Noli Me Tangere (Touch Me Not!)


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I purchased this book entitled Noli Me Tangere , at Easter time in the Philippines three years ago. With little understanding of the title. Up until now I had been thinking this language was some kind of Tagalog expression. And I still have never completed reading the book

This past week, 3 years later, I discovered a piece of art work with the same title. It was Lavinia Fontana’s “Noli Me Tangere,” which was mentioned in this week’s edition of America magazine.

Noli Me Tangere. Up until now I had never recognized the Latin phrase. This week I discovered that Noli Me Tangere is a Latin translation of the original scrolls of Scripture from the Easter Sunday morning description in the Gospel of John (20: 14-17) which has been translated “Don’t touch me.” In Fontana’s work of art, Mary Magdalen is not even trying to touch the Gardener. A Filipino might tell you that the translation is “Touch me not.”

Now about the author, Jose Rizal. He was a Filipino, educated in Europe, who became an ophthalmologist. He lived in interesting times when Spain had long ruled over the Philippines. His novel was written in 1887 when he was 26 years old. Today his novel is taught to help establish a sense of national identity among a people divided by dialect, social class, ethnic group and ideology on 7,000 islands.

The novel created so much controversy that when Rizal returned to the Philippines after completing medical studies, he quickly was exiled only a few days after his arrival to an island a 3 day journey away from Manila by boat. With charges that Noli was full of subversive ideas, with the portrayal of corruption and abuse by both the country’s Spanish government and the clergy, government officials were pressured by the Church to take action against the book. A character, Father Dámaso, impregnates a woman, when the fathering of illegitimate children by members of the Spanish clergy was a reality.

Now about that title: Rizal’s friend, Ferdinand Blumentritt, stated that Noli Me Tangere is the term used as the professional nickname used by an ophthalmologist to describe cancer of the eyelids and tear glands. Rizal was executed in 1896 following a military trial, so he was not around long to offer his own explanation.

“Noli Me Tangere” is also what the Resurrected Jesus instructed Mary Magdalene on the morning in the garden, 3 days after Good Friday. The phrase did not exactly resonate until yesterday. Hearing another Gospel account of that same day when the Resurrected Jesus met Mary Magdalene, also in the Gospel of John, with this Doubting Thomas apostle. About one week later from this Noli Me Tangere story, Christians hear of an invitation by the Resurrected Jesus inviting the now famous Doubting Thomas to touch him. So why is Thomas invited to touch the Resurrected Jesus and Mary Magdalene was not? And what exactly did this Noli Me Tangere really mean? What exactly is going on here?

In Noli Me Tangere: Mary Magdalen: One Person, Many Images, there is a discussion by Karlijn Demasure and Hannelore Devoldere of the Greek — the preceding language of Scripture, and of the Greek verb of movement. The writers explain “Noli Me Tangere” was a commandment to join with the others, in a grieving. The interpretation is not ‘do not come to me’, but ‘go’ to the apostles. ‘Go join the community.’

In this “Noli Me Tangere” story, there is absolutely no mention of the Resurrection. In this “Noli Me Tangere” explanation, Karlijn Demasure and Hannelore Devoldere are much more observant about this personal encounter in the garden, with no announcement of what has happened. There is Mary Magdalene’s recognition of the voice of Jesus, without realizing what really has happened, without an understanding of this New Life to Jesus that Mary had witnessed.

With all the knowledge of the modern day Christian, insight is lost of the fear and confusion on her part.  Especially the fear.  When Jesus said “noli me tangere,” Karlijn Demasure and Hannelore Devoldere suggest, the interpretation was about only approaching Him now through  a holy Spirit; ‘You don’t have the understanding yet.’ To get the understanding of what is going on, “Get to the apostles!”  With your eyelids and tear glands and tears.

“Noli Me Tangere” is an instruction about a change in a relationship that was about to happen. Mary Magdalen finds the Beloved only to be immediately asked to go share the news, let him go again, and to stop clinging onto her idea.  Her way of thinking about past relationships. Thus, most miss out on the instruction to join with the others; miss out that this business in a new creation soon to be called Christianity is never to be a solo pursuit.

The other emphasis in the story is on closeness. In the “breathed into” part. I am “breathed into” only by those I allow to have a closeness. It is the companionship part of life. It is the companionship part that moves me beyond myself to others. By those who knew how bad I smelled. Mammals in the story in the evolutionary process. Join with the other mammals, with their innate fears surrounding decisions about death. The surrounding fear of wild mammals –‘Touch Me Not” –which was about to change.

‘You don’t have the understanding yet.’ Explaining who you were all along. These were still the days when the understanding was not there yet of what the personal side of Jesus was all about, before the passing on that name, Christian, and the personal subtle side to His companions.  There first was this need to join the others.  In explaining who you were all along, there is this need for a community.

One sent. The headlines will be explained over time, and the most important part of the story was yet to come. ‘You don’t have the understanding yet.’

And how did all of this apply to the history of the Philippines, by an author who happened to be a physician, who was put to death?  I wanted to finish my reading of Noli Me Tangere , of that book addressing a bit of the history of the Philippines. That book with the title encompassing cancer of the eyelids and tear glands, in a story about revolution and a sense of national identity, among a people who that line, ‘You don’t have the understanding yet,’ had quite an application at that point in history.  And today.

And like the New Testament instruction of “Noli Me Tangere” about a change in a relationship that was about to happen, the Philippines was then under the dominion of Spain.  The Inquisition in Spain which began with fervor in 1492 was still alive.  Had there been a separation of Church and State in the times written about by Jose Rizal, with the government fear of a story about revolution and a sense of more true identity?

I had seen where Rizal was held on the night before his execution. But I never understood the spiritual connection that the Filipino people had for this national hero. Or to this book title. Or of the truly spiritual part of my trip to that nation at Easter time. And I never saw the author’s understanding of what was going on, with idea about past relationships, about a change in a relationship that was about to happen, or about the meaning of this title. I had never understood the importance of the instruction to join with the others. And I never had comprehended the method of how — the reason how.  In the how to come together.

How to form a community.  How to grieve correctly together. . .with others.


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