heaven when he got there.” She drifted off. Some minutes later she opened her eyes and said, “The music was wonderful!”