Christ will not be incarcerated by the limits of our minds
Authority is for building up others, never for their diminishment or humiliation
The 23rd annual stations of the cross pageant at St John the Baptist Church Clontarf Road. The Easter pagent is performerd by members of the Parish. Photograph: Alan Betson
One of the most striking images of the Easter story is a fresco by Fra Angelico in the Dominican Convent of San Marco in Florence.
Entitled Noli Me Tangere, it shows the risen Christ in a beautiful garden putting his hand out forcefully in order to prevent Mary Magdelene from holding him. (Indeed, looking at the fresco, one is irreverently reminded of a scrum-half neatly swivelling to avoid the attentions of an opposing flanker!)
The title – in translation, “Do not cling to me” – and the image itself are, of course, taken from words of Christ in the 20th chapter of John’s Gospel.
Mary, in her overwhelming joy at encountering Christ again in the garden near the tomb, wishes above all else to hold on to her risen Lord and to avoid letting him out of her sight again.
On Good Friday she thought that she had lost him for ever, but now she is back in his presence and she has no intention of losing him again.
As she tries to hold him, he says, almost brusquely, “Do not cling to me.”
Similar moments occur again in the resurrection narratives in the Gospels. Our Lord will not be cornered by his followers.
In the garden after the resurrection, at the village of Emmaus, and in the upper room with his disciples, Christ detaches himself from those around him as soon as they believe that they now have him to themselves.
Christ the elusive
It is a useful reminder for us that Christ the redeemer is also Christ the elusive.
He will not be caged by us.
We have no monopoly on him and the more we think that we have totally figured him out and enclosed him, the quicker he will slip away from us.
Like the disciples on the road to Emmaus, we must continue to travel onwards with him or he will leave us behind.
When we believe that the travelling is done and that we have reached a final destination in our discipleship, we find that Christ is still walking on further and that our choice is either to continue a path of discipleship in his company, or to be left behind to our own devices.
This is not only a refreshing challenge, but in fact it contains also a strong element of real confidence.
In a week when, regardless of religious tradition, we will inevitably find ourselves looking back – back to the earthly lives of two popes, John XXIII and John Paul II who are to be canonised in Rome next Sunday, and further back still to the life and death of an enigmatic Irish king, Brian Boru – it is useful to recall that Christian discipleship on earth is a continuing journey for all, but never a destination in itself.
These journeys will not be identical, nor even perhaps resemble each other.
People will come to encounter Christ in many different ways, some barely religious at all. He may take them in different directions and to different places, and this is no misfortune.
We have the assurance of his presence but we have no control over him.
Slow and inept
The Christian Church through the centuries has been tragically slow and inept at learning this lesson, as it has relentlessly sought to exercise control over others in the name of Christ.
And the Church too often continues today to confuse authority with control.
Christ gave spiritual authority to his apostles, but never totalitarian control over the individual souls of fellow- disciples and fellow-sinners.
True authority is not what we often take it to mean.
The Latin origin of the word contains lively overtones, not so much of domination as of encouragement, cultivation and enlargement.
Authority is therefore given for the building up of others, never for their diminishment or humiliation.
It can consequently be exercised only with humility and care.
And so the brief encounter in the Easter garden between Our Lord and Mary Magdalene is also a living parable that would remind us that when we seek to control Christ we lose him. He hands to Mary a freedom, even as he demands a freedom for himself.
And he does not call us to dominate others on his authority.
Just as he will not be incarcerated by the limitations of our hearts and minds, we his followers are to love others in his name, to encourage them and to care for them, but never to lock them into deferential conformity to our self-will or self-aggrandisement.