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Do not hold on to me

Easter Day: 5th April, 2015
Rev'd Dr Hugh Kempster, Vicar of St Peter's, Eastern Hill

Last year the NGV hosted a collection of Italian Masterpieces. In the first room of the exhibition hung the painting that is reproduced on your pew sheet: "Noli me tangere" or "do not hold on to me" by Antonio da Correggio, painted in 1525. It is an entrancing depiction of the encounter between Mary Magdelene and the risen Christ, from the Easter Gospel.

Correggio painting Mary, in her flowing golden gown and blond hair is depicted as a sixteenth-century noble woman, only her red shawl hints at the traditional iconography for Mary. The garden tools help tell the story of the encounter by the empty tomb. Having seen the angels the distraught Mary "turns around" and sees Jesus, but she does not really see him, and assumes he is the gardener. He asks her the same question the angels have just asked: "Woman, why are you weeping?" and adds, "Whom are you looking for?" Mary thinks he must have taken the body away, but he replies simply: "Mary." This time she recognises her Lord, she sees him and again turns to him. "Rabbouni!" she says. And then comes the moment that Correggio has captured so powerfully: "Do not hold on to me," he says, "because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, 'I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.'"

I have to say I didn't see too much more of the exhibition on that visit beyond this painting. I was captured by the intricacies and the emotion of Correggio's meditation on this gospel scene. The painter's meditation evoked a deep meditation in me: the adoring gaze of Mary; the gentle smile of the Saviour; the lines of the painting gesturing to the heavens and yet firmly rooted in the powerful human emotions of grief, love and adoration.

I'm not sure why Correggio's painting grabbed my attention so powerfully. It was certainly something to do with the pure aesthetic beauty of the artist's work; it is indeed an Italian masterpiece. It also has to do with the story depicted. Each year, as we take the often gruelling journey from Ash Wednesday to Easter Day, the story becomes more and more our story. We are weeping outside the tomb in our grief. Our Lord comes, perhaps unrecognised at first, and calls us by name, shows us the way and points beyond us.

As I reflect again this Easter on the painting, on the great story of our faith, I think it is the depiction of a profoundly loving and respectful relationship that strikes me most; a relationship between God and humanity, but also a relationship between human beings. Church is all about these divine and human relationships. We get it wrong sometimes, of course we do, but through forgiveness we can start again, and sometimes we may even catch a glimpse of what Correggio saw. A glimpse of God incarnate in our relationships with one another.

I caught a real glimpse of this yesterday. It wasn't so much at the Easter Vigil, although that was a beautiful and moving service, but I saw it in particular at the Holy Saturday working bee. A parishioner came in her electric buggy, by taxi, to help clean the church. Our Sacristan was organising the troops and running the servers through their steps, even putting on a lunch for us afterwards. Our florists were beavering away, transforming the flowers from the Altar of Repose into the glorious Easter arrays you can see today. Outside another Warden and his team were picking up leaves and attending to the paths and gardens. The Verger had been at work for hours and was now busily setting up the hall for morning tea. Another parishioner, recently out of hospital, was cleaning the candlesticks. One of the confirmation candidates came early for the rehearsal and pitched in too, polishing the pews. The musicians have been just about living here this week, with rehearsals and all the various services, including a funeral last Monday. Liturgy means "work of the people" and it certainly has been that over Holy Week, right down to the liturgy sheets that I circulate by e-mail, and receive feedback of typos and suggested liturgical improvements, sometimes in the early hours of the morning.

As one parishioner said to me after Easter Vigil last night: "we are blessed." Indeed we are. But this is not all just for us; for our faith and growth and flourishing; important as that is. As the Archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple, famously said: "The Church is the only organisation that does not exist for itself, but for those who live outside of it." Correggio's Jesus is deeply engaged with Mary, but he is also pointing beyond their encounter. "Go" he says, "go and tell the others." At the end of our service of worship today we will say: "Go in peace to love and serve the Lord, Alleluia!"

Go! The joy and meaning we find in this place is God's gift for us, and God's gift for us to share with others who have not yet experienced it. That is why we are putting so much energy into this year's Parish Mission in July. That is why we head off to Parliament Station to give away palm crosses and offer blessings. That is why we advocate for respectful relationships and the prevention of violence against women. That is why we collect food, serve breakfasts, and march for the rights of refugees on Palm Sunday.

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed - alleluia!


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