My father had big hands. That’s not surprising because he was a big man: almost 6′ 4″ and about 220 pounds in his prime. As children we used to say that we didn’t mind getting spanked by Mom so much, because her hands were small. But Dad’s hands covered a lot of territory. Truthfully, though, Dad seldom had to spank us. All he had to do was threaten to spank us and we’d cover our fannies and cry, “I’ll-be-good! I’ll-be-good!”
Reflecting on my father’s hands made me wonder: what kind of hands did Jesus have? His hands (like my Dad’s) were probably rough. After all, tradition says he was a carpenter, someone who worked with his hands all day—without the benefit of work-gloves or hand lotion. His hands must have been strong too from lugging wood around and from wielding hammers and saws. But they must have been gentle too, for the Gospels tell us that Jesus touched many people with his hands. It fascinates me how comfortable he was with touch in an age and in a culture far more formal and reserved than ours.
How does Jesus touch people? Sometimes he takes people by the hand as he did with Simon’s mother-in-law and Jairus’ young daughter. On other occasions Jesus lays his hands on people and heals them. He also touches the eyes of the blind and the ears of the deaf. He plays with children, perhaps by letting them climb all over him and even tug at his beard. To the scandal of some, Jesus touches even lepers and prostitutes. And at the Last Supper, he touches and washes the dirty, smelly feet of his apostles.
But Jesus not only touches others, he allows others to touch him. He permits himself to be jostled by the crowds as he walks the dusty roads of Galilee. He allows people to touch his clothing, embrace his feet, anoint his head with fragrant oil, and even kiss his feet.
Today we know a lot more about the importance of touch for healthy living. We know, for
example, that babies need to be touched, cuddled, and held in order to grow and develop normally. Older children need touch too—whether we give them hugs, muss up their hair, tickle them, or pat them on the shoulder. But the need for touch doesn’t end after childhood. We all need to be touched and to touch others throughout our lives.
The problem comes when we equate touch with the sexual. When I first entered the convent, for example, we novices were instructed never to hug another sister. We were directed to give her a “hearty handshake” instead. Needless to say, that “rule” was eventually sent to the trash bin where it belonged.
We need touch no matter how old we are too. An elderly widow in a nursing home once told me how much she missed being hugged. She lamented, “My children must think I’m too fragile for hugs.”
I suggested she share her need for hugs with her family. And, before I left, I gave her a gentle hug.
In her beautiful poem, “The Tao of Touch,” Margie Piercy raises this question: “What magic does touch create that we crave it so?” And at the end of the poem she says this: “Touch is our first language and often, our last, as the breathe ebbs and a hand closes our eyes.”
This Lent I suggest we take “an inventory of touch” in our life. Whether we are single, married, widowed, divorced, a parent, a grandparent, a nun, a priest, or a brother, how do we touch others in our everyday life? It can be simple: A hug, a pat on the back, holding someone’s hand, playing with a child, offering an arm to someone unsteady on their feet. We might ask ourselves: Have I ever personally experienced the “magic” of touch?
Let us pray… Gentle Jesus, when you walked this earth, you were very comfortable with touch. You took people by the hand, you laid your hands upon the sick, you played with children, you washed the feet of your disciples. And you allowed others to touch you. Please help me to reclaim touch as an instrument of blessing and healing for myself and for others. Amen.
This song is called “Christ Has No Body Now but Yours.” It is based on a prayer by St. Teresa of Avila. This choral rendition was written by David Ogden:
Does anything “touch” you in this reflection or in the song?
PS; Last call: If you live in Wappingers Falls, NY and you took my survey a few weeks ago, please claim your prize: a copy of my latest book, The Lord Is My Shepherd. Just click on “contact” at the top of the page and send me your email address so I can contact you. If I don’t hear from you by Saturday, Friday, Feb. 19 I will randomly select another winner. Thank you!