Thought for Holy Week

6th April 2020
BY The Rev Justin White

By 1942 London was exhausted and ravaged by war. Her beautiful things – the art and sculpture – had been buried for safekeeping in the Welsh slate mines. But a pleading letter to the Times asked for some of these treasures to return.

“Because London’s face is scarred and bruised these days, we need more than ever to see beautiful things.”

Kenneth Clark (OW), then Director of the National Gallery, conceived the idea of bringing back one picture each month. A public poll chose this as the painting Londoners most wanted to see. The painting dates from around 1514, and is by the 19 year old Tiziano Vecellio, known to us as Titian. It is entitled ‘Noli me Tangere’ – ‘Do not touch me’.

The scene is that which comes at the end of this holiest of weeks for Christians. It is Easter morning; the Day of Resurrection. Mary Magdalene, weeping outside Jesus’ empty tomb, sees a man she mistakes to be the gardener. “Woman, why are you weeping?” he asks, “For whom are you looking?” She replies, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” The man says, “Mary!”. Suddenly, she recognises Jesus. “Do not hold on to me (noli me tangere),” he says, “because I have not yet ascended to the Father.”

This week that leads up to that moment is called Holy Week. It sees some extreme social distancing, isolation, and eventually lockdown. On Palm Sunday the crowds throng around Jesus and welcome him into Jerusalem in triumph. Within a few days they will want his blood. The disciples betray and deny him as the week progresses, and then flee altogether. Jesus is left increasingly alone until, finally, there is only the utter solitude of the tomb.

What keeps us going in this week is that moment in Titian’s painting. Resurrection. The journey from death to life is necessary. Jesus sacrifices precious relationships in order that even richer relationships can abound. A new community will be forged on Easter Day with bonds of love that death cannot touch.

We are all being asked to sacrifice relationships and bidden: ‘Do not touch!’. Painful as this is, accompanied as it is by the grim daily roll call of death, we are laying aside, for the short-term, being with others, for the long-term wellbeing of us all. We yearn for a return to normal, but that cannot be. Indeed, it should not be. For if we are unchanged by this crisis, we will have been defeated by it.

Resurrection is not a restoration of an old way of life, it is nothing less than a New Creation. The enormity of that is what has dawned on Mary at the very moment of this painting. Her hand reaches out to touch, but stops at the last moment. She wants to touch, to hold on to what was so familiar and dear to her, but she realises that a body which can be held can only be taken away again. This resurrected Jesus can never be taken away.

We can only guess what this painting meant to war-torn Londoners. It must have been close to the truth that Titian was trying to express: The assurance of a love so strong that it can survive death.

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