Last year, when we were living through the first lockdown, a friend of mine said, ‘I don’t want last year’s Easter’. She had gone to stay with her mother who was shielding, and it was a time when the churches were all closed. On the television she found some recordings of Easter services from what seemed like a former world, with people crowded into decorated churches, wearing bright colours, smiling happily and singing lustily. Such a recorded Easter, an Easter from another lifetime, seemed to her so jarring and inappropriate. If Easter means anything, if resurrection is true, then it has to make sense in the times we are living in right now. Now, another year on, I think this seems even more true. Our celebrations of Easter this year have somehow to be different. The great numbers of the dead, the many who are grieving, those who are fearful for the future, and those who despite everything are full of hope, need and deserve to hear something for today. There can be no taking out last year’s sermon or the one from the year before and changing the odd illustration. We need to hear and proclaim together an Easter message for this time. We need this year’s Easter.
Of course – as it happens – every year when I read this marvellous text from John’s Gospel, I notice something new in any case. And this year, straightaway, I noticed in a new way, perhaps as you did, Jesus telling Mary ‘Do not touch me’. ‘Noli me tangere’ in Latin – evoking memories of the Tango – in which the dancers touch one another, with almost every part of their bodies getting involved. Jesus tells Mary not to touch him, not to hold on to him. These two do not tango. In one very famous and beloved painting of this Gospel reading (by Titian) Jesus is shown pulling away from Mary. Sadly, it’s a gesture that seems all too familiar to us now. All those walks where people cross the road to avoid getting too close. All those moments when we are doing our best always to stay two metres apart. The queues in the supermarket, spaced out in lines. Even those most painful moments when we can only wave at those we love or speak to them from the doorstep – those times when we have to hold back from touching and embracing. That moment when I went to see you Eric and you reached out for me to hold your hand … and I didn’t because of the rules… This kind of social distancing has been the reality of our lives for many months. We have understood, in a way that we never expected or imagined, what it means not to be able to touch one another. In this story from John’s Gospel we see how the Word has become flesh but not, at this point, flesh that can be touched or held. ‘Do not touch me’, he says.
I am sure that some of us here are longing to be able to touch someone else; someone who we haven’t seen for months, or perhaps someone who has now died and whose body will never again be there for us to hold, though we so long to. Not to be able to touch and hold is part of the almost physical and profound pain of bereavement. So, we find ourselves identifying today with the longing and the loss and desire for touch and comfort – for something we cannot have. And it is good to see echoed in the holy pages of the Gospels this intense longing, this loss that we now know so deeply, as we long for those who have died or as we try to keep distance from each other in order to keep one another safe.
But this is hardly good news for an Easter Sunday – not an answer to a pandemic or to death or grief. Where can we hear the Gospel that will transform our pain and loss today?
Well, there is, I think, the most profound hope right here in this passage. It’s in Mary’s journey from grief and bereavement to confident proclamation. Have you noticed that several times in the text Mary talks about Jesus being ‘taken away’. At the beginning she runs to Simon Peter and to the other disciples and tells them, ‘They have taken the Lord out of the tomb’. Later, the angels ask why she is weeping and she says, ‘They have taken away my Lord…’. And then when she sees the gardener she says, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away..’ and she even tells us that once she knows where the body is, ‘I will take him away’..
But once Jesus speaks Mary learns that Jesus has not been taken away, and indeed that he cannot be taken away. He is going to the Father, the very one with whom Jesus has already told the disciples he is at one and the disciples are too (it’s all there in chapter 17). Jesus is reminding the disciples, Mary and us too – dear readers – that he is one with God, and we are one with him. He has not been taken away – but – we are actually now closer than physical touching could bring anyone. We are ‘one’. The unity we long for is his and ours. The separation that death creates and that a pandemic compels us to observe is – at a deep level – absolutely overcome. Mary does not need to hold on to Jesus now, because a much closer communion, a closer relationship, than that has come into being. She is held by God. We are held and can hold onto God. We are made one with the creator of all life. Death cannot hold us now. Life has us in its embrace. It is death itself that is banished to a distance as life is made new.
For quite a while now we have not even been able to reach out in church – in quite the way we used to do – and hold the bread that becomes for us the body of Christ. Even that most sacramental of touching is a bit compromised. But, just as no-one did take away the body of Jesus then, so no-one can take away the presence of Jesus with us right now. Even if we can only watch and take part ‘in spirit’, or even if we take our own bread at home rather than in church, we are being made one with God and life in us is being renewed. We may well long for how things were, we may certainly grieve for what is taken away, but nothing, nothing, nothing, no power on earth or in heaven, can ever take Jesus away from us. He is with God, and he is with us – more powerfully even than human touch can imagine. No-one has taken him away and no-one will. As Mary said, ‘We have seen the Lord’.
This Easter may be different from other ones – in ways that we all understand. But at the same time it is also like all other Easters. We always discover at Easter that no-one has taken Jesus away – the truth is that he is drawing us close in order to lift us into the very presence of God with him – to bring us closer to God. The God revealed in the risen Christ keeps no distance from us, but is at one with us, sharing our grief and sorrow and lifting us with Jesus into the joy of God’s presence and the hope of new life. May it be so, for you and for all for whom you long. And may the blessing of God’s touch be with you on this Easter day. Amen.