A Meditation on the Gospel with the Wisdom of Fra Angelico

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Today's Gospel is illustrated by the famous painting of Fra Angelico in cell 1 at the Convent of San Marco titled, “Noli Me Tangere” translated into English as “don’t touch me” or better yet from the Greek, “cease holding onto me". When I first found this painting, honestly I was a little hesitant to like it. Here is St. Mary Magdalene just having been through probably the most despairing experience of her life, offered a slim chance of hope, only to be rebuffed by Our Lord with this tart almost, “get away” tone. Even the Biblical account seems a little uncharacteristic of Jesus, usually welcoming all into his presence, usually using touch as a means of healing telling this woman to back off.  What was so important about this scene that Fra Angelico chose to place it in the first cell of one of his brothers?

First, I think this painting speaks of a common human experience: grief. Not only grief but the proper way to handle it is communicated in this scene. I think the most frequent reaction of any human to a tragic scene is the bombardments of “what if” i.e. “What if I had gotten there sooner?” “What if I had said something different?” “What if that other car had slowed down?” “What if blah blah blah had never happened?” What if things could just go back to the way they were?  THEN everything would be fine. The truth of the matter remains, they can’t. We naturally want to believe that if we were 5 years old again, problems would cease to exist in the world and everything would be just dandy. It’s not true and even now it sounds absurd, yet we can’t help thinking it every now and then, especially when disaster strikes. We have to move on, to cease holding onto that idea.

I think this was the drive behind St. Mary Magdalene’s original intention to embrace Jesus. Of course she loved Him deeply and was exuberant at seeing Him again, but also this sort, “Oh thank God! Things can go back to the way they were! Just like Lazarus, He’s back!” This is true especially after having previously mistaken Him for the gardener. Her delight at His surprise appearance adds to the joy. Yet, Jesus seemingly rejects her. It is only when we including the rest of the Scripture can we begin to understand it. “Stop holding on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father, but go to my brethren and say to them, I ascend to my Father and your Father; to my God and your God.” (John 20:17)

Jesus is not like Lazarus, back from the dead, instead He’s ascending. His ascension becomes the key to understanding this passage. He not only clears this up for her, but entrusts her with the mission to spread the Good News, “go tell my brethren”. He is risen, transforming death by His death. Things have changed. They are not the way they were. Now they are so much better; so go spread the Good News, cease holding on and instead pass it on.

Back to the painting, we have St. Mary Magdalene and Jesus in a fenced in garden, with beautiful tall-standing trees and lush vegetation underfoot, at the entrance to the dark tomb. I think that Fra Angelico touches on this grief concept by the color contrast shown between Jesus, who is bright and white, and the empty tomb, which is gloomy and dark. To try to go back to the way things were would be a dark and empty undertaking, but to follow the Light is a life-giving endeavor.

Bl. Angelico depicts Jesus holding a gardening hoe. I am so used to the Resurrected Lamb or Jesus holding the flag that I hardly noticed it on first glance.  They are also together in a garden enclosed, a noteworthy detail. The combination of these two details has the effect of almost bringing one back to the Garden of Eden, recreated. Jesus, the New Adam, Creator of the Universe, Cultivator of All Living Things, has just destroyed death and is now bringing us back to life. Fra Angelico utilizes the mistake of St. Mary Magdalene of Jesus for the gardener to make a point. He is The Gardener. Again you have the idea that things are familiar like they were before, but they are certainly not the same.

Following this same train of thought, the other thing that stuck me is how St. Mary Magdalene is almost genuflecting in reverence for Christ.  She is not visibly weeping, but appears to be showing Him homage. She respects His new mission to ascend, and momentarily adores Him, before running off to tell the Disciples. Fra Angelico could have had a scene where St. Mary Magdalene is running at a 70 mph pace to tell the Apostles; instead we see her adoring the Lord just moments after intense grief.

It appears Fra Angelico has chosen to call attention to two important elements of the Christian life: contemplation and the salvation of souls. This is very relevant to our lives as Dominicans especially as nuns. Jesus places a strong emphasis on the “salvation of souls” and the preaching mission from the first recorded (by John) encounter with Mary Magdalene, instructing her “go out and tell my brethren”. However, before she can share the fruits of what she has just seen, the picture plainly depicts St. Mary Magdalene in a disposition of adoration and contemplation.

In summation, the preaching of this particular painting of Fra Angelico’s speaks to me about grief and how to handle it, the importance of the Resurrection and the spreading of the Gospel message, adoration/contemplation and the salvation of souls, and also about Christ the New Adam. It is a beautiful painting rich in theology and teaching.

written by an anonymous Sister for her Dominican History and Sources class!