Touch me not – John 20:17
‘Touch Me Not’
In western church history it is probably fair to say that this Easter has been one of the most unusual with people unable to gather for worship or fellowship. Gone was the sun rise service and a community breaking fast together, gone was the paschal candle being lit by the new fires and processed into church to the ethereal sounds of the exultet being sung by alone deacon. Instead we gathered on our sofas and in our pyjamas and experienced Easter completely virtually for the first time.
As the lock down continues and we settle reluctantly in to a pattern of life that is noticeably slower and punctuated with feelings of loss and grief we have an unexpected opportunity to reflect a little on where we are and to take stock.
It is in these moments of self-reflection that I am reminded of just what it is I value about the Anglican church, namely its emphasis on scripture, reason, and tradition. We are to coin a phrase “a bible believing church” but not one that would be happy to simply spout biblical platitudes as a way of addressing hurt without, seeking to see the bigger picture and recognise the implications of the decisions that are being made, or the role human experience must play in all of this.
As the effects of Covid19 swept the country the Churches response was, as one might expect, focused primarily on the practical implications of managing an epidemic. However, as the government looks to extend this period we need to move away from the immediacy of these initial concerns and start to address the more serious and long-lasting questions. Questions which are for us undoubtedly include the theological. Over the last few weeks we have seen Communion withheld, churches closed and everyday life come to a grinding halt. People are suffering, the initial seriousness of the situation led to a dawning realisation of all that we have lost, and a tidal wave of grief swept the nation, grief grounded in the loss of privilege and freedom, holiday cancelled, appointments missed, birthdays celebrated alone. Amid all of this it would be strange for us as people of faith not to seek solace in our faith but in doing so we must ask some uncomfortable questions!
“where is God in all of this”?
“what do these closures of church and separation from the sacraments mean for us as Gods children?”
How can we as relational beings exist and worship in isolation?
Can communion be offered virtually?
What does this mean for our prayer lives?
Where is our biblical narrative?
All of these, and others are valid questions and it would be wrong of us to simply ignore or deny these questions or be afraid of asking them. And It has been exciting to see how theologians have started to address these questions. The first wave of commentaries seems to have a created somewhat of a resurgence of interest in the traditional prayers of lament.
A tradition which Bruggeman points out in his book “The costly loss of Lament” has in recent years been worryingly absent. By revisiting the Psalms of lament we rediscover a body of text that is so beautifully human with its constant asking of the question why? and so powerful in its earnest search for meaning. In this time of unknowing, a body of scripture that can speak to us with such honesty and diversity of voice becomes a wonderful resource and a point of connection in a time of disassociation and isolation
86 A Prayer of David.
1 Incline your ear, O Lord, and answer me,
for I am poor and needy.
2 Preserve my life, for I am godly;
save your servant, who trusts in you—you are my God.
3 Be gracious to me, O Lord,
for to you do I cry all the day.
Our need to connect with one another at this time reinforces just how much of a social animal we are and whilst social media provides a voice for so many people crying out for attention it does so in such a way that doesn’t provide the necessary comfort or answers that so many of us are looking for.
So during a time when potentially one day can simply merge into another it is reassuring to still be able to follow the liturgical year and take comfort in its familiarity. As we do so we find ourselves engaging with the resurrection appearances, and one which stands out quite noticeably at this time namely John 20:17 where Jesus tells Mary not to touch him.
This story for many of us is a familiar one, with Mary rushing to the tomb, worrying as she went about who would roll the stone away and then discovering to her fear and concern that the stone has already been removed. It is in the dialogue that follows where Jesus tells Mary not to touch him when she seeks to draw near to him that is of most interest in our current situation. This is not a social distancing for fear of infection, for Jesus readily invites Thomas to touch him, but this is more a spiritual distancing, he is inviting Mary into a new way of being, where she must not cling to his mere outward presence but to transition into a new relationship that will only be available after his ascension. For me this verse has the potential to speak in to this current period of transition, loneliness and change. It is a reminder that we can connect to God even without his physical presence, it is a reminder that the way we have traditionally done things is open and able to change, and it reminds us that even when we are separated and alone there is still away to connect. These may not be the direct answers that we are looking for but they are most definitely the foundations of an open and honest dialogue.
That said let us just think for a moment about those traditions and movements that we are part of. We are after all part of the one body of Christ and share in the lives and histories of the Saints. Even just a cursory glance at our history reveals the fact that this notion of solitude, which so many of us currently find so hard is not something unknown within religious and spiritual practices. The Desert Fathers and Mothers provide us with a rich resource through which to explore what it means to live in isolation.
The Rule of St. Benedict states that “solitaries,” such as Mother Julian of Norwich, represents the highest form of monasticism.
If you are unfamiliar with her work, she is someone well worth exploring, especially as we attribute her with the honour of being the first woman to publish a book in English, an honour made all the more spectacular by the fact that her true name is lost to history and we remember her by her association with the cathedral of St Julian where she lived as an anchorite and subsequently practised a very extreme version of social distancing. Locked up in a small stone room attached to the cathedral church her monastic cell had one window looking out onto the world and another looking upon the sacraments. Here she lived and stayed enclosed in her anchorage offering counsel, prayer and support and receiving her food delivered by external delivery.
Sound familiar? Her windows on the world were set into bricks and mortar where as ours our portable screens that reach out beyond our physical geography to a world of human connectivity and news and to a world of prayer and devotion.
Mother Julian lived through a time of disease and suffering, bubonic plague, the 100 years war, and religious divisions that were brutal and violent. Much of her writing is influenced by her prolonged periods of sickness but also from the hours she spent talking to people and reflecting. Her writings are probably most remembered for her studies into the notion of God as love and as mother and for the phrase “All shall be well”.
Given the suffering she experienced and lived through these incites seem even more powerful. The questioning, of what does it mean to say in 1John 4, “God is love” is as challenging a question now as it was then and needs re-asking and reframing for each generation and by doing so we get to focus in on our own behaviours and attitudes in the light of that understanding.
If we accept that all we need is love and then all will be well, then we must challenge ourselves over our daily behaviour and try and hold a bigger picture of life in our minds. Seeking to be love in a situation means to be immersed in the messiness and sufferings of life, asking the difficult questions but also embracing the positives and giving thanks. It is a universal understanding that includes God and humanity in a bi-directional relationship that allows people to respond to Gods love by becoming Gods love. Mother Julian was changed by her experiences in solitude, as we will be changed but the question remains will we allow our experiences to change us and the world for the better or will we simply seek to blank them out and allow our windows on the world to become portals of hate and bile.