In the name of Jesus, the Christ, who loves us and who gave himself for us. Amen.
Beth and I have an interesting time in the office every year when we order the bulletin covers for Easter. There are a ton of them to pick from and so this year I settled on one with not only a white lily but also a butterfly. We have really covered our bases with Easter clichés!
White lilies are often associated with Easter because in Christian iconography they symbolize the fullness of time—the readiness of human culture to receive the Savior. Pictures of the Annunciation feature the angel Gabriel handing the Virgin Mary a not-quite-open stalk of many lily blooms. And so by Easter we’re dealing with full-blown-open blooms that practically trumpet out the resurrection.
And then there’s that butterfly, a gorgeous symbol of being entombed and then out again, loose and lovely in the world.
So thinking about bulletin covers I did an informal survey of the various designs available this year. Of the 104 different covers, fully 42 of them feature white lilies. Forty percent! So I guess they really are Easter clichés. Some other popular covers include other kinds of flowers, like tulips and such, and some landscapes, and of course some fancy crosses.
But there’s one illustration that I’ve never come across on the cover of Easter bulletins. I think it’s too problematic—too upsetting, even. And that’s the kind of picture that we have on the back of today’s bulletin. It’s a favorite topic of Renaissance and Baroque painters, and it illustrates one of the verses in our gospel today. It’s the encounter between Mary Magdalene and Jesus in the garden, right after Mary recognizes Jesus—right after the time when she hears the voice of her Good Shepherd calling her by name. Mary is so thoroughly thrilled to see that Jesus is alive, after that grisly death. She can’t believe it. She reacts by calling him Rabbouni! Teacher! And apparently she reaches out to touch him. Or to cling to him. And he reacts in a way that I find troubling. The King James Version has Jesus saying, “Do not touch me.” Our New Revised Standard Version has him saying “Do not hold on to me.” Other translations have him saying, “Don’t cling to me.”
And you can see in this picture from a fresco by the early Renaissance painter Giotto, that this is quite the emotional scene. Mary Magdalene looks really needy—you can see her yearning expressed in her posture as she reaches out for Jesus. Now, of course she wants to cling to Jesus, to keep him with her and never to let him go again. Don’t we all want that?
Jesus’ posture in Giotto’s painting is really interesting, too, isn’t it? It’s an example of the artistic technique called contrapposto, where Jesus’ body seems to say that he’s not so sure of where he wants to be heading. He’s moving away from Mary but also turning toward her. It conveys to me an emotional indeterminacy—a sense of being torn. I love this. It seems to capture really well the love Jesus must have felt for her as his dear follower, but also the fact that he knew he still had to be about his Father’s work.
Scholars and others who dwell in the Bible landscape have speculated on what Jesus meant when he said, “Do not hang on to me.” The explanations range from the ridiculous, for example, perhaps he was still sore and hurting from his wounds; to the sublime, for example, Jesus, now the Cosmic Christ, so infuses all things that he cannot be contained or held physically [Richard Rohr]. You couldn’t hold onto him if you tried.
But I’m going to try to come down somewhere between the ridiculous and the sublime and suggest something else.
First, when I think of people who cling, I’m reminded of my own kids, when they were little toddlers. Moms and Dads here today, did your kids ever hang onto your legs when you were trying to attend to some chore around the house? Mine surely did that. I used to call them “Cling-ons.”
Clinging can represent immaturity—it’s a needing to hang onto something or someone in order to feel more complete / or in order to have some support from the outside in. Maybe that could explain Jesus statement to Mary—Don’t cling to me—in other words, develop the ability to get along without being with me physically—for surely I will be ascending to my Father soon. Perhaps.
But here’s another way to look at the passage. I like this next idea better.
But first a wee bit of background. Did you know that the original Greek texts of the New Testament were written without punctuation? Punctuation is actually a rather recent invention. So when we look at a current English version of the Bible, it’s important to remember that a panel of translators introduced all the commas and dashes and periods into the text. They thought they were fixing the text for us so that we could understand it better.
So maybe the period that comes after “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father” is misplaced. Maybe the thought originally was something like this:
“Do not hold onto me, but go! Go to my brothers and tell them ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father…’”
Don’t hold on to me, but go! Now that I like a whole lot better than the version we have in front of us today. It does a lot toward erasing the problematic refusal of Jesus to be touched, and it empowers Mary to go and tell of the miraculous resurrection that just occurred.
Now, compare Mary, who GOES and TELLS the followers compare her with the disciple mentioned above in the gospel in verses 9 and 10, who apparently believes, but then goes back home and does nothing.
So, Mary, here, is made an apostle—and that word means “one who is sent.” She’s sent by Jesus to go and give his followers this stupendous news. Jesus gives her incredible power. And so the early church called her the Apostle to the Apostles.
And, so, she goes and tells the men, “I have seen the Lord!”
Now, may we receive Mary’s charge as our own. May we also go and tell others that we’ve seen the Lord in our worship, in the good people around us, in the thrill of hope we find again each spring. May we be afire for Christ, not clinging to him in a childish way, but telling people of our source of joy and peace, and our belief, from our promise of resurrection, that when we die, life is changed, not ended.
This morning’s email contained a wonderful reflection by Brother James Koester of SSJE. He writes,
Wherever in your life is victory; there is resurrection. Wherever in your life is joy, there is resurrection. Wherever in your life is wonder, there is resurrection. Wherever in your life is resurrection, there is Christ calling you to follow him out of death into his larger and more glorious life.
Be aware of the new life God gives and Jesus lives still—and practice it! I hope we all can do that—practice resurrection.
And may we not forget to stop and smell the lilies as we go, God’s fragrance and promise of new life. It’s there for us, just for the taking.