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A writer’s ‘reading’ of Magdalene at the tomb

Mary, the meaning of a faith

 Maria, il senso di una fede   DCM-003
02 March 2024

Peter is the last to arrive at the tomb. Thus John relates, “They both ran together, but the other disciple preceded Peter in the race and arrived first at the tomb”. John sees the bandages spread out, but does not enter. Instead, Peter enters, and notices the shroud folded in a corner. The resurrection from the dead has already happened; the resurrection is not in the present tense.

The four gospels speak of it not as a happening, but as something that has already happened. No human gaze witnesses it. The stone has been removed, everything has been accomplished. One must believe without having seen, one must just believe, without evidence other than that stone that has been rolled away, the shroud folded, and the bandages laid out.

In Matthew’s gospel, the angel of the Lord invites the rushing women to not be afraid. His light invests them and the guards too.

Matthew speaks of “great fear and great joy”.

Mark speaks of “trembling and astonishment”.

The women run away, “because they were afraid”.

Luke speaks of wonder.

Jesus does not appear immediately to the disciples; they are kept waiting. Only in John’s Gospel does he manifest himself immediately, before the eyes of Mary Magdalene. While the others have returned home, she remains weeping.

Two angels ask her why she was crying, she replies, “They have taken away my Lord”. Then Jesus appears, but she does not recognize him. Says the evangelist, “she did not know that it was Jesus”. Yet, the resurrected Jesus has the same appearance as his earthly existence. Why does Magdalene not recognize him? 

Here the psychological finesse of the Gospel account is remarkable. John confronts us with the limits of our own thinking, of our ability to think. Not only do our perceptual abilities have a boundary, it is the unthinkable that is at stake here. The unthinkable has happened. The man Mary knew and loved is dead. He reappears to her with his own features, but such is the difficulty of conceiving that it is him, that it is still him, that Mary cannot recognize him.

This episode brings with it a detail of extraordinary intensity and beauty. Jesus repeats to Mary the same questions that the two angels dressed in white had asked her, “Why are you weeping? What do you seek?” The woman thinks the man is the gardener, the orchardist-and so he is often portrayed in pictorial representations. The woman replies, “If you have taken him away, tell me where you have placed him and I will fetch him”. Something is reminiscent of Antigone, her stubbornness as a sister in giving the dead man a proper burial.

Of the eternally human, there is the will, the need even, to feel close to the remains of those who are no more. I am thinking of the gestures the bereaved make in funeral parlors, of their touching, weeping, the stillness of the deceased; a caress, even a kiss. Even the desperate obstinacy of those who fight for months, even years, to receive the body of a departed relative.

Jesus then calls her by name. He just says, "Mary!"

She finally recognizes him, calls him master, throws herself at his feet, she would like to embrace him.

The recognition happened. It was not by looks, but by voice. The voice that makes us unique. That precise unmistakable voice. For every human being there is a different voice. There are similar voices, not equal voices. The voice as that which is most intimate to us. The voice with which we speak the name of the people we love. I recognize you by the way you call me, by the way you - you alone – say, Mary.

I remember what you used to call me, I will always remember. “When I speak to you, I touch you, and you touch me when I hear you, from whatever distance this comes to me, even by telephone, through the memory of an inflection of voice on the phone, even by letter, or by e-mail” (Jacques Derrida, Touching, Jean-Luc Nancy).

At the untimely end of his life, Italo Calvino was working on a collection of short stories about the five senses. He was unable to complete it, because death came first. Amongst those that he managed to complete, is a short story about hearing - Un re in ascolto [A Listening King] - in which a ruler obsessed with sounds, noises in the palace rooms, on the city streets, suddenly picks up a woman's voice singing in the dark. “That voice certainly comes from a person, unique, unrepeatable like any person, however, a voice is not a person, it is something suspended in the air, detached from the solidity of things. The voice is unique too and unrepeatable”.

