The Orthodox Pages

email: pater@christopherklitou.com 

TALK ON “TOUCH ME NOT”

AND QUERIES ON CERTAIN LITURGICAL CUSTOMS 

  12th May 2011

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This week we will be looking at more than one subject. I have had requests to explain the meaning of certain things we do in Church and why on certain feast days we cense around the table in the middle of the Church, why we have processions and other things which we don’t normally see in a usual Sunday Liturgy. Before we look at these customs I have to give a answer to a question raised last week. Last week during our talk on the Resurrection I was asked why Christ said to Mary Magdalene “Touch me not” and as promised I will answer it today.

It seems contradictory when in one Gospel account it tells us that the women held his feet, in another that he invited the apostles and especially Thomas to touch him at the wounds he received from the crucifixion and then in another place to read that he told Mary Magdalene   “Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father: but go to my brethren, and say unto them, I ascend unto my Father, and your Father; and to my God, and your God.” (John 20: 17)

In the other cases where he was touched Christ still had not ascended to his father: that would happen forty days after the Resurrection, so what is Christ telling Mary: others can touch me but you can’t? Something doesn’t seem right, but there must be a logical explanation to this seemingly contradictory forbiddance for Mary not to touch him. The answer can be found in the Greek commentary on the New Testament by Panagiotis Trembelas and in the writings of St. John Chrysostom and others who give us the true interpretation to these words, but before I tell you the explanation I want us to look at some of the answers given by ordinary people on the internet.

Some of the answers are just silly and even laughable, but I want to read them to you to show you how a small passage, wrongly translated can confuse people and have them searching for any answer that might in their minds seem logical, yet are so far from the truth. 

1)     Jesus was a Jew and even though He is the New Covenant He told us that He didn't come to take away the Law but to fulfill it. If Mary had been on her menses, according to Jewish Law she was unclean and was not allowed to touch anything Holy.  (Can we really believe that anything could contaminate Christ? If fact most of the following comments have to do with Christ becoming contaminated as though sin is a contagious disease that can be transferred simply by touching

2)    In the Old Testament, the High Priest, after offering the blood sacrifice, was to enter the Holy of Holies. Before the blood sacrifice, nothing impure was to touch him, until the sacrifice was delivered in the Holy of Holies. If something impure touched him, he had to start the sacrifice all over again. Accordingly with Jesus, nothing impure was to touch Him before He ascended to the Father. If Mary Magdalene or anything or anyone touched Him they would be impure.....and therefore Jesus’ blood sacrifice would have been annulled.....and He would have to die all over again. That is why Jesus said to Mary “do not touch me, for I have not yet ascended to my Father.” (Again we have the notion that Christ would be contaminated by being touched. What the writer of this comment hasn’t taken into account is that Christ was held by the feet by at least two other women and was also touched by Thomas).

3)     These words were added by the Church to cover up what really happened at that moment between Jesus and Mary Magdalene, according to the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, that they must have embraced in a very passionate manner with kisses of lovers.  If you check in Matthew 28:9, you will see that the other women embraced Jesus' feet. The end result is that because of this attempt to cover up the truth about Jesus and Mary, the Church created one more of the contradictions of the New Testament. (I added the comments of this writer to show that we must know how to interpret the New Testament and give proper and logical explanations otherwise we leave it open to those who laugh at the Gospels to formulate any blasphemous and ridiculous story. He mentions the Apocryphal Gospel of Mary Magdalene in support of his argument, but there is nothing in this second century work that would suggest that Jesus and Mary had a special human relationship.

4)    At that point he was clean. If she had touched him then he would be stained with her sin and imperfection. God cannot look upon sin and uncleanliness. That is the only way I can explain it. 

5)     Maybe there were some physical dangers with regards to energy, radiation etc that was present in his body with respect to the resurrection process. He did let doubting Thomas touch him later though.

6)    If Mary Magdalene had touched Jesus at that point, Jesus would be touched by sin and no longer pure and sin-free. He would not have been able to sit at the right hand of God.

