by Gina Loehr
Jesus said to her, “Stop holding on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father.” (John 20:17)
Mary Magdalene was the first disciple to behold the Risen Lord. We might envy her privilege — imagine the Easter joy of seeing the crucified Christ alive before our very eyes! Yet Mary was prevented from actually touching Jesus in this most miraculous of moments. Fritz von Uhde (1848–1911), in his 1894 painting, Noli Me Tangere (Touch Me Not), depicts this unexpected encounter.
Upon discovering that the man standing before her is Christ himself, Mary falls to her knees and instinctively reaches out to embrace her master and friend. But her movement is stopped short, her hands suspended in midair. Her fingers are poised to touch, but at the command of Christ, they are stopped in their tracks. The German impressionist here offers us a point for meditation in the raised arm of Christ, stopping Mary with a gesture at once gentle and firm.
Unlike many traditional depictions of this moment in which Jesus’ posture appears as a rejection of Mary’s approach, Uhde’s image reveals a deeper tension created by the strange action on the part of the Lord. This painting shows us a tender moment, in which we read in Christ’s expression a hint of sorrow as he must reprimand his disciple. Mary’s face is intensely focused on the face of Christ, and her eyes seem to probe his as she searches for the meaning of his words. Why can’t she touch him? Theologians have speculated on the meaning, but one thing seems clear: Her relationship with Christ is entering a new era.
This is no illusion! Jesus has risen.
Now it becomes a relationship built on faith instead of the certainty of the senses. Mary is allowed to see Christ on Easter morning, but she cannot confirm the experience with physical touch. She must believe that this is indeed the Lord himself, not merely a mystical vision. Jesus does not end this encounter with his words forbidding touch, however. He immediately tells Mary to go and share the news of his resurrection with the other disciples. So Mary is called to act on this new level of faith. Not only must she come to believe that Christ is truly physically risen — she must tell others that it is so.
We can relate to Mary Magdalene. We, too, are called to share our faith with others in spite of the inability to physically confirm what we believe. We celebrate Easter, not only for our own sake but with an eye toward the conversion of the world. “Christ is risen! Indeed, he is truly risen!” the Church cries out to the ends of the earth, just as Mary cried out to the disciples as she ran back from the tomb. This is no illusion! Jesus has risen from the dead, and we are all called to believe, even we who cannot prove our faith with our senses. Soon enough, the glorified Jesus will allow doubting Thomas to touch the wounds that won our salvation. But Jesus also reprimands Thomas: “Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed” (John 20:29). This, of course, describes us. We cannot be counted among the first disciples, but we are believers nonetheless.
Uhde was well known for his imaginative paintings of Christ among everyday believers, such as ourselves. The devout Lutheran artist, for example, placed Christ in the kitchen of a farm family as they prayed before dinner (Christ with a Farm Family, circa 1887–1888), and in another work, he sat Jesus on a wooden chair in the center of a hall filled with children dressed in 19th-century work garb (Let the Little Children Come to Me, 1883). In Come, Lord Jesus, Be Our Guest (1885), he shows Christ in the home of peasants as they go about the business of the day. Uhde used his artistic gifts to help others recognize that Christ is in our midst although we cannot behold him with our senses. Thus, Uhde’s choice to paint Noli Me Tangere seems to be connected to his artistic mission of strengthening the faith of his modern-day viewers.
As historically distant as we may be from the first Easter Day, we are still blessed by the presence of the Risen Christ, whose Spirit fills our hearts. As Mary Magdalene embraced her mission to proclaim the Easter miracle, so we are called to believe in and proclaim Christ’s resurrection, even without the proof of a physical embrace.