Mystery of Divine Touch

December 24, 2006 Length: 23:07





In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

This morning’s gospel, my brothers and sisters, introduces us to what I will call the intimacy of touch, and more specifically the mystery of the divine touch. This woman in the crowd had been bleeding for twelve years. She started her menstrual cycle about the time that little girl was born, the little girl at the end, and it didn’t stop. It didn’t stop, but continued. The doctors couldn’t do anything about it. The evangelist claimed she was already poor because none of the doctors could heal her but they kept collecting the money anyway. Mark says that she got worse rather than better. The physician Luke at least leaves out that detail. [Laughter]

This woman is suffering enormous physical weakness. She has great physical problems: iron deficiency, among other things. But her physical suffering was nothing compared to her spiritual and psychological suffering, because, you see, this woman was in what the law calls a state of uncleanness, which meant she could not be touched; she could not touch anybody else. She had to eat separate from the rest of the family. Her husband could not touch her, nor her children. She could not hold her grandchildren. A tremendous sense of isolation.

She was in the same category as the lowest of the Hindu castes—she was untouchable. For her to be in that crowd at all was a violation of the law. For her to reach out and touch the tassel of Jesus’ prayer shawl was a violation of the law. She was touched—to change the metaphor ironically—she was touched in the deepest place in her being, because touch is the first of our senses to be developed. Before we can hear, before we can see, before we can smell—we feel. It is with the sense of touch, above all other things, that we are joined to this world and to one another.

Twice in this gospel reading we hear something about touch in connection with Christ our Lord. First we read with respect to Jesus that a certain woman touched the border of his garment, and immediately her flow of blood stopped, by a touch. Second, we are told with respect to the little girl that Jesus took her by the hand and called, saying, “Little girl, arise.” In both of these cases, something physical happened. Touch is, after all, a physical thing.

Let us reflect this morning, then, on the mystery of the divine touch. Let us consider it under three headings. First, are any of you being touched right now? You’re being touched in the deepest place in your being right now. Each of you is being physically touched, because God touches us into existence all the time. It is his touch that holds us in existence, and his touch is physical.

What does holy Scripture say with respect to creation? “Your hands have made me and fashioned me,” wrote the psalmist. Job tells the Lord, “Your hands have fashioned me and formed me.” This image is drawn, of course, from the creation account in Genesis: “And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the earth, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life.” All three of these passages—from Genesis, Psalms, Job—all three use the same verb: yatsar, which means “to mold,” as in clay, to form, to give shape to. Indeed, the participle of this verb, yotzer, is the Hebrew word for potter. It’s a worker in ceramics.

When the potter works his clay, what does he leave on it? His fingerprints. That’s the way holy Scripture describes creation. Creation didn’t happen a long time ago; it’s going on now. God is molding you now. He is creating us now. It’s important to consider that our first contact with God, in other words, is physical. God physically touches us all the time. If he didn’t, we wouldn’t be. Our first contact with God is through our bodies. Everybody hear that? Our first contact with God is through our bodies.

It is necessary to stress this point, as much as this biblical idea is not especially common in popular American religion. Most Christians, in this country at least, seem to think that their relationship to God is first of all spiritual, non-corporeal. Now I suspect that this may be a residual Platonism in our culture, the retention of a bias about a cosmological hierarchy in which the material world is the furthest from God, the furthest from the spiritual world. That’s raw Platonism, that God is pure spirit. Then you start to move down through angels. Eventually you get to human beings; we’re sort of a mix: there’s something spiritual about them, but we won’t worry about that, because we’re going to get rid of this when we die. That’s simple Platonism. That has nothing to do with the teaching of holy Scripture.

Holy Scripture speaks of God’s hands shaping our very bodies. Notice that the Genesis account speaks of man’s body before it speaks of his spirit. Listen to the text again. You know the text well, but listen to it again. “And the Lord God formed man”—yatsar—“formed man of the dust of the earth and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life.” Notice which was first? Notice which was logically first? He formed man and breathed into his nostrils: body, soul. Now, that’s not a chronological sequence, but that’s the logical sequence: the priority of the body.

Thus the psalmist prayed again, and I gave you this text last week’s sermon, too.

For you have formed my inward parts. You covered me in my mother’s womb. My frame was not hidden from you. When I was made in secret and skillfully wrought in the lowest parts of the earth, your eyes saw my substance, being yet unformed.

The Bible is not even slightly in doubt about when a human being starts to be a human being. How God physically touches us in creation I don’t know. I don’t know. Indeed, it seems to me it’s humanly unknowable, because creation is a mystery. This is why it is contained in the Creed. I do know, however, that he physically touches us into being, and continues, physically, to hold us in being, quite simply because “the Bible tells me so.”

Second, God’s Son assumed our physical condition. This is the reason the sick woman in the Gospel can touch him. This is the reason he can reach out his hand and take the hand of the daughter of Jairus. In the assumption of our humanity, God’s Son shares the same physical substance as ourselves. The Church loves to sing about this. You can’t really go through a service in the Orthodox Church, except mainly prayers before meals, you can’t go through a service in which we don’t meditate on that, talk about this, his taking flesh in this woman’s body. I don’t know what to say to people who say, “Well, she’s only his mother.” She’s only the mother of God!?

We talk about this all the time. He assumed our humanity in this woman’s body. Her blood contributes to his. It’s substance of her own flesh that forms him. In the assumption of our humanity, Christ is put together the way we are. The divine and the human are joined in his flesh. The Person that looks out through his eyes is the divine Person. His eyes are the eyes of God. For the last 2,000 years or so, God has been looking at the world through human eyes. He hears our prayers with human ears, for they are the ears of God.

