To Touch or Not to Touch: Truly Living the Easter Experience

Fr Paolo Consonni, MCCJ

In chapter 20 of the Gospel of John, the chapter which narrates the event of the Resurrection, there is a striking contrast. On one hand, while appearing to Mary Magdalene, the Risen Christ said: “Do not hold on to me” (Jn 20:17).   The traditional Latin translation is less accurate than the original Greek, but it is more direct: “Noli me tangere!” (“Do not touch me!”). Totally opposite is the Risen Christ’s invitation to the doubting Thomas: “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe” (Jn 20:27).

There is the need to base our faith upon objective experiences and not simply on subjective convictions. However, faith needs trust and the capability to look beyond appearances. Both concerns are very important.

Regarding Mary Magdalene, the “Noli me tangere” pronounced by Christ conveys the fact that “the Resurrection was not a return to earthly life, as was the case with the raisings from the dead that he had performed before Easter: […] Lazarus. […]. In his risen body he passes from the state of death to another life beyond time and space” (CCC 646). Christ invited Mary Magdalene to relate to Him, not as before, but to His new reality.

In the appearance to His disciples, especially to Thomas, Jesus was addressing another concern: that He was not only a spirit: “By means of touch and the sharing of a meal […].He invites them to recognize that he is not a ghost and above all to verify that the risen body in which he appears is the same body that had been tortured and crucified, for it still bears the traces of his Passion” (CCC 645).

A famous painting from Caravaggio, completed in 1602, explores this issue in a powerful visual way. The details are stunning: the light focuses on Christ’s hand as He delicately guides the hand of Thomas, and even catches the skin of the wound, raised by Thomas’ finger. Thomas, and probably Peter and John, stare intently at the finger as it penetrates Christ’s side. The wrinkled brows of the three disciples show their amazement at the fact that Christ’s flesh is as real as theirs.

The curious thing is that the Gospel does not explicitly mention that Thomas actually placed his hand in Jesus’ side. But this is not important. Whether Thomas touched those wounds or not, the fact is that he was visibly, physically confronted with them, underlining that the body of the Risen Christ, though different than ours (no more subjected to the limits of nature, like space and time), it was the same body of flesh of the Crucified Jesus.

Gregory the Great commented that “the disbelief of Thomas has done more for our faith than the faith of the other disciples.” As a matter of fact, the episode of the doubting Thomas (and the visual art which it inspired), clarifies some important aspects regarding Christ’s Resurrection.

First of all, we cannot understand the meaning of the Resurrection apart from the concrete historical process which included betrayal, violence and death. Christians do not believe in disincarnated doctrines. We do not believe in God in order to avoid pain or to escape “partial deaths” like illness, old age, failure, abandonment and so forth. On the contrary, we find salvation and meaning exactly by going through them together with the same love of the Crucified and Risen Christ. We will rise together with Him carrying our own wounds.

Secondly, Christian faith was not born out of an ideal, or out of an inner experience of a community seized by a mystical exaltation. What stirred the hearts of the Apostles was an objective fact: the physical presence of the Risen Christ. They were not philosophers nor mystics, but tough fishermen with dirt under their nails (as Caravaggio depicted Thomas’ finger). These down-to-earth people were led by the Risen Christ, as the hands of Thomas in the painting, to concretely experience what they were asked to believe. For us later believers, to have faith means to trust the Apostles’ experience, as Jesus remarked: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe” (Jn 20: 29).

Finally, Thomas’ experience can become ours too. In fact, the Risen Christ can be encountered today, with the same intensity and concreteness, in the physical presence of the Church, the Body of Christ. We are Christians because some flesh-and-blood brothers and sisters witnessed to us the depth of Christ’s love, especially in dealing with our personal painful wounds. In them, we experienced Christ’s Real Presence.

And let us not forget that Christ can also be encountered in the sacraments, in the Word of God we hear and in the poor we serve: “It is in the present that we encounter Him, not yesterday, nor tomorrow, but today” (CCC 2659). We need faith, the gift of the Spirit, to “touch” Christ within the limitations of these human experiences. Limited, but nevertheless, real.