7)     Some translations of the Bible give the impression that Jesus told Mary Magdalene not to touch him. For instance, the King James Version renders Jesus’ words: “Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father.” (John 20:17) However, the original Greek verb, which is usually translated “touch,” means also “to cling to, hang on by, lay hold of, grasp, handle.” Reasonably, Jesus was not objecting to Mary Magdalene’s merely touching him, since he allowed other women who were at the grave to ‘catch him by his feet.’—Matthew 28:9.Many modern-language translations, such as the New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures, The New Jerusalem Bible, and The New English Bible, help us to understand the real meaning of Jesus’ words by rendering them: “Stop clinging to me.” Why would Jesus say that to Mary Magdalene, who was a close associate?—Luke 8:1-3. Evidently, Mary Magdalene feared that Jesus was about to leave and ascend into heaven. Moved by her strong desire to be with her Lord, she was holding fast to Jesus, not letting him go. To assure her that he was not yet leaving, Jesus instructed Mary to stop clinging to him but instead to go and declare to his disciples the news of his resurrection.—John 20:17. The exchange between Jesus and Thomas was different. When Jesus appeared to some disciples, Thomas was absent. Later, Thomas voiced his doubts about Jesus’ resurrection, saying that he would not believe it unless he saw Jesus’ nail wounds and put his hand into Jesus’ speared side. Eight days later, Jesus again appeared to the disciples. This time, Thomas was present, and Jesus invited him to touch the wounds.—John 20:24-27. Thus, in Mary Magdalene’s case, Jesus was dealing with a misplaced desire to prevent him from leaving; in Thomas’ case, Jesus was helping someone who had doubts. In both instances, Jesus had good reasons to act the way he did.

This last explanation is fairly close to the Orthodox explanation. The passage could be translated as “Stop touching me” or “Stop holding on to me” If this is the case then Mary did touch him but was clinging on to him so hard as though she didn’t want to let him go. But what we must keep in kind is not only the command not to touch him or hold him but also the words that followed: “For I am not yet ascended to my Father”. It is these words that cause the seemingly contraction because in the other cases where Jesus was touched he still had not ascended to the father so why did he forbid only Mary Magdalene?

There is more than just one plausible answer. If the “touch me not” means “don’t hold on to me” Jesus is directing his prohibition to Mary’s inner sentiments of the heart, which wants to hold Jesus forever on earth and to possess him. But to possess Christ is possible only after he has ascended into heaven, thus Christ tells her to not hold onto him, don’t try and keep me on earth, because I have not yet ascended to my Father.

Over the centuries, theologians from the west and from within Orthodoxy have given us many interpretations to this verse, but I would think that the more explanations we hear the more confused we will be. The most plausible and Orthodox interpretation is as follows:

Mary, seeing her beloved Master, believes that he is risen from the dead just like others were brought back to life by him, and that he would again begin his old association with his disciples; that he would again begin preaching and would have need of her services, something which would give her the greatest joy. Mary thinks that his victory and glory is nothing more than to reveal to the Pharisees that they murdered him in vain. She couldn’t apprehend the universal, eternal and spiritual character of his victory over death. She wasn’t aware of the new condition of Christ human nature, that it was no longer in the humble conditions of fallen human nature subject to decay and physical needs. She had not as yet seen him appear “with the doors being shut” but only as the supposed gardener. She rejoiced when she saw him in the same manner as Lazarus’ sisters rejoiced when they saw their brother risen from the dead. This is the kind of Resurrection Mary thought Jesus also had and that from now on he would continual to be with them in the flesh as he had done before the crucifixion. She falls to his feet and if the translation of “touch me not” is interpreted as “stop holding on to me” then Mary did hold him by the feet, but Christ had to make her aware that he will no longer be with them as a mortal man and asks her to stop holding on to him as she would have done before. Christ wants to teach Mary that he is now in his glory, that he is God and belongs not only to her, but to all the world and that she must from now on approach him with the due and fitting respect.

