by Hollis Hiscock
The hand inhabiting 25% of the left quadrant of my television screen on January 20th, 2017 captured my attention, like a wee nail drawn to a gigantic magnet.
It was an eerie emotional fixation. I felt like the three guests stopped by the Ancient Mariner (poem by Samuel Coleridge, 1834), held by a “skinny hand.”
The raised hand – witnessed around the globe – pledged to uphold a country’s constitution. As his other hand rested on a family Bible, he repeated traditional vows sealing the triangular covenant involving the individual, the people and the nation.
Instantaneously, I experienced an epiphany, “a sudden perception of the essential meaning of something” (Merriam-Webster).
I was contemplating the sacramental nature and meaning of hands, and how hands are employed in secular and sacred ceremonies. It brought to memory what I had learned ad nauseam before my teenage years, as I prepared for the Sacrament of Confirmation (the Laying on of Hands).
“A sacrament is an outward visible sign of an inward spiritual grace.”
When the bishop laid his hands on my head and repeated certain words, I became the recipient of God’s grace. Perhaps I did not fully comprehend the significance at that moment, but it would become more transparent and integrated as I aged and matured.
Conversely, by kneeling and pledging, I was promising or covenanting with God, God’s people and God’s world that I would uphold God’s “constitution” and model it throughout my life.
A sacrament has several purposes. It bestows grace, authority or power upon the person, who in response accepts and internalizes these gifts and returns them in service for the wellbeing of everybody.
On the following day, January 21, I observed another sacramental involvement—the Women’s March—a world-wide phenomenon in support of women’s rights and other causes.
Once again hands were the outward visible sign, but this time carrying signs. The verbal commitment was replaced by written messages of equality, inclusiveness, justice and human rights, and were made, not by holding holy books, but by holding placards.
My thoughts travelled back 2,700 years to Micah. He too marched through his country’s villages and cities with his sacramental challenge and call to action.
“What does God require of us?” he would ask his audience, and then answered unequivocally, “Do what is just, show constant love and walk with God.”
Times have changed, but the needs are the same—equality, inclusiveness, justice and human rights for everybody.
Since time immemorial (or shortly thereafter) hands have played a sacramental role as humans interact.
Two people shake hands to finalize a business deal. The visible sign confirms the inner commitment bringing to fruition what was hammered out in negotiations.
When bishops and priests place hands on the head of a candidate for ordination, it signals God’s grace being bestowed upon that individual, who in return accepts what is being offered.
Moses stretched out his hand and divided the Red Sea, so God’s people could escape from the slave pens of Egypt, walk on the dry ocean floor and find freedom.
Possibly, the most poignant example of the hand as a sacrament occurred when nails were driven through Jesus’ hands on the cross. The outward sign was rather horrific, but its inward spiritual grace was an expression of God’s ever present love and mercy.
In worship, we share God’s peace by shaking hands – another sacramental act as we bestow this sacred gift to help each other cope with life’s challenges and celebrations.
The sacrament of hands is a two way thoroughfare – an outward visible sign and an inward spiritual grace.