The Hands of God
In priestly ministry, we do the work of the Father
Hands are very versatile appendages. Even the word “hand” is used in so many idioms describing so many emotions, ways of life and activities such that they could never be counted on two hands. A young man asks a future father-in-law for his daughter’s hand in marriage. We are always fearful that the things that are cherished the most might fall into the wrong hands. As the youngest of three sons I was the recipient of all the hand-me-downs. The word can be used as noun, verb, adverb and adjective.
Ordinations are moments when the importance of hands are so evident, from the placing of our hands into another’s, to the laying on of hands, to the anointing of the hands. These moments in the rite of ordination are some of the most intimate in all the rituals. Up to this point in the ordination (assuming there are more than one ordinandi), the questions and the statements to and from are asked and answered in common.
When it comes to the more personal moments, it is the hands that are front and center. Once the ordinandi state their promises and resolve to perform ministry wisely and faithfully caring for God’s flock, each man kneels before the ordinary, but there really is nothing ordinary about this at all. This is when the ordinary takes on an extraordinary character. Their hands meet, as do their eyes, as the ordinandi promises respect and obedience to the ordinary and to his successors.
The holding of hands and talking face to face is an astounding gesture. Picture two people holding hands; two young adults on a date, a grandfather holding his granddaughter’s hand as they cross the street, school kids on a field trip using the buddy system. These seem fairly common. Now picture two people holding hands and talking face to face. This is evidence that this is an intense situation. In a restaurant, when a husband and wife reach across the table to hold hands while talking, you know it is an intimate conversation. Maybe one is apologizing to the other for a deep hurt; maybe they are deciding that now is the right time to start having children. Picture a mother kneeling before her 10-year-old son, looking into his eyes and holding his hands. She is either comforting him that all will be OK, reassuring him she has him in the palm of her hand or maybe sternly giving him a life lesson. These are very intimate and formative moments.
Now picture this same gesture of holding hands between two adult men, face to face, while one is rubbing chrism oil on the other’s hands, stating: “The Lord Jesus Christ, whom the Father anointed with the Holy Spirit and power, guard and preserve you that you may sanctify the Christian people and offer sacrifice to God.”
You know this is an extraordinary and significant moment. It is a shame in most ordinations that it is not as visible to the Christian people. As powerful as the act of laying on of hands is, this act of anointing is quite profound. The laying on of hands, though immensely significant, occurs in the ordinary moments of life. A hand may be laid on one shoulder for comfort. An adult might lay their hand on a child’s head as an endearing gesture at an intersection, holding the child down so he does not run across the street. But how many times do we ever place our own hands into another’s hands and have the palms of our hands covered in balm? There is something so intimate, almost invasive, about that.
These three hand gestures are intense and intimate: holding hands and saying, “I do”; kneeling before the bishop in silence while hands are laid on your head; and then kneeling, fully vested, as a priest and having chrism oil rubbed into your hands. There is a sense of the power going from one person into the other, not unlike when Christ’s power transferred to the woman suffering from hemorrhages (see Mk 5:25-34).
It always is uplifting and a bit ominous to see the many priests come and share these great moments as each lays hands on the ordinandi — ominous in that these priests who have lived this life know exactly what burden they are now imposing on the new priest, and uplifting in that each of the priests present on that day are giving thanks for the young man who is willing to share this burden and to walk with them. The very presence of all the multiple generations signifies we are all in this together. Seeing the oldest priest in the diocese lay hands on the newest priest is such a meaningful gesture of one generation handing it on to the next. Then, later, all the generations of priests recess out two by two, just as Christ sent the first ones to proclaim that “the kingdom of God is at hand” (Mk 1:15).
The ordinandi leave the cathedral that day with people giving them a hand through a round of applause. Hopefully these same people will lend a hand to help with the labors that the new priests have now been handed. The newly ordained will discover soon enough that their hands will be filled with many ministerial moments that will now be experienced firsthand. While these previous sentences overuse the word “hand,” it is only to exaggerate the point of the many usages of the word and the importance of the work that has been passed on.
Much can be revealed about a person through their hands. When shaking a person’s hand, it might be obvious that this man works with his hands. That handshake may be firm, strong and even a bit scratchy as his hands are calloused, revealing his years of hard labor. There is something reassuring in that handshake. One may look at the hands of people whom we do not know to see if they are married with a ring. Or when we are talking to someone, we can’t help but see that their hands are doing more of the talking than their lips, as the person is quite animated. Even our own hands tell the story of the many people who were blessed, healed and fed by them. As one gets older, they notice their hands no longer are the smooth, clear hands that were once anointed. The age spots, popping veins and wrinkles do tell the story of our lives, though.
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It is still startling, these many decades since chrism was rubbed into my hands, to see them outstretched over the chalice and bread, offering sacrifice to God. It is a double take, sometimes, realizing that the words spoken at the time of the anointing are still echoing through these ages. The oils rubbed into the hands to consecrate them are now consecrating, still. Scooping water into our hands to pour over a small head of a baby as the child looks up with that inquisitive look is still an amazing, intimate moment. Holding a penitent’s hands during the words of absolution, then raising a hand and making the Sign of the Cross is humbling, knowing I do this not because I am without sin but because the Church ordained one sinner to forgive another. Dipping a finger veiled in a surgical glove into a small, thimble-sized vial with blessed oil to anoint the head and hands of a dying woman, whose family is standing there in disbelief, is still a privilege. Our own hands were anointed decades earlier to sanctify this Christian woman who, by the end of the day, will be in the hands of God for eternity.
FATHER PATRICK M. CARRION is pastor of the Catholic Community of South Baltimore and the director of the Baltimore Archdiocesan Office of Cemetery Management.