Each Sunday for more than a hundred years, people from our parish have gone to a local senior home and hospice in order to lead the residents in worship. Mostly, it’s lay people who do the work, but twice a month the clergy turn up and celebrate Eucharist, and this week was my turn. By the time I arrived, most of the congregation had already assembled, men and women, mostly in wheelchairs, for whom this place is their final home. Two members of my church were serenading them on cello and violin while we all waited until it was time to get started.
The Gospel reading was the one we always hear one week after Easter, the story of Doubting Thomas, who is not there when the resurrected Christ appears to his disciples, and who does not believe his friends when they tell him what has happened. “Unless I touch him,” he says, “unless I can feel with my own hands the injuries I saw him take on the cross, I will not believe.” And so, a week later, Jesus appears among them again, blessing them with his peace and bidding Thomas to touch his wounds. And Thomas cries out in wonder and in awe, “My Lord and my God!”
I was standing among the residents as I told the story, trying, I guess, to show how Jesus had drawn near, when, one by one, a few of them began to lift their hands and touch mine. A few minutes later, it happened again. We were praying the Lord’s Prayer, and one woman, Betty, reached out her right hand from her wheelchair towards the woman beside her. The other woman looked at it, uncomprehending, then, slowly, moved her song sheet out of her hand and reached it out to hold Betty’s. Then Betty stretched her left hand toward the woman on her left. That woman did nothing for a long time, then, very slowly, achingly slowly, she, too, held hands with Betty.
I watched transfixed. I’ve been leading worship in nursing homes for a long time, and there is one unwritten rule: the residents do not touch one another. They sit in chairs, isolated. The aides touch them. Their families touch them. The clergy or worship leaders touch them, but they do not touch each other. And yet, here were three people holding hands: an ordinary gesture become a kind of miracle.
What does it mean to touch the flesh of Christ? If it means anything, it means that there is a sacred quality to the touch we give one another, that our simplest gestures of tenderness can actually be a way to know and to experience God.
I had not thought, before, about what it must be like for those who are old and alone, to spend years with all touch being functional, rather than affectionate. And yet, all it took was one story about Jesus touching people to break through that reserve and restore a level of their humanity. It reminded me of the awesome work of bathing an infant, all that tiny bundle of new flesh wriggling in my hands, and the water making her laugh with joy, transfiguring a chore into a sacrament. The sheer grace of being embodied, and of not being alone.