Jesus and Touch

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.

What were Jesus' hands like?

What were Jesus’ hands like?

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

Touch is our first language.

Touch is our first language…

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.”

We never outgrow our need for touch...

We never outgrow our need for touch…

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!


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  1. Kathleen on February 15, 2016 at 3:39 am

    Good reminder about touch Sister.

    As my parents have become older touch has become more and more important. We seem to embrace more and I always kiss them good night when visiting for a longer stay.

    Stay in touch.


  2. mary james on February 15, 2016 at 7:29 am

    Thanks, Melanie! wonderful reminder. Love especially “touch is our first language and often our last. . .” Time to practice is now!

  3. Mary Therese on February 15, 2016 at 9:17 am

    Thank you for this reminder. I remember an elderly friend telling me over 40 years ago how much older people needed touch and didn’t get it. “Just a hug” would be nice, she said. I’m sure I hugged her, but I’m not totally sure I understood her, as I was 26 at the time. Today I understand.

  4. Donnamarie on February 15, 2016 at 9:45 am

    I know we are the body of Christ but I never connected as being the hands, arms, etc. connecting with the world…I need to think and pray over this. Thank you.

  5. Patty on February 15, 2016 at 11:41 am

    Thank you for the reminder, Sister.

    A hug is a great gift – one size fits all – and it’s easy to exchange.
    Author Unknown.

  6. Karen on February 15, 2016 at 12:38 pm

    Once again, THANK YOU for sharing this excellent and thought provoking reflection. The mores around touching certainly do change over time and among cultures. My Dad was a hugger, and to this day I believe there is nothing that can’t be made better with a simple hug. It communicates “I care”, “I understand”, and most importantly, “I’m willing to be open to you”. This world needs more hugs!

  7. Teresa Marron, OP on February 15, 2016 at 12:57 pm

    Great Reflection! I thought for sure your song would be “Daddy’s Hands”
    by Holly Dunn. If you have not heard it, please find it. Perfect for your story today! Hope you are doing well!
    Sr. Teresa

    • Melannie Svoboda SND on February 16, 2016 at 7:57 am

      Dear Teresa, Thank you for referring me to “Daddy’s Hands.” I found it on you tube and it’s quite beautiful! Melannie

  8. Diane on February 15, 2016 at 1:02 pm

    As usual, I am moved by a little different part of your reflection. When I read about people touching Jesus when he walked the earth, I imagined what that would be like, how it would feel. Wow, it felt so real! Jesus has such strong shoulders and arms! And then I listened to the song about being Christs body now, and thought about how my/His touch through me can be so powerful to others. I sincerely want to touch and hug way more than I do, especially if I am spreading Christs love in that action.

  9. Dolores Leffler on February 15, 2016 at 1:15 pm

    I volunteer at a nursing home…I know that just a smile, touch, good morning, or even a hug means a lot to the residents. But it also makes me feel good.

  10. Barbie on February 15, 2016 at 1:26 pm

    How I miss my father’s hands. He died when I was 30 (many years ago). His hands were soft and made me feel secure and that everything would be all right. In spite of missing him, I’m grateful I have that memory.

  11. Chuck on February 15, 2016 at 3:52 pm

    How good was today’s reflection– thank you Sister Melanie–
    This essay reminded me of a wonderful spirit filled lady we used to know (we have moved) who described hugs as “Incarnational Spirituality.”
    I really believe that!

  12. Shirley on February 15, 2016 at 4:08 pm

    I go to a nursing home once a month for a communion service. Instead of the handshake of peace l kiss each resident (about 12) on the cheek or lips andas I go from one to the other I hear some say this is my favorite part of the service. You are so right! Touch and warmth and hugs are extremely important especially to the elderly and those feeling very

  13. Jean Hartl on February 15, 2016 at 4:18 pm

    Sister Melannie,
    I so miss the hands of my Mom and Dad and oh, their hugs.
    This was simply wonderful.
    I thank you.

  14. Kathleen on February 15, 2016 at 5:18 pm

    I love that song. We sing it at my parish in Seattle, with a different tune.
    For me it sums up all of Jesus’ message to us to do as he did. For a number of years as an RN I did foot care for seniors at several venues. Their feet were soaked, held as their nails were trimmed, and then massaged as they were dried. It was a great ministry and I think the only touching some of my clients received. It was also humbling for me, thinking how I was imitating Jesus. The poem you quoted is powerful, too. I hope I can find t in its entirety.

  15. Joni Dugan on February 15, 2016 at 11:10 pm

    Hey there Melanie! I so enjoy reading your blogs! I couldn’t help but think of my cousin Brian who died about a month ago. A young man who just turned 49. Had a stroke Dec 26 and never came out of the stroke. Paralyzed from head to toe except he could blink his eyes to answer yes or no. Amazingly enough, he had his sense of touch from day 1 till, I think, the day before he died. He could feel his mom and dad and brother touching him. And that was such a consolation to his folks. Sort of puts you in touch with reality that we could go at any minute. Didn’t have anything wrong with him medically except he was on high bp med. Anyway, just wanted to thank you for that! Hope all is well! Peace my friend!

    • Melannie Svoboda SND on February 16, 2016 at 1:38 pm

      My sympathy to you, Joni, on the death of your cousin Brian. He must have meant much to you. When we keep vigil with the dying, we often hold their hand or stroke their cheek or kiss their forehead. At least that’s been my experience. Touching comes so naturally at that time. If only we would be that generous with our touch throughout their life… Thanks for the reminder! Melannie

  16. Rose on February 16, 2016 at 5:40 am

    Dear Sr. Melannie, Thank you for the beautiful reflection on the power of touch. Also, I have responded to you several times regarding the survey I took from Wappingers falls by using the contact link…please advise. Thank you so much.

    • Melannie Svoboda SND on February 16, 2016 at 7:49 am

      Readers: Rose is the winner of my book for filling out the survey. I contacted her and will mail her the book tomorrow! Congratulations, Rose! Sr. Melannie

  17. Tom on February 16, 2016 at 9:31 am

    Your beautiful reflection reminded me of my dad’s big hands, just like your dad’s (and John’s) – but also the hand of a Jesuit from Ignatius, placed firmly on my shoulder on one particular occasion, as a sign of affirmation. How an unexpected gesture of human kindness can stay with us for a lifetime, even though the giver is unaware of its significance!

    • Melannie Svoboda SND on February 16, 2016 at 1:40 pm

      Dear Tom, Thank you for sharing your little story of the power of a teacher’s touch. Yes, “an unexpected gesture of human kindness can stay with us for a lifetime.” Well said! Well said! Melannie

  18. Jean on February 16, 2016 at 11:16 am

    Your dad was big, but I was never intimidated by him because he always had a gentle smile on his face. I remember him “teaching” us how to pick strawberries – one in the basket, one in you mouth. Thanks for the memory. Grandma had big hands, too.

    • Melannie Svoboda SND on February 16, 2016 at 1:32 pm

      (Readers: Jean is my cousin…) Hi, Jean! Yes, Dad was a big guy but also a very gentle man. I’m glad you learned the right way to pick strawberries… And I didn’t realize Grandma Svoboda’s hands were large too. I’ll have to go to the photo albums and find some pictures of her that include her hands. Thanks for writing! Your cuz Dolly

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