The Touch of God

September 6, 2015

Bible Text: Mark 7:24-37 |

We’ve got two healing stories this morning, a deaf man and a demon-possessed girl. Let’s start with the second, mainly because it sounds like Jesus just stuck his fingers up the guy’s ear and spat on his tongue, which – frankly – sounds a little gross, and I’d just as soon address it while that ear-waxy, germ-spreading image is still fresh in our minds.

To start with, I’m trying to figure out exactly what happened here. I’m guessing that after he put his fingers into the man’s ears, he then removed them and spat onto his fingers, then touched the man’s tongue. Coming from such a hygiene-obsessed culture as ours, this sounds very strange and a little off-putting. And who knows, maybe it was.

But if you pause and imagine it afresh, you can just as well perceive it as an extraordinarily intimate experience:

First, it says he took the man aside privately, away from all those gaping, curious eyes.

Then it says he touched him. What if the ear-poking wasn’t invasive, as much as it was an intimate gesture: Jesus cradling his face and touching the very place that has caused him such pain and isolation over the years?

And as for the spitting: In the Ancient Near East there’s evidence that people believed in the curative power of saliva. So that bit might not be as strange to them as it is to us.

This whole scene might in fact be extraordinarily intimate – an experience of physical healing through physical contact.

After all, we need touch. We need to be held. Our physical bodies need physical connection with other people. It’s so elemental to what it means to be human. Think about it: our very existence is the product of man and woman joining together physically; our bodies were formed within our mother’s body; we were first nourished and kept alive by latching on to her breast; a growing child learns who she is by being cradled in her parents’ arms. Children who spend their first years in physical isolation – be it inept orphanages or abusive parents – are so malformed psychology that they are permanently damaged for life. I can only imagine how years of solitary confinement must destroy a soul. And compared to many other cultures, Americans live lives of remarkable physical isolation: each in our own homes and our own rooms and our own cars. We have all we need to be independent – which is of course – another way of saying, we have everything we need to be alone. Isolated. Untouched.

I was talking recently with someone who’d been widowed. He’d begun dating someone, but the relationship ended soon after it had started. And do you know what he missed most? The physical contact: no hand to hold, no person to snuggle with while watching TV.

So look at Jesus again, touching the deaf man, taking the very saliva from his mouth and placing it on the man’s mouth. Yes, it’s bazaar. But – my God – it’s intimate.

There’s a principle being demonstrated here of what it looks like to love as Christ loves, and that is to understand the value of physical touch within appropriate relationships: for parents to hold their children; for couples to continue to hold hands and to share the safety and comfort of physical connection. Unfortunately, there are ways in which physical touch is anything but safety and love. It is violation. So we are right to set up clear boundaries of what is and what is not acceptable and safe, especially for women and children. But I do grieve for single people for whom our culture allows no acceptable form of touch beyond a hand shake or brief hug. I suspect that’s why pets have become so important for so many; it’s the only intimate, non-sexualized contact with another living creature that is still available.

But I would add this: there is one place where I believe we can rediscover physical intimacy, and that is with our aging parents. It feels awkward at first, but with age and an increased sense of vulnerability comes also the receptivity to being held. I was my grandmother’s care-giver when I first graduated from college – and believe me – we were not a physically demonstrative family. But over time Grandma and I discovered that we could sit in silence together, my arm around her, and her head resting upon my shoulder. I’ve also found that with the dying, those physical barriers can be dropped and it is right and welcome to hold one another – this elemental form of love beyond words.

I believe also that there is a mystical way in which we can know the experience of Jesus’ touch in our lives, and that is in the Eucharist. Those of us from a protestant heritage often have a very under-developed understanding and familiarity with the Real Presence of Christ in the bread and the wine. But after all, if the deaf man could receive healing through Christ’s saliva how much more so are we being healed by the always-living-person of Christ in us through the body and blood?

