After last week’s post on the esotericism of the crucifixion and resurrection, I’d like to share a few thoughts on the more Magdalene-focused scene in John 20, after the resurrection. The so called ‘Noli me tangere scene’ has become an infamous motif in art and a key scene for gender-centric interpretations on all sides and with all connotations. Patriarchal, misogynist readings and feminist criticism of the same both usually focused on the words in their translation and meaning as ‘touch me not’ / ‘do not touch me’ and an identification of Mary Magdalene with the ‘sinful woman’ of Luke 7 (therefore the (in modern theology often outdated) reading of the ‘fallen woman’ not allowed to touch the risen Savior (because ‘she’ might actually prevent the ascension?)). It also reinforced a devaluation of the physical body in contrast to the divine nature of Christ, which classic Gnosticism also related to.
Modern esoteric and neo-Gnostic circles, especially also in awareness of the Gnostic Gospels, particularly the Gospel of Mary, focused more on Mary Magdalene as a woman being the first to meet the risen Christ. While for some early Christian exegetes this just substantiated the connection between woman and original sin (Mary Magdalene paralleled with Eve), to the Gnostics it was/became proof for the outstanding position Mary had among Christ’s followers, also supporting the thesis of her being the ‘apostle to the apostles’. Another connection made by modern Gnostics and esoteric Christians alike is the identification of Mary Magdalene with the divine Sophia, rooted also in the Jewish Wisdom-tradition. All of these are very interesting topics, especially also for me as a female bishop within a Gnostic Ecclesia (Ecclesia Gnostica Aeterna) and I will certainly return to this at one point in time. However, for now I want to suggest some often overlooked implications of this scene and point out that while Mary Magdalene’s femaleness is highly significant, this significance is metaphysical and the whole scene should be interpreted ‘human-(not gender)-centric’.
And in this context I must emphasize one more thing: although the gnostic transformation we seek in our esoteric current of the Kosmic Gnosis, i.e. the establishment of the Soul-body sovereignty over Spirit/rational ego, is first and foremost actualized within the human, it requires and necessitates an external, phenomenal reality (for a deeper investigation of the esoteric path and goals of the Kosmics, please see David Beth, “Supreme Katabasis: Kaivalya and the Kosmic Gnosis”). A metaphysical interpretation does not automatically deny physis. The resurrection into the pandaemonic All does not mean an experience within your mind nor within a world created by mind but a re-connection to the reality humans inhabited at the dawn of ages and that is still here, alive, independent of the human being. As I have indicated in my last blog post, the Imitatio Kristi in the Kosmic Gnostic current is not a purely psychological one! It is decidedly not the same as the ‘resurrection of the Cosmic Christ’ or within ‘Christ consciousness’ that certain movements propagate. In my opinion those only ‘resurrect’ into a world of mental abstractions or a projection of their own imagination. On the other hand, without any inner transformation, interactions or encounters with the pandaemonic reality happen mostly by chance. So, the crucifixion and resurrection just as well as the meeting of Krist and Magdalene afterwards also (!) denote inner-human processes and events – which should not, however, be limited to ‘psychological’ interpretations.
The fact that there is also always a physical level involved is insinuated by ‘Noli me tangere’, no matter its translation, as the Latin ‘tangere’ (related to English ‘tangible’), just as the original Greek ‘haptou’ (related to English ‘haptic’), carry this connotation and the whole scene in John 20 is centered around this phrase and initiated by the search of Mary Magdalene for the body (!) of Christ. As said before, this was also recognized by Christian interpreters (who are also quite aware of all the other passages where people touched Christ and vice versa) but naturally their focus on the transcendence, on overcoming the material and phenomenal world led them to devalue this meaning / turn it negative. Despite its Christian setting and overtones (e.g. the ‘ascension to the father’ that Christ foretells), the scene’s main event, the meeting between the resurrected male god/hero and the female searching for him, is a pagan, if not archaic esoteric motif. We recognize the Goddess searching for her wounded or slain, torn-apart lover as well as the Valkyrie greeting the fallen hero.1David Beth will also ‘touch’ upon this topic in relation to the Adonis and Dido myth of Adonism in his forthcoming book with Theion Publishing ‘Labyrinthos’. This re-union of the original pair, the Ur-polarity, the androgynous connection signifies and conditions the actualized resurrection, its completion, the Bridal Chamber. There is no true resurrection without the other half! (Neither for men nor for women). The particular beauty of the ‘noli me tangere’ scene lies in the fact that it conserves the necessity of this reunion but also the element of its temporariness (or temporary non-temporality). No matter how you interpret the figures, that means no matter what Jesus and Mary, Krist and Sophia, masculine and feminine symbolize for you (and there are many options), their reunion is not one of duration nor of a static change. This is not just conveyed by him leaving the scene altogether but especially by the words in their translation as ‘do not hold on to me’ / ‘do not keep me’, which also emphasizes the actual, physical re-connection.
