Reflection for Easter 7

by David Pattinson

“Keeping in Touch”

In lockdown 1, Margaret received a Mother’s Day card and written on the front was “I’m not just a card, I’m a hug with a fold in it.” A postal hug. Little did we know that it would be over a year before we could have a real hug. But May 17th is almost here!

It made me consider why a hug is so important. It’s not just about the comfort of the touch and embrace. It’s not just something that helps us confirm the reality and physicality of who we are – if we can touch it, it’s real; if we can be touched we are real. More important still – it’s a statement of care, affection and love. It’s what lies behind the hug that is important. Hugs are almost sacramental – an outward and visible sign of what lies inside us – an inward invisible grace and love.

And as we get to hug those we love – to touch them, we will be touched not just physically, but emotionally and spiritually as well. I expect there to be lots of tears! We don’t need the physical to be “touched” and moved.

At this Sunday’s point in the gospel narrative, the disciples find themselves as

in-betweeners. They are between The Ascension and Pentecost. Between the point where Jesus has taken his final leave, and the day when the promised Holy Spirit is to arrive.

They are at the point where they will not be able to touch Jesus physically again. The period after Jesus’ resurrection has been puzzling and mysterious, and Jesus has been elusive. He has walked through closed doors; disappeared in front of startled disciples at Emmaus, and yet has joined them for a fish breakfast at the lake side. He has said to Mary Magdalene “Do not hold on to me” and yet, has not resisted at the first meeting with his disciples when they “took hold of his feet.” And to persuade Thomas, there is encouragement for a touch of such intrusiveness and intimacy – “reach out your hand and put it in my side.”

I recently spent some time reflecting with Graham Sutherland’s depiction of the meeting between Jesus and Mary Magdalene in the garden after the resurrection (John 20:11-18). The picture is called “Noli me Tangere” – “Touch me not”, and is on display in the Mary Magdalene chapel of Chichester Cathedral. It shows Jesus climbing a staircase and resisting the outstretched arm of Mary at the foot of the stairs. Already there is a sense not just of the resurrection but the ascension as well.

But there is a necessity about Jesus’ bodily departure. He says to his disciples at their last meal together “I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you” (John 16:7.) The disciples are being encouraged to move from the physical to the spiritual. Jesus’ departure makes room for the Holy Spirit. In that way Jesus can be present in all times, and in all places, and in all people. The final words of Matthew’s gospel has Jesus saying “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Mt 28:20.

So where did that leave Jesus’s first disciples? Where does it leave us?

With faith, we will always be dealing with the mysterious, the elusive. So to some extent we are being encouraged to let go of our current understanding of who Jesus is so that we can always be moving on; always learning, growing, deepening our faith. We can’t nail Jesus down. As Barbara Brown Taylor says “We tried once but he got loose and ever since has been the walking, talking, presence of God in our midst.”

Or as R. S. Thomas declares

“ He is such a fast God,

always before us and leaving as we arrive.”

And neither can we contain Jesus, the Christ or The Holy Spirit. Icons of The Ascension, as well as including a bewildered group of disciples, include the figure of Mary the mother of Jesus. Rowan Williams comments “Her open hands do not actually touch the circle of light in which the ascended Jesus sits, but they echo and embrace its lines – as if the Church’s prayer is shaped by the reality of Jesus glorified, but never grabs it or encompasses it or possesses it.”

Yet through the power of the Spirit the Risen Christ is always with us – in us, even. He could not be more available for us to be in touch with him. We can rightly claim that through the pandemic, God has always been giving us a hug.

And in the power of the Spirit we can touch the lives of each other; of our neighbours; our friends; our loved ones, whether physically or virtually. We can get on with the business of being in touch with Jesus, and being touched by Him, in the lives of those we meet and in the friendship, fellowship and hospitality we share.

And, I am really looking forward to a hug!

Image © ROOTS for Churches Ltd Reproduced with permission.