Ronald Rolheiser is a Catholic priest whose whole life has been nurtured in a world-view deeply rooted by the Eucharistic tradition. He’s published a book called, Our One Great Act of Fidelity: Waiting for Christ in the Eucharist. It’s a series of brief reflections, each exploring a different nuance of his experience with Christ at communion. At one point he writes,

For most of Jesus’ ministry he used words….His words, like all words, had a certain power. [They] stirred hearts, healed people, and affected conversions. But, powerful though they were, in time they too became inadequate. Something more was needed. So on the night before his death, having exhausted what he could do with words, Jesus went beyond them. He gave us the Eucharist, his physical embrace, his kiss, a ritual within which he holds us to his heart.[1]

Elsewhere, the novelist Andre Dubus writes,

My belief in the sacrament of the Eucharist is simple: without touch, God is a monologue, an idea, a philosophy…. [God] must touch and be touched….[and] in the instant of [that] touch there is no place for thinking, for talking; the silent touch…affirms the mysteries of love and mortality.[2]

So I beg of you, as I beg of myself, if this does not reflect your experience in the Eucharist, don’t dismiss the hope of such mystical intimacy as so much pious fantasy. Rather, hold the hope of Christ’s kiss, of Christ’s embrace, as the destination of your journey. And week by week, continue to receive the bread and wine as a gesture of that hope – of Christ’s touch already upon you, even if beyond your perception.

For that, I believe, is what we see in the first healing story, of the Syrophoenician’s daughter who was demon-possessed.

The mother begged Jesus to heal her daughter. She even argued with him, at which he point he told her, You may go. The demon has left her. She went home and found the child lying on the bed, the demon gone. Jesus healed her without even being near her – no physical touch at all.

For as much as we want the touch, and as healing as the touch may be, God is God – and God can heal in any and every way.

If your experience in the Eucharist is tepid or emotionally flat, despite your earnest desire for more, your perception is no arbiter of what God is actually doing there. You may not get the goose-bumpy experience you’d want to vindicate the whole thing, but God may be at work far beneath the skin, in that mysterious place where our souls reside.

We might also consider the very normal process of maturation as a form of healing. After all, God is the one who designed us to grow and mature as we do, which must mean that God has a value for that process. It just may be that our universal experience of growing up – be we Christian or atheist – is a sign of God’s healing touch at work, in the same way that he healed the girl without her ever seeing the healer. Our salvation is not so much about a certificate in heaven that says who gets in or not. It is a question of who we are being saved to become. Christ is restoring us to our godlikeness. And if by our maturing we increasingly reflect the heart and spirit of God, perhaps it is safe to say that it is the invisible hand of Christ upon our lives.

It is the nature of God to heal and to save. We would all prefer “the touch” – the tingle, the spontaneous. But never deride the hope that our healing has already been accomplished through Christ and that, day by day, we are simply growing into that which has been made true for us.

That is my hope for you. And that is my hope for me.

But before concluding, I want us to consider one more theme that emerges from these readings: and that is the significance of pleading to Jesus on another’s behalf. Neither the girl nor the deaf man sought Jesus out for themselves. The mother bowed down at Jesus feet and begged him to heal her daughter. Likewise, it was others who brought the deaf man to Jesus and begged him to lay his hands on him.

Yes, we are called to be Jesus’ hands and feet in this world and by our actions to create redemption in our midst. But parallel to our activity is the other essential act of faith, which is to fling ourselves at the feet of Jesus and to pray for another’s well-being. There is something about prayer which invites us into a mystical union with God. It takes us beyond all the barriers and limitations of this life and into that eternal place where all things are possible, where love exists in utter purity, and the Kingdom of God is alive and untrammeled. When we pray for another we are entering, with our loved ones, into the heart of God.

The Daughters of the King, here at St. John’s, is a community of women who pray daily for every single person whose name and circumstances they’ve received. For years I’ve prayed alone for my step-father. But recently I added his name to their list. And now, with regularity, Audrey Leacy stops me to ask, “How is Bill? I’ve been praying for him.” These women, who know him not, are holding hands with both him and with Jesus. Through them the family of God is being enlarged, and the healing of God is going forth all around us, seen and unseen, felt and unfelt.

My friends, this is the hope of the gospel. The hand of God is upon us all, and we are being healed.

 

[1] Ronald Rolheiser, Our One Great Act of Fidelity: Waiting for Christ in the Eucharist (New York: Image, 2011), p. 32

[2] Andre Dubu, Broken Vessels (Boston: Godine Publishers, 1991).

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