laying on of hands

Rare is the woman who does not love a good massage. Men, take note of this for birthdays/Christmas/Mother’s Day. It is – generally speaking – a fool-proof gift. I don’t know a single woman who does not love a little time at the spa now and then, and the stereotype rings true that we don’t often indulge ourselves when we’re so focused on caring for others.

So I decided to treat myself for a massage for Mother’s Day. (Actually, my brother treated me since he got me the gift certificate for Christmas. Wise man.) It was a beautiful sunny Saturday morning, U2 was blaring on the radio as I drove with the windows down, life was sweet and good.

But upon arrival to the spa, the relaxing massage I was expecting turned into an intense hour of body work therapy as the massage therapist kneaded out so many knots in my back and shoulders that I felt I should tip her for a whole day’s work. I had no idea how tense and stressed I had been lately until she started working on my muscles. And I left feeling like I’d been to a week’s worth of power yoga at the gym. Sore, tired, but happy.

As the therapist pushed and kneaded my back, I found myself thinking about the Christian practice of laying on hands. We read in the Gospels about Jesus laying hands on people who were sick or disabled. We hear of the disciples following his example in the Acts of the Apostles – laying hands on those who suffering from mental illness (“demons”) or physical ailments. The laying on of hands was also a form of blessing often accompanied by anointing: a commissioning of those who were sent out to preach the Gospel, or a confirmation of those who had received the Holy Spirit.

The early Christians understood the power of laying hands on another person. It is an intimate gesture, yet filled with energy and healing power as well. It communicates support, blessing, healing, consecrating. Laying hands is sacramental; that is why today’s churches use this symbolic action in baptism, confirmation, ordination, reconciliation, and the anointing of the sick.

But often the liturgical enactment of the laying on of hands can be weak. The priest’s hands lightly flutter over the confirmand’s head. Or the congregation merely extends their hands over the sick to be anointed, a mere shadow of the real action.

Human touch – real, warm, strong – is healing and empowering. I thought of the studies that show how premature infants fail to thrive without the touch of human skin. I thought of the miracle stories the church has passed down about saints healing with the touch of their hands. And I thought of the almost-painful but oh-so-necessary transformation that the massage therapist was working on my own body as she squeezed out the stress stored in my shoulders.

What if the early Christians understood this in a way that our reserved Western ways have lost over the years? What if the laying on of hands was not a symbolic pat but a deep kneading of skin on skin, more like today’s massage therapy than our celebration of the sacraments?

Allowing ourselves to be touched in such a deep way would be a powerful spiritual experience. The vulnerability and trust required to lay naked while another person touches us is nothing less than the openness we must lay bare before God to receive the fullness of grace. The realization of our own woundedness, and the desire to work through this pain to healing, is the same as our acceptance of our own sinfulness and our longing for forgiveness.

The grace we can experience through another person’s touch is primal and necessary. Mothers and father know this. Doctors and nurses know this. Priests and ministers know this.

But what if Jesus’ healing touch was a deep, kneading massage rather than a quick pat of the hands?

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