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Noli me tangere

Take a moment to reread John, Chapter 20, verses 11 to 18, in particular vers 17, the scene where Mary of Magdala comes to Jesus’ grave on Easter morning, finds it empty and turns to a person she mistakes for the gardener (remember that in John 19, vers 41 we learn that there was a garden where Christ was buried). At first she does not recognize him. Only when Jesus turns to her and calls out her name “Mary”, does she realize it and responds flabbergasted “Rabbi”. What more human reaction than her desire to touch him, to hold on to him!

The gospel relates Christ’s famous and often misunderstood words “Noli me tangere” — which is frequently translated as “touch me not “, but which actually meant something else in the original Aramaic, as reflected in the oldest original Greek Gospel Μή μου ἅπτου, which has a broader sense: “do not try to retain me”, “cease holding on to me”, or figuratively, cease trying to possess me, stand on your own feet, go out to the world, be my ambassador, my messanger, go to my disciples and tell them that you have seen and spoken to me, tell them about the Resurrection.

This scene in John’s Gospel has been frequently interpreted by great painters, including Giotto, Martin Schonagauer, Fra Angelico, Antonio da Coreggio, Tizian, Alonso Cano and Anton Mengs.

Artists often see more in the Gospels than the common reader. They interpret scriptures in a visual way that goes beyond the words, using body language and symbols to elucidate the content of the biblical story. We suddenly realize that Christ can be seen Adam and Mary of Magdala as Eva. They are the prototypes of humanity. Christ is the human being par excellence. He is also the gardener of Paradise. He tends the Garden of Eden and the tree of knowledge — which is also represented in the paintings by Schongauer, Fra Angelico, Coreggio, Tizian, Cano and Mengs. Schongauer even paints the fruits on the tree of knowledge, which Mary of Magdala wants to possess, as Eva did. Mary of Magdala implores Christ as in the “Song of Songs”, where we recognize the exchange between the lover and the beloved: “I sought him whom my heart loves” (Song of Solomon: 3:1) , and yet Mary, who has again encountered the beloved she thought dead, must endure the admonition to stop clinging to him physically. Christ gives her a platonic task — to be a witness, give testimony.

Undoubtedly Christ is the fruit of the tree of knowledge. But he is also the way to truth, to salvation, to transfiguration.