Several years ago I got a phone call from a fellow who identified himself as my former neighbor. He said we knew one another by sight—“I’m very tall, in my twenties, and we lived on the same block for two years in New York City,” he told me. I realized we had registered each other’s presence the way people do, when they live in a crowded urban area, and walk the same streets every day to get from place to place. City neighborhoods weave surprising intimacies. He figured out who I was through his parents, who were members of the church where I was serving in New Jersey, right out of seminary. He said, “I moved back home this weekend, because my mom is dying of brain cancer. Can you come over to see her?” Mike and I learned each other’s names sitting vigil on either side of his mother, Beverly, each of us holding one of her hands.
About a week before she died, Mike called and asked me to anoint his mother’s body, an ancient custom of the church offered to people who are near death. The whole family gathered around her bed, which had been set up in the living room six weeks earlier so that she could literally be in the middle of things—to hear the laughter in the kitchen, smell what’s cooking, and have a little more space and light. Together we carefully washed her papery skin with warm, soapy water, rubbed in her favorite lotion, and finally made the sign of the cross on each hand and foot, using oil that the bishop had blessed. Bev was awake but silent, as we accomplished the ablutions for her, no longer able to speak. Mike’s sister remarked that their mom was like a baby now, and that they were tending to her the way that she had once washed and cared for them.
Mike said he knew his mom’s hands and feet so well. She had been a dancer as a young woman, and as a boy he loved to put his little feet on hers as they whirled around the yard, and later her hands had cut yarn and construction paper for 25 years as a 2nd grade teacher. “It’s funny to see her fingers not covered with glitter and glue,” he said.
Jesus hands figure importantly in this Sunday’s gospel. On the first day of the week, the day of the resurrection, Jesus appears to his disciples. “Peace be with you,” he says to them, and then he shows them his pierced side and his injured hands. He continues, “I am still with you! Death is no match for God and his love. These are the hands that touched you and healed you and cajoled you into living fully—hands that hold and hands that forgive and hands that work for justice.”
Look at your hands. What do you see? A parent’s hand…a lover’s hand…a child’s hand…a friend’s hand? A teacher’s hand…a builder’s hand…a nurse’s hand…a doctor’s hand…a banker’s hand…an artist’s hand? If you are like me, whatever you are looking at is pretty chapped right now, as we follow the CDC’s instructions to keep washing, keep washing. Can you see in your mind’s eye the hands that Michelangelo painted, of God reaching out to humanity, or the father’s hands embracing the crumpled shoulder of Rembrandt’s Prodigal, or the graceful hands of choreographer Judith Jamison? I wonder if a hand was ever raised against you in a harmful way? Think of the hands that intervene to make you safe now and lead you from darkness to light. Consider the hands raised in praise or protest, hands that say “This is God’s world, where every worker deserves a living wage, every child a good education, every senior access to comprehensive healthcare.”
I had met Bev in the autumn before she died, before she even knew she was sick. She came unexpectedly, without calling ahead. I was in my office, talking with someone else on the phone, when outside my window a tall woman in a small Volkswagen roared into the parking lot and into my life. Quickly I learned that Bev had just retired from teaching, that she felt both excited and unsettled by the changes in her life, that she and her husband were planning a long-awaited trip to Italy, and that she planned to join my Bible study when she returned. No more mixing wheat paste or gathering magazine pictures for her. “I’ve finally graduated from the 2nd grade, and I want to learn with adults!” she said. Vibrant, funny, and serious at once, I could imagine generations of elementary students falling in love with her.
And then Bev got very sick, and the advent of her illness was like her coming into my office that day in the Fall: unexpected and without calling ahead. Bev’s cancer raced through her beautiful, lithe body, from diagnosis to death in a matter of weeks.
Maybe because it all happened so quickly, Bev was not scared of suffering, but she did fear the moment of her death. “Who will be there with me,” she worried. So we told her that we would stand by, and because she asked for it, we gave Bev an image of the other side of the threshold between life and death: God’s strong hands would deliver her through the narrow passage of her dying. “From our hands to God’s hands, you will never be alone,” we told her.
I’ve been thinking about Bev these days, and what we said to her as she was passing. Like the ones that Jesus shows to his disciples, our hands were made for touching and healing and holding, and that gift seems especially hard to hang onto in this pandemic—when we are cautioned not to touch each other, when loved ones are communicating through iPads, and when even nurses are performing their ablutions through gloves and layers of plastic. Our hearts were made for giving encouragement, for offering forgiveness and sharing affection, especially at times of loss, so I imagine yours may be broken right now.
Jesus was broken, too, and out of that darkness shines a healing, life-giving light that never dims: Nothing can separate us from the love of God… not height nor depth, not sickness nor social distancing, not even death. I am lifting you up, hands raised in faith, and I can’t wait to hug you again. Will you reach out to everyone you can now, through whatever means you have available? Tell someone unlikely today that you are with them, and that they are not alone.