While the translation of ‘noli me tangere’ as ‘cease holding on to me’ has found its way not only into theological publications but also the New International Version of the Bible as well as Wikipedia, I first became aware of it through a German publication of the New Testament that did not use a word I had expected like ‘anfassen’ or ‘berühren’, meaning the act of (brief) touching, but instead used the word ‘festhalten’, i.e. ‘holding on to’, ‘hold firm’ (keeping something in your hold). This made me look into which Greek word the original text of John 20 used, which is the expression I already mentioned ‘haptou’, the conjugation of the infinitive ‘haptein’. Now this conjugation “also implies an action that takes place over time: in essence, stop doing what you are doing.”2B. Baert: “The Gaze in the Garden: Mary Magdalene in Noli Me Tangere”. In: Erhardt, M. & Morris, A. (ed.): “Mary Magdalene, Iconographic Studies from the Middle Ages to the Baroque”. Leiden: Brill, 2012, p.191. Which basically means that Christ does not prohibit Mary to touch him right now (therefore preventing a physical connection) but cautions her to stop ‘holding on’. To Christians this becomes a further emphasis of turning away from the physical, material, the bodily incarnation, and instead of grasping with the senses (another meaning of the Greek ‘haptein’) to turn towards the faith in the risen God that you are no longer able to perceive, foreboding the faith in the ascension that he asks her to announce to the disciples. To me the caution to stop holding on is an emphasis of the always temporary meeting (and mating) of (embodied) daemon with soul, pole with pole, god with goddess. And since we know that the resurrection, the eternal return of the same always happens in ever new form, it is not really a surprise to the Kosmic initiate that Mary does not recognize Jesus/Krist until he speaks her name, thereby btw ‘touching’ her soul-essence and initiating the ‘recognition’. And yes, the erotic connotations I am trying to insinuate here are also already included in the language as the ancient Greek ‘haptein’ also had the meaning of ‘having intercourse with a woman’.3http://perseus.uchicago.edu/cgi-bin/philologic/getobject.pl?c.8:3:172.LSJ
The caution ‘to not hold on’ to the other is actually a most essential teaching, applicable to all stages of our gnostic/esoteric as well as profane life. If we understand that everything alive is also always in change and transition and that it is, too, often our rational ego that tries to keep everything fixed in place, locked down out of a fear of change and a false crave for duration, then we can begin the transformation towards a resurrection into the knowledge of ‘not holding on’, which is certainly one of the most difficult and yet rewarding aspects to actualize. As described in previous texts already, it applies to our own old Self, to values and perceptions, but also to other people and our idea of them like friends, lovers, and esoteric companions. As it happens, one of the most essential meanings of the whole ‘noli me tangere’ scene to me is that it beautifully illustrates (a stage of) the teacher-student-relationship. This is not only plausible because of ‘noli me tangere’ being a teaching as I just elucidated but because it is explicitly said in John 20:16 that Mary Magdalene utters ‘Rabbi’ or ‘Rabbouni’ (which means teacher/master) upon recognizing Christ (and directly before he says ‘noli me tangere’, i.e. expresses the teaching). Also, as we remember, the Gnostic gospels support a description of Mary Magdalene as an important and beloved disciple. Now let me remind you: I am using a human-centric interpretation. I do not transfer the male-female dynamic here to a biological level and therefore I do not say that the teacher must be male. The teacher-student-relationship, no matter the biological sex or gender identity of either the teacher or the student, is always at its core a masculine-feminine-relation in the sense of the classic attribution that the masculine is active and inseminating while the feminine is passive and receptive. The teacher plants (the potential, the seed of) Gnosis or at least wisdom in the student after all. If you are now getting defensive because you understand passive as negative or get nervous because this might put you in a ‘submissive’ position, try to understand where this reaction comes from and maybe you will conceive a little spark of wisdom 😉
But, also, the teacher (just as the student naturally) is always in transition and in flux; and with him (her) the relationship of teacher and student. This is captured as well by the instruction to ‘stop holding on to me’. Stop clinging to the idea you have of me (and in this way of yourself). Stop projecting onto me. It does not mean ‘stop loving me’. Or ‘stop following me’. And yes, at one point the student becomes a teacher herself – as we can see in Mary being sent to announce and witness the resurrection and as it is particularly exemplified in the Gospel of Mary. And yet again, this does not end the teacher-student-relationship of Jesus and Mary Magdalene, it simply changes it (again). However, as the ‘noli me tangere’ scene illustrates, it is the student’s task to not hold on to fixed and static ideas and the teacher’s responsibility to not support such negative projections and fixations through his actions (for ex. by feeding a cult of personality). Or to say it with the wise words of Rumi: “The true teacher knocks down the idol that the student makes of him.”