Antonio Tabucchi, in a small book of reflections on his own books (“Autobiografie altrui. Poetiche a posteriori” [Autobiographies of Others. Poetics in Retrospect], Feltrinelli, 2003), recounts a personal event. His father’s death from laryngeal cancer. The first operation had gone well, “at least technically”, and Tabucchi’s father resumed his life. However, the surgery had left an irreversible mark, because having removed the small hollow organ that is the larynx, the man could no longer speak. The father and son communicated in gestures, glances, or his Dad wrote on a blackboard. Unwittingly, the son began to do so as well. “Perhaps I was afraid, by using my voice, to emphasize his mutilation”. Thus, recalling that period of discomfort and suffering, Tabucchi reasons around the theme of the human voice. It is curious, he observes, that the word “evoke” - ex vocare, to call out - has to do with the voice.

In the Orpheus myth, he “evokes” the dead with his song to summon them, and then he opens a dialogue with the shadows. He does this through his voice. He speaks, as they say, with the dead. And they, they can still speak. Tabucchi writes again, “If to recall an image belonging to our past life it is necessary, as they say, to ‘close one’s eyes’, to listen to my father’s voice it was enough for me to ‘open my ears’, and made myself listen. Then the voice came to me with its unique tone and timbres. The image of my father, so to speak, came through his voice: to evoke his figure I needed his voice”.

Here. Mary opens her ears. Eyes do not count, seeing does not count. She hears her name spoken; she is touched by that voice. It is for her the greatest indication of life, life by which she is touched, life she would like to touch again. The first instinct, hearing a known or unknown voice in a nearby room, is to seek its source, to approach it. This is also what happens with the dead. We happen to hear them-sometimes even just an intercalation, a spark of their private lexicon. Sometimes their precise music still vibrates in the air.

What is next?

“Noli me tangere”. This is an unexpected phrase, it seems almost abrupt, like other phrases Jesus utters in his public life. Why does he say that? Why does he tell Mary “do not touch me”, “do not want to touch me”? One of the most beautiful reflections on the subject is from the French philosopher, Jean-Luc Nancy (Noli Me Tangere, 2003).With his layman’s eye, Nancy enters the folds of this episode attested by John’s gospel alone. And he questions the reasons for the rare pictorial representations. He counts a few, sifts through them. In Pontormo’s, Jesus has the scythe in one hand and with the other he keeps Mary at a distance, who leans her body toward him to hold him back. A more intimate version is by Alonso Cano, a seventeenth-century Spanish painter, in which Mary holds Jesus by the robe, and he places a hand on her forehead.

In Scripture, that gesture is not there. We wish it were there, we imagine it.

You must go, yes, but let me feel the warmth of your hand one last time. Nancy is convinced that “Noli me tangere” contains the truth of the resurrection. The resurrected body rises, departs, and is unavailable to touch. Nancy argues, it is as if Jesus said, “Behold I am already departing, I am but in this departure”. He is leaving, going toward the Father, leaving, and asking for an act of love that is not possession, an act of love that does not hold back. Noli: not wanting, not thinking of touching me. Thus, paraphrases Nancy, “You hold nothing, you can neither hold nor retain anything. That is what becomes of a knowledge of love. Love that which escapes you, love the one who leaves. Love the one who goes away”. Truth does not allow itself to be held back. A departure, an absence, must be believed. “Remain faithful to my departure”.

Surely, this is the meaning of all faithfulness. I am faithful to you even in your absence. I am faithful in your absence. This is the meaning of a faith. Knowing that you cannot (anymore) touch. Accepting to believe in absence. “Do not hold me back, for I have not yet ascended to the Father”. For I am not yet. There is a short and final space between death and its redemption; it lasts the time I takes to weep and of the residual warmth, the arc between “no longer” and a possible “always”.

Mary accepts, and chooses to love that departure. Instead, Thomas does not. “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and put my finger in the mark of the nails, and put my hand in his side, I will not believe” (John 20:25). Jesus, upon appearing to the apostle, allows himself to be touched, and tells him, no longer be an unbeliever, but a believer. He adds, however, “Blessed are those who have believed without seeing!”

Writer and playwright, Paolo Di Paolo’s latest book is Romanzo senza umani [Novel Without Humans], Feltrinelli