The Revd Canon Jonathan Baker looks at the account of the resurrection in St John's Gospel and Titian's painting, Noli Me Tangere.
The Resurrection according to St John and Titian
John 20. 11-18
In this third talk looking at the different Gospel accounts of the resurrection with the help of an artist who has meditated upon the scene, we come to John’s Gospel. First I’m going to look at the narrative and then at the painting by Titian, and see how the painting can inform our reading.
In John’s account of the resurrection, the central figure – other than Jesus himself, of course – is Mary Magdalene. In John there are no other women coming to the tomb at dawn – only Mary. She comes early on the first day of the week – the day which evokes the first day of creation, and which now is to be associated with the new creation. She finds the stone rolled away and the tomb empty, so she runs and tells Simon Peter and ‘the disciple whom Jesus loved,’ who run to the tomb. Peter sees the empty tomb and the grave clothes, and, we suppose, scratches his head. The disciple whom Jesus loved goes in and ‘he saw and believed.’ But, John says, ‘as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead.’ And so they go back home, leaving Mary to discover by herself more of the truth of what has happened.
Mary’s starting point is grief. It is grief which has brought her to the tomb, grief which has made her return after the two men have gone, grief which makes her stand weeping outside the tomb. This is grief fuelled by love. She loved Jesus, because of his great love for her. And without his love her world seems bereft and very dark indeed. As she weeps, Mary bends down to look into the tomb and sees two angels where Jesus’ body had been. These two angels remind us of the Old Testament description of the inner sanctuary of the Jerusalem Temple, the Holy of Holies, where the Ark of the Covenant was kept, originally containing the stone tablets of the Law given to Moses on Sinai. And above the Ark of the Covenant there were two carved and gilded angels, or cherubim, one on either side. So John is suggesting that the place where Jesus’ body lay was like the Ark of the Covenant, the place where God was revealed on earth.
At first the angels don’t seem very helpful. They just say ‘Woman, why are you weeping?’ Her reply is ‘They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.’ Mary’s sense of bereavement is made worse by the fear that even Jesus’ body has now been stolen. She then turns and sees Jesus, but doesn’t recognise him. Jesus repeats the question of the angels: ‘Woman, why are you weeping?’ – as if her grief is odd and needs explanation. He adds ‘Whom are you looking for?’ – which is an echo of his first words in John’s Gospel, right back in Chapter 1, when he invites the two disciples of John the Baptist to examine what it is they really want: ‘What are you looking for?’ he asks them when they begin to follow him. Mary fails to recognise Jesus, whom she takes to be the gardener, but nevertheless she blurts out her longing: ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.’ She wants to be with Jesus and do what she can to look after him, even in death.
Then Jesus calls Mary by name. As she hears her name, so there is this wonderful moment of recognition – as she hears herself called, so she knows who it is doing the calling. The stranger is transformed into the Saviour. Instead of being the one she suspected of having robbed or deprived or diminished her, Jesus is revealed as the one who knows her, who sees her as she truly is, who calls her in love, and who as a result offers her back her true self, her name and her identity as the one who loves and is loved by the Lord Jesus Christ.
So there is in John’s account a kind of double resurrection. There is the resurrection of Jesus, of course, leaving the tomb empty, his risen body substituting a divine presence which is greater than anything which could be found in the Temple. But then there is also a kind of resurrection for Mary, who turns from the darkness of the tomb to the newness of life. She hasn’t just got Jesus back, she’s got herself back, evoking Jesus’s words in Chapter 14, verse 19, ‘Because I live, you will live also.’
But then having come back to her, against all possible expectation, Jesus says something totally surprising and potentially devastating: ‘Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father.’ No sooner has he revealed himself to her as risen and alive and triumphant over death, than he is saying he is going to leave her and go to the Father, and that she can’t expect to hold on to him. It’s almost as if he’s given her the most wonderful, amazing and unexpected present, only to snatch it away again. What’s going on here is that Jesus is warning her not to hold on to the past. Although he is alive, his heavenly body is very different from his earthly body, and their relationship will be different in future from how it was before. Although he is the same Jesus she knew and loved, he is in many ways indeed a stranger. And he sends her back to the disciples with a message: ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’ So Mary goes and announces to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord.’ She becomes the apostle to the apostles. The resurrection means, for her, a new hope and a new task, sharing the good news.
