A Touch on the Hand
Recently a good friend of mine called to check-in. She happens to reside in a nursing home, and her recent months have been less than stellar. Actually, she never hesitates to tell me they have been awful. So I was glad to hear from her about a bright spot last week. Her son had to take her to a doctor’s appointment, and as the physician stepped out of the room, she turned to her son and said, “I need a hug.” The two embraced, tears streaming down her face. Neither had been exposed to anyone in the past two weeks, so they felt more than safe. Others might feel differently, but I certainly understood. It had been a year since they’d been able even to touch one another on the hand.
Ash Wednesday reminds us of the power and ephemerality of touch. Remember you are dust, and to dust, you shall return, we hear. This year, we accompanied these words at St. Paul with a simple ashen cross on the back of the hand. Usually, on Ash Wednesday, I focus on the visual reminder: seeing the cross on my own body in the mirror, or on the skin of a passing stranger. This year, the actual moment of contact captured me anew. The simple touch on the back of the hand became a visceral reminder to giver and receiver alike of the promise of life and the reality of death. Many of us long to hold those we love, whether they are coming out of the womb, descending into the grave, or anywhere in between. These powerful and mysterious moments can evoke whole spectrums of emotion, everything from fear, to grief, to joy, to awe.
As I look closely at Jesus’ ministry, I find that Jesus uses his hands with all of the same deliberation, and as much mystery, too. He touches lepers even before healing them. He spreads mud right on the eyelids of a blind man. He holds the hand of a dead little girl before telling her, as simply as a father in the morning, to rise out of bed. And she does. Even after they’ve been pierced with nails and drained of life, the hands of the crucified and risen Jesus remain mysterious signs of death, and of life—not only of Jesus’ death and life, but of ours, too.