“Do not touch me!”: The Haptic Enigma of Christ’s Resurrected Flesh

Between the death of the Lord’s natal flesh and the inauguration of his ascended flesh, there is the enigmatic time of resurrected flesh. In the mode of historical corporeality, Jesus was haptically available to family, friends, enemies, and strangers. They could address and hear him, touch him, clasp him, embrace him. For some three decades, he existed as a tangible, geographically locatable, spatially-extended object. Natal flesh communed with natal flesh. In and by the ascension of Christ to the right hand of the Father, however, the dominical flesh—in its recognizable human form—is removed from “the possibility of haptic interaction with anyone or anything, as it is also beyond the possibility of other modes of sensory interaction” (Christian Flesh, p. 44). From this point on, the ascended flesh of Jesus is only available to the baptized in the sacramental form of bread and wine, until the transfiguration of the cosmos in the Parousia. The resurrected flesh, therefore, represents an intermediate stage in the Lord’s embodiment, shared with his disciples between Pascha and Ascension. What might we say about it? Paul J. Griffiths offers the following observations.

First, the resurrected flesh of Jesus is not immediately recognizable as Jesus; more accurately, it is not immediately recogniz­able as the natal flesh of Jesus. Cleopas and his companion travel alongside Jesus for several miles on their way to Emmaus, yet remain ignorant of who he is. Recogni­tion only comes when they sit down for supper and the risen Lord offers the prayer of thanksgiving. Similarly, Mary Magda­lene mistakes him for a gardener and plaintively asks him where the corpse of Jesus may be found. Only when he calls her by name does the fog lift: Rabboni! And so with the disci­ples at the Sea of Tiberias. Jesus approach­es them; but they do not grasp his identity until he directs them where to cast their nets, at which point the beloved disciple exclaims, Dominus est, and Peter jumps out of the boat and swims to shore. “The unrec­ogniz­ability of the flesh absent an act of self-communication or self-revelation,” ex­plains Griffiths, “is at the heart of each of these passages” (p. 44). Jesus appears to his disciples in his risen body, but identifica­tion must typically be preceded by an additional word or gesture illuminating the continuity of dominical flesh.

Second, the resurrected flesh of Jesus enjoys a freedom from the spatio-temporal restrictions imposed on natal flesh. Walls and closed doors cannot bar its entrance. “It appears and disappears like a firefly’s glow on a summer night, and isn’t hindered in its coming and going by material obstructions ordinarily insuperable for human flesh” (p. 45). It is not surprising that the disciples thought they were seeing a ghost:

As they were speaking about these things, the very one (ipse) stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” Startled and terrified (conturbati vero et conterriti), they thought they were seeing a spirit. He said to them, “What startles you, and why are your hearts full of questions? See my hands and feet: I am the very one (ipse ego sum). Touch me and see (palpate me et videte): a spirit doesn’t have flesh and bones (carnem et ossa) as you see I have.” When he’d said this, he showed them his hands and feet (ostendit eis manus et pedes). While they still didn’t believe for joy, and were amazed, he said to them, “Have you something here to eat?” They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and, taking it, he ate it in front of them. (Luke 24:36-43; trans. Griffiths)

Christ reveals himself to his disciples as the “selfsame” (ipse), identical to the one whom they followed for three years, he who had been crucified and laid in a tomb just two days earlier. In order to overcome their doubts and fears, Jesus commands them to examine the wounds of crucifixion: “Touch me and see.” Here Griffiths notes that the text does not explicitly state that the disciples do in fact touch him. We assume that they do, just as we assume that Thomas does in John 20, yet in neither case does the text say that anyone obeys Jesus’ command. Griffiths tentatively suggests that “while Jesus can and does show (ostendere, usually) his resurrected flesh as flesh to his followers, and can emphasize, as he does in this passage, that what he’s showing them exactly is flesh (caro et ossa), and can even tell them to touch it, it is not in fact fully available for fleshly interaction” (p. 46). What finally con­vinces the disciples in the Lukan narrative is seeing Jesus chew and swallow the broiled fish. Flesh eats flesh, spirits don’t. The priority of seeing over touching leads Griffiths to an intriguing inference:

It’s by eating that he convinces his followers that he is flesh; touching his flesh is not shown to serve that purpose (the followers are, the text permits us to say, convinced without touching), and if this is a possible reading, Jesus’s offer (command) of an exchange of touch with his resurrected flesh is one that can, and possibly should, be refused. (p. 46)

The haptic riddle of resurrected flesh deepens when we turn to the story of the Lord’s encounter with Mary Magdalene on Easter morning. As soon as Mary recognizes Jesus, he immediately issues this warning: noli me tenere, nondum enim ascendi ad Patrem (“don’t hold on to me; I’ve not yet ascended to the Father”). The warning implies that Mary was attempting to clasp or embrace him. There is mystery here. Mary is told not to touch Jesus because he has not yet ascended to his Father. In his historical flesh, Jesus was available to be touched by all physically near him. In his ascended flesh, Jesus is available to be eucharistically touched and consumed. But in his resurrected flesh, Jesus may or may not be available for physical contact—noli me tenere.