Titian’s painting is a commentary on much of this. It’s called ‘Noli me tangere,’ Latin for ‘Do not touch me.’ It’s about 4’ x 3’ and hangs in the National Gallery in London. Painted 500 years ago, between 1510-15, it focuses on that moment in the garden and the exchange between Jesus and Mary. On the left we see the risen Lord, still in his grave clothes, which is a variation from John’s account where the grave clothes are left in the tomb. But Titian has kept them for a reason. Jesus’ shroud hangs between him and Mary, a reminder of the veil of death which still separates them, a boundary marking resurrection and heavenly space from earthly and mortal space. This boundary is the line around which the picture is centred. The light is coming from the left where the sun is rising, bringing light and new life. The tomb is behind Mary, off to the right. Mary is sumptuously clothed in her red robe – the original scarlet woman, often identified in paintings by her red hair and red clothing. She is kneeling before Jesus in a posture of worship and adoration, longing to reach out and touch him.
So the picture falls naturally down the middle into two halves, Jesus’ half and Mary’s half, marked by the line of the tree and the dark gap between Jesus and Mary. Jesus stands, naked and vulnerable, his resurrected body still bearing the wounds of self-giving love, although they are now very faint. On the other side is Mary’s body, the heavily clothed and protected body of earthly love. And the landscape behind reflects these two kinds of reality. On Mary’s side, the mortal, tomb side, there are earthly browns, there’s a farm and a fortified town, suggesting wealth and security, and the man and his dog suggesting ordinary, unremarkable, everyday life. On Jesus’ side, rising from the shadows at the bottom there is the green of new growth, with a flock of sheep safely grazing beside the Good Shepherd who has laid down his life for his sheep. Above, the landscape turns blue; not the sea or the sky, but the blue of the new creation, suggesting the new heaven and new earth, the blue of resurrection and new creation on the first day of the week.
Yet in the way Titian has composed this picture, the two sides intersect, the earthly with the heavenly. There are two strong lines to notice.
The first, from Jesus’ pierced feet, rises vertically along the line of his back and then slopes to the right, along his face, the side of the hill up to the sunlit gable of the gatehouse and the city wall. This line is like an arc of Jesus’ love, projected out over Mary, over her side of the picture, over the mundane life of earth. It’s a kind of trajectory of blessing, from the Risen One to the world he came to save.
The second line runs from the bottom of Mary’s robe in the bottom right of the picture and then up her back to her head, to Jesus’ face and then the vertical line of the tree up to the golden heavenly light at the top of the picture. This line begins more horizontally and then curves upwards, as if Mary is being lifted up – and so Titian evokes the resurrection of Mary in response to the way this is suggested by John’s narrative. She too is being pointed towards ‘Your Father and my Father, Your God and my God.’
These two curves intersect at Jesus’ face – the point of reconciliation and harmony and peace, where earth and heaven meet.
The vertical line between Jesus and Mary, the line between the shroud and the shadow, which suggests the boundary between the mortality of earth and the life of the resurrection, this line is broken at two points:
by Jesus’ left arm, reaching out into the space above Mary’s head and holding a hoe, the symbol of the gardener.This of course is referring to John’s account where Mary mistakes Jesus for the gardener.But it also evokes the sense of Jesus as the second Adam, tending the garden of God’s creation to renew it and restore it as a second paradise.As he reaches out, the very bushes burst into a brighter green.The resurrection has something to say to us about our relationship with the natural environment.It is not only our relationship with God which needs to be healed and restored, but also our relationship with the earth.Faith in the risen Lord is crucial in overcoming both kinds of alienation and achieving a new harmony with both the Creator and his creation.