John begins his first epistle by talking about the Word of life whom we have seen, we have looked upon, whom we have touched, and whom our hands have handled. He’s talking about the experience of the apostles, not just with Jesus in his earthly life but the risen Jesus, still in body. He didn’t become some ethereal type of spirit. “Feel me, touch me, look at my hands, look at my feet. Lay your hand into my side.” He’s physical. In the Incarnation, God has found a means of touching us in a new way. In touching the hem of his robe, a desperately sick woman receives a jolt of divine power.

The Greek word that’s used there is dynamis, same word the deacon comes out and shouts to you during the trisagion: Dynamis!, from which we get the English word dynamite! It’s where the English word comes from: dynamis, power. What does it mean when the deacon comes out and says, “Dynamis”? It means: Put a little oomph into it! That’s the meaning of it. Put a little… Let’s hear something there. That’s why we sing the last one louder: “Holy God, holy Mighty, holy Immortal…”

What does Jesus feel go forth from his body? Dynamis, power. “Someone touched me,” he said. “I perceived power going out from me.” The King James Version, which we had this morning, says, “virtue,” but that doesn’t really quite cover it. In Latin it does, but not in English. You see, power, because according to St. Paul, in him dwells all the fullness of the Godhead, bodily, by his touch Christ drives out sickness and restores this lady to wholeness. Beyond sickness, his touch also drives out death. Thus, when his hand touched the dead girl, and her dead ears heard the voice, her spirit returned, and she arose immediately, according to the text.

This is very important, my brothers and sisters, because God’s Son assumed the fullness of our humanity precisely to drive out death. What he does in this gospel story, raising the little girl to life, is a prophecy of his own resurrection and of ours. He assumed our mortal flesh in order to confer on it the power of the resurrection. If I were asked what is the dominant motif of the epistle to the Romans, that’s what I would say. If you asked most people what’s the dominant motif of the epistle to the Romans, they would probably say: justification by faith. They chose to read certain words in there and concentrate on those words. Read other words in there, concentrate on those words, and you would say that the theme is: God conferring immortality upon mortal flesh, because we’re not fully saved until the day he raises us from the dead.

And this is the reason why, on the evening of the resurrection each year, at the Paschal service, what is the gospel that we read? What’s the gospel we read in the Orthodox Church that evening? We read about the Incarnation. We come to the resurrection, we read about the Incarnation. The dominant words of that gospel are: “And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.” It is precisely in connection with the resurrection that the Church thinks about the enfleshing of God.

Third, the mystery of the divine touching has been incorporated in the sacraments. It has been incorporated, corpus meaning body. The mystery of the divine touch has been incorporated in the sacraments, because in the sacraments Christ still touches us physically. The sacraments of the Church are the extensions of the Incarnation and the Lord’s resurrection. That’s why sacraments are essential to the Church. He first touches our flesh in baptism, where the water itself becomes the medium of divine power through faith. We receive that grace through the water. It’s not just a symbol, it’s not just a sign: it is Christ baptizing.

He touches our flesh in the anointing of the holy chrism, which becomes the instrument of the transmission of the Holy Spirit. His hand applies to our bodies the sacrament of healing, as surely as he healed the woman with the issue of blood. The hands of the bishop are but the extensions of the arms of Christ when the priest or deacon is ordained. It is the hand of Christ that places the crowns on the bride and the groom in holy matrimony. Jesus takes the bread in his hands, the same hands that raised up the daughter of Jairus—same hands.

In fact, in all of the traditional services of the holy Eucharist, the Church stops and meditates upon his hands, throws in two or three adjectives to describe his hands, to slow down the prayer: “who took into his holy, venerable, all-pure hands”—it’s in the Western liturgy, it’s in the Eastern liturgy. The Church throws in descriptions of his hands in order that you can concentrate on his hands. He takes this bread into his hands, and he identifies this bread as his flesh. We receive that flesh physically into our own bodies. It’s not a sign or symbol; it is a reality called a sacrament.

If the mere touch of his hand can raise up in power the dead daughter of Jairus, what is the effect of receiving whole and entire his body and his blood into the substance of our own flesh? What’s the effect of that? What does that do to us? You see, we have no… We’re not at all suffering a disadvantage. We have no disadvantage with respect to those who knew Jesus on earth. He touches us just as surely as he touched them. There’s a story about this at the end of John’s gospel, chapter 20, when Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene. That was in this morning’s gospel at matins, Jesus’ apparition to Mary Magdalene. She immediately rushes up and falls down and grabs him, probably around the ankles some place. She grabs him, and Jesus says, “Don’t touch me.” Why not? Why can’t she touch him? “I have not yet ascended to my Father.” Can’t be touched yet. “I have not yet ascended to my Father.” She backs off, and he says to her, “Now go tell my brethren I ascend to my Father and your Father, my God and your God.” Next scene: “Put your finger here in my hands. Thrust your hand into my side.”

You see, when he ascends into heaven, we can now touch him. How do we touch him? He touches us in the holy sacraments. When we receive any of the sacraments, we’re invited in faith to put forth the finger and to know the place of the nails. To know the place of the nails, because this touching of us has been bought at a great price: the price of his suffering and death. We’re told to put forth our hands and lay them into his side. That “rock of ages, cleft for me,” to whom we pray: “Let me hide myself in thee.” In the flesh of Christ that we have salvation. The flesh of Christ we have all the time. It’s the risen flesh of Christ pouring the dynamism of his own resurrection into our very bodies so that he who eats his flesh and drinks his blood has everlasting life, and he will what? Raise him up on the last day.