But because it would have been presumptuous to tell her all this directly, he indirectly opens her mind to higher things by telling her that “he has not yet ascended to his Father”. St John Chrysostom days: “It appears that this is where he is in a rush to go and from now on he will no longer mingle with men and will not be with them in the same way as he was before and as Mary had imagined. This is why he only approached the disciples from time to time and was not continually with them; to teach them that his relationship with them will not be as before. From now on it will be completely spiritual.

So that Mary would not be hurt by his forbiddance to touch him and start to contemplate in her mind that he snubbed her and gave her the cold shoulder, Christ renders her the first evangelist of his resurrection and tells her to go and tell the other apostles what he had told her. We see then that after the Lord’s resurrection, his first and primary work is to preach the new condition and the results of his victory. And this he begins with Mary and the misinterpreted “Touch me Not”.

The two events – Mary Magdalene’s and Thomas’ – should not be compared in contradiction, because to each Christ gave them to understand and feel the particular moment according to what each needed. In Mary’s case, she at first took him to be the gardener, but then immediately after had no doubts with whom she was speaking to. Her mistake was that she thought he would continue to live an earthly life with his disciples. Thomas on the other hand didn’t believe that Christ had risen and sought proof and, to be sure that the others were not deluded by a ghost, he demanded nothing less than to touch the wounds of his crucifixion. In Mary’s case the Lord sought to lift her from an earthly love to a higher and spiritual love, from a worldly and carnal relationship to a spiritual communion: he instructs her not to stretch forth her hands but to lift her heart to higher things. With Thomas who didn’t believe in the resurrection, the Lord condescended to Thomas’s illness to cure and rectify the disciple from his disbelief and make him belief. I hope that has answered the baffling and what outwardly seems like a contradiction in the “Touch me not” confrontation with Mary Magdalene.

I next want us to see the certain customs that we do on certain feast days. Basically there are two customs that would catch your attention, the circling of the table and the procession around the Church. The question comes from one of the Village parishioners who attend the Sunday service. I mention this because in most parishes these customs are done during the vespers service on the previous evening and would not be seen during the Liturgy. In the Village we do things slightly differently out of necessity because I can’t go up the evening before for the vespers service and so we move these customs to the end of the Liturgy.

The circling and censing of the table is part of the short service known as the Artoklasia. In English it is translated as “Breaking of Bread” but is more commonly known as the “Blessing of the five loaves”. For the service five loaves are necessary, a bottle of wine, a bottle of olive oil and a small container with wheat. Originally this short service was performed during an all-night vigil as it is still done in most monasteries. Today our all-night vigils usually begin at 9 in the evening and finish before 2 in the morning, but in older times an all-night vigil meant all night until the sun came up. This was physically exhausting for the faithful and the service of the blessing of the loaves was performed about half way though and the loaves were then broken up and together with the wine were distributed to the faithful to help sustain them with physical nourishment for the rest of the Vigil. The blessed oil was used to anoint the faithful to provide them with spiritual nourishment.

In parishes this service became identified with the celebration of a Great feast or the feast day of a saint and was offered at the end of the Vespers service. When someone celebrates his/her nameday, they will usually bring the five loaves, the wine, oil and wheat and ask the priest to commemorate their names during the service. Many people celebrate many feast days during the year; it need not be our name day but the feast of a saint we have a special reverence for and wish to ask for his prayer and blessing or it could be a family feast that has been observed by that family for decades. In our times it is also customary for many people to observe a certain feast, but not for everyone to bring the five loaves and other necessary items. Instead they ask for their names to be commemorated and give a small contribution to the Church which has for many years been fixed at €5.