The other point where the vertical boundary between Jesus’ side and Mary’s side is broken is where Mary’s hand reaches out to touch Jesus, penetrating as it were the veil of his shroud and then at the last moment pulling back in wonder at the Lord she cannot grasp.Mary came to the tomb to honour Christ’s body in death as in life.She wept because there was no body to tend.When Jesus appeared and she recognised him, it was his body she wanted to touch – yet the time of bodily contact and earthly love is past – Titian has caught the moment of transformation, from one kind of love to another, as Mary both reaches out and yet pulls back, and as Jesus leans over her with compassion and yet withdraws his body.Mary’s fear, that the body has been taken away and that she will never touch him again, is here replaced by the joy of realising that a Lord who cannot be touched is also a Lord who can never be taken away.
And so earthly love is replaced by heavenly love.
Love that seeks to grasp and possess is replaced by a love that seeks to give and be shared.
So Jesus’ command to Mary is to ‘go to my brothers and tell them.’
I began by saying that for John, as for Titian, the resurrection of Jesus is very much a story about Mary Magdalene. There is a clear sense that Mary here represents the Church. She is the only figure in any of the Gospel accounts who is central both in discovering the empty tomb and also in meeting the risen Lord. Scholars love to highlight these two traditions – of the empty tomb and the resurrection appearances – and then sometimes suggest that they have nothing to do with each other and that the empty tomb doesn’t therefore imply that Jesus’ body had been raised. Mary is the figure who brings both traditions together and who shows that the Lord who met her in the garden is the same as Jesus who lay in the tomb.
For Mary, and for us, there is this wonderful movement in her relationship with the risen Lord, from Stranger to Friend, from Blindness to Recognition, from Alienation to Intimacy, and from Grasping to Offering. We’ve already touched on the movement from Stranger to Friend, and on how in being called by name, Mary not only recognises Jesus, but comes to know herself more fully. Yet the strangeness is still there. We are privileged to call Jesus our friend – more precisely, he calls his disciples his friends – yet as Mary discovered, he is not our possession, he is going to the Father, and often we mistake him and fail to recognise him when he is present. Mary’s story reminds us to be attentive and ready to see Jesus in the face of the stranger. There is a movement from Blindness to Recognition, as Jesus reveals himself in reaching out to Mary. We know that in our prayers and in our worship we have to be patient and wait for God to reveal himself to us. We may seek him and long for him and know that we need him, but only grace can open our eyes in such a way that we can recognise him and know that he is real and that he loves us. There is movement from Alienation to Intimacy, as death is defeated and Mary finds herself not alone, but known by Jesus better than she knows herself. That intimacy is always open-ended – there is always more of God to discover, as Jesus suggests when he says to Mary, ‘I am going to my Father and your Father.’ His intimacy with the Father is something in which we can share, and our faith in Jesus will unite us to the Father as well. A way is being opened up for us to grow in knowing and being known, in loving and being loved.
And finally there is this movement from Grasping to Offering, which is also caught by Titian, as Mary reaches out and simultaneously lets go. Encountering the risen Lord involves being invited to surrender and let go, and trust more completely. In particular, it means not attempting to hold on to Jesus in order to co-opt him for our own purposes and agendas.
We can’t bend him to our will or have him on our terms. We must let go of him so he can represent us before the Father, and so we can be sent into the world in his name.
The sculpture of Simon Magus at the West Door gives us a warning against trying to buy and control special gifts. It is also a warning against trying to use prayer as a form of magic, or as a means of staying in control.
Instead, Mary lets go of Jesus and allows herself to be sent and, in being sent, she discovers her own voice and tells her own story. ‘I have seen the Lord.’ No-one told her to say that and she wasn’t expecting to say it.
But by meeting Jesus and then trusting him enough to let go, she herself was made new, and became not only a herald and a messenger of the Lord, but a sign of his new creation.
So when I say that Mary represents the Church, I mean she represents you and me. We too have an adventure with the risen Lord to receive and explore and share. We too can be heralds and messengers and signs of God’s new life.
Jonathan Baker, Canon Missioner, Peterborough Cathedral