The proscription is explicit in marking the ambiguous status of the resurrected flesh in the between-time of the resurrection. Jesus’s natal flesh could be touched, and often was; his ascended flesh is touched, intimately, all the time. But it’s because his resurrected flesh has not yet ascended—not yet become available for touch as eucharistic flesh—and because it is no longer limited by the ordinary spacetime unities, as his natal flesh largely was, that it’s not to be touched, and especially not to be touched by force, grabbed and held on to, as Mary might have wanted to do. Jesus’s resurrected flesh, like his transfigured natal flesh, is dazzlingly dangerous; and attempts to hold on to it, to keep it where it is by placing it in tabernacle tents, or by grasping it, offend against its nature. It is on its way somewhere (ascendo ad Patrem meum et Patrem vestrum, et Deum meum et Deum vestrum [John 20:17]), and until it’s arrived there it is unavailable as flesh. Significantly, when Mary returns to the followers to give them the message, she says, vidi Dominum, rather than palpavi Dominum, both because she hasn’t done the latter and because the latter would have been inappropriate or impossible. The resurrected flesh is to be seen and heard, not touched, and for the most part that’s what Scripture depicts. (p. 47)

The one exception occurs in Matthew 28, when the risen Jesus appears to the women fleeing from the empty tomb. They fall down before him and clasp his feet (tenuerunt pedes eius et adoraverunt eum). Jesus does not rebuke or hinder them but simply instructs them to return to his disciples with a message. When read alongside the other appearance stories, this touching of Jesus stands out as an anomaly. The women do to Jesus precisely what Mary is told not to do. In both accounts the same (Latin) verb is used. “There’s a rebuke,” remarks Griffiths, “in the lexical fact” (p. 48).

Griffiths summarizes his meditation upon the resurrected flesh of the Lord:

The resurrected flesh is veiled: the ordinary cues that permit visual recognition aren’t there, and this veiling goes with a ban on touch. Neither visual nor tactile intimacy with it are possible for those few with whom it has to do, unless an additional invitation is proferred by Jesus—an invitation that either involves a return to the natal flesh, as when the risen LORD addresses Mary Magdalene by name, or an anticipation of the ordinary mode of tactile availability of the ascended flesh, as when bread is broken and distributed after the walk on the Emmaus road. These unveilings temporarily remove the inaccessibility of Jesus’s resurrected flesh to the senses, and they are of short duration and with deep reservation. Even when the resurrected LORD is seen and known, he isn’t to be touched: the act of recognition, which he makes possible, points always away from what is recognized—the resurrected flesh—and toward something else as yet not present. The resurrected flesh is there to show that it is superfluous, except to indicate its own superfluity as anything other than a preparation for what is to come, which is the availability of the ascended flesh to the community of followers. (p. 48)

Resurrected flesh must yield to the ascended flesh of the eucharistic banquet.

(Go to “Piercing the Veil”)

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8 Responses to “Do not touch me!”: The Haptic Enigma of Christ’s Resurrected Flesh

  1. brian says:

    I think this particular speculation is the richest part of Griffiths’ text. One is dealing with flesh in a liminal state, somehow marking the boundary between devastated time and the eschaton. Griffiths’ suggestion that liturgy becomes the sacramental focus of mediation is ultimately not shocking for orthodox Christian praxis. The nature of Christian freedom as he discerns it is another matter. (These latter thoughts anticipate the rest of Griffiths’ book.) I have areas of profound disagreement with Griffiths’ attempt to elucidate how Christian liberty should manifest in society, so much so that I am given pause regarding how he interprets the metaphysical/symbolic sacramental action that allows Christic flesh to be shared in ecclesial community. Seems to me that Griffiths too easily conflates traditional symbolism with human conventions that are exploded by the gospel. I would argue that there is a perennial human wisdom that is ordered towards grace, a nature that is completed and not abrogated by the coming of Christ. Griffiths makes elemental realities forms of coercive restriction rather than temporal seeds for eternal flourishing. Does the flesh on the way to ascension intimate a radical change that discerns natural forms as prisons to be ultimately discarded or as analogous rungs towards an unimaginable apotheosis?

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Robert Fortuin says:

    I’m going with the analogous rungs, Brian. In my mind it figures with creation, even in its brokenness still, as the good and sacramental revelation of its Maker.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Herb Garfield says:

    Leads me to wonder the blessed hope we are to attain; how will our destiny be similar or different than the eucharistic ascended Lord’s?

    Like

  4. Joe Crozier says:

    When I took the train from London to Glasgow my sister would run the length of the platform to greet me, throw her arms around me, give me the greatest hug on earth and not let go. I see the command of Jesus to Mary Magdalene in this light. He was not saying “Do not touch me.” He was saying “There, there, that’s enough. You can let me go because I am not going anywhere (yet) – I will stay until I have to return to the Father and be fully glorified. But even then I will be with you until the end of time. So there is no need to hold on to me -I will hold on to you. It’s good to be here with you, it’s good to see you, it’s good that you know me and I know you. Now let go and let me breath!”

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  5. Patrick Coleman says:

    Perhaps just a tangential question, but why does Griffiths refer to a Latin rather than a Greek text of the gospels?

    Like

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