The five loaves, the wine, oil and wheat are placed on a table in the centre of the church with five lit candles. If the blessing is performed during vespers then a procession known as a “lity” is first made around the church and the blessing is made towards the ends. There are some variations made to the order of the service according to each local church and so as not to confuse you I will keep to the order I keep in the Village even though it is not the prescribed order, but we do it as an economy. After the prayer known as the “Behind the pulpit prayer” in other words the prayer said in the middle of the church after the end of communion and before the singing of “Blessed is the name of the Lord from this time forth and forever more”, the choir sing the hymn for the feast or the saint who is being celebrated. The Priest with the censer comes to the middle of the church and stands behind the table facing east. When the choir has finished the hymn the priest sings the hymn “O Virgin Mother of God, hail Mary full of grace” and as he does so he censes around the table and then all the people. The hymn “O Virgin Mother of God” has nothing to do with the blessing of the five loaves. This is a remnant reminding us of its original place, because the hymn is the theotokion sung during the all-night vigils.

The circling and censing around the table is something that we do on various occasions. Any table that is placed in the centre of the church as an offertory table is also symbolic of the holy altar and just as we cense the holy altar from all sides we do the same around this table. During funerals the table is replaced by the coffin and again before the priest begins the funeral service he will cense the coffin from all sides which is again censed before the Gospel reading.

So after the censing, the priest recites the prayer for the blessing of the five loaves, the wine oil and wheat and then takes one of the loaves and lifting it will sing a verse from Psalm 33 “The rich have become poor and hungry, but they that seek the Lord shall not want any good thing.” this is repeated by both choirs and then kissing the bread as a sign of gratitude for God’s blessing he gives it to the person who made the offering who will divide it among the people so that they also may receive a share of the blessing. The five loaves are reminiscent of the five loaves that Christ blessed in the wilderness and by which five thousand of His followers were fed. The brief service is a thanksgiving through which we express our gratitude for all the blessings of life which are represented by the basic elements of life: Bread, wheat wine and oil. It also symbolizes the ancient Agape meals of the very early Christian communities. These were common meals which took place daily during the gatherings of the Christians. After the meals they would then offer the Eucharist and very possibly the practice of collecting and distributing charity.

In the Orthodox Church bread is highly valued not only as an essential basic food, but also as the supreme symbol of the Body of Christ. Christ himself has said that he is the Bread of life and the Bread which came down from heaven and it is bread that is consecrated and changed into the Body of Christ in the Divine Liturgy. Thus bread in general symbolizes the Church of Christ, which has spread to all the corners of the earth. Christians throughout the world are like the wheat which grows in the fields and mountains, and which Christ gathers into one body. Bread therefore, has been given a mystical meaning according to which it constitutes the essence of the spiritual life of the Christian.

At the conclusion of the Divine Liturgy we then lead a procession around the church with the Icon of the feast or saint. We have spoken before on this custom, but in connection with the procession on Easter night. The procession around the Church on Easter night is symbolic of Christ’s earthly life and the people following the procession are the multitudes that believed on Him and followed Him. The same symbolism is made with other feasts of the Lord: we follow Christ throughout his earthly life and we represent his many disciples who followed him from one city to another and from one event to another. The event is signified by the Icon that leads the procession. The same can be said for the Saints. As their Icon goes forth we follow their earthly life which we should have as an example for us to imitate and follow in their footsteps. They are beacons of light who show us the path to perfection. They give us hope because in them we see the fulfilment of God’s promise and the expectation of our own destiny. Christ has commanded us to be perfect even as his Father in heaven is perfect. This seems like an impossible task to the majority of us sinful men, but the saints who were ordinary men and women just like us have proved that with the grace of God this is indeed possible by all Christians who strive for perfection and union with God. The saints are therefore our examples or if preferred “our heroes” who have fought the good fight and with their heroic deeds became shining examples of virtue, and benefactors of mankind. By following in their footsteps we are also honouring them and show them that we recognize in them the light of Christ and rejoice because we also are reassured of the resurrection.

Having followed the Icon around the Church, it is then held up high and everyone passes under it. This is actually a very unique tradition only encountered in Cyprus and is done as another form of receiving the blessing and protection of the saint.

In villages you will also see the custom where the person who made the offering of the five loaves to stand next to the priest as he distributes the Antidoron and as the people come to kiss the Icon and receive the Anridoron, they will be censed by this person and will be sprinkled in the hand with rose water or cologne. I’m not sure if there is a proper explanation and accepted symbolism behind this so I will give one of my own which I think is plausible and acceptable. Incense is something we offer to God and in the usual prayer for the blessing of the incense we ask God to receive the sweet smelling savour of spiritual fragrance, and to accept it upon his heavenly altar; and in exchange to send down upon us the grace of his most Holy Spirit. In this case the prayer offered by the priest at the blessing of the incense is different: it is a petition for the person: “Again we pray for mercy, life, peace, health, salvation, visitation, forgiveness and remission of the sins of the servants of God, and names the person or persons for whom the five loaves were offered. When we come and receive the incense we wish them Xronia Polla (Many years) so with the priests prayer for them we also offer our prayers and good wishes for their good health and salvation.

It could also symbolize that we are offered incense because we are created in God’s image and just as we offer incense to God we offer it to each other in recognition of God’s image in all of us. The rose water or cologne could also be offered in recognition that we are all members of the one body of Christ. During the Lamentation Service on Holy and Great Friday Evening, the Priest sprinkles the Epitaphio, which is the embroidered Icon of Christ’ burial, with rose water which symbolically represents the myrrh with which Christ was embalmed. It can also represent the very precious ointment that a certain woman poured on Jesus’ head as he sat at meat in the house of Simon the Leper and to which Christ said she did it in anticipation of his burial. If, as the Gospels teach us, we should see Christ in each of us, then this last interpretation is more than justifiable and we are all worthy to be anointed with precious ointment. This is also supported by the custom of the sprinkling. You will notice than when they receive the perfumed water in the hands many immediately apply it to their hair as though they were anointing their head.   

I was also asked to explain about lighting candles, making the sign of the Cross, when and how often, standing, sitting and venerating Icons. We did cover these things in a special talk “On the Proper Conduct in Church”. Granted, it’s been almost three years since that talk and some of you were not present then. Those of you who have internet can refresh yourselves by going to the talks page of the website and read what was said then. The talk is number 38 and dated 16/10/08. For those of you who are newcomers to the Church I would say don’t worry too much about rights and wrongs of church conduct. The best policy is to see want others do and do the same. If they Cross themselves then Cross yourself; if they stand then stand. The only thing I would do different is don’t always remain seated when they are. There are times when they should all be standing but certain behinds get glued to the seat and have difficulty lifting themselves up. As a general rule, if the priest comes out of the Sanctuary and faces the people then everyone should be standing. Another rule is that when in doubt, stand: it is never wrong to stand in church.

One thing I don’t mention in that talk is how to receive Holy Communion in a way that would help the priest confidently give you communion without the fear that he might spill it. Firstly the red cloth which you are asked to hold is not supposed to be just for wiping your lips after. It is there as a net to catch the precious gifts if by chance some were to accidentally spill from the spoon. You should therefore hold it preferably with both hands under your chin making sure that it is open enough to form a catching net. Secondly you should not be standing too close to the chalice but neither too far. The further away you are then the further the spoon has to travel to reach your mouths and the risk of spilling is increased. As you wait for the Priest to give you communion, your mouth should be opened wide enough and your head tilted slightly backwards. Don’t reach for the spoon with your mouths but let the priest confidently place it in your mouth before you close it. Some of your prefer not to touch the spoon with your lips and this is perfectly Ok, as long as the Priest knows beforehand that you wish to receive your communion this way. One or two of you already do so and follow the correct procedure. If you don’t want to touch the spoon then you must remain with your mouth wide open and your head tilted back. The Priest will place the spoon into you mouth and turn it to let the Holy Gifts fall onto your tongue. He will then remove the spoon and only then should you close your mouth. In this way you don’t even have to wipe your lips because the spoon hasn’t touched them.