We have moved in two weeks from the Christmas baby to the Epiphany and now to (the adult) Jesus’ baptism. It’s perfectly normal to feel out of breath at the speed of the Church’s narrative at this stage!
God (almost) on-stage
One of the things I especially like about the accounts of Jesus’ baptism is the almost-appearance of God himself. I’ve talked before about how the words God speaks, here and at the Transfiguration (coming up second Sunday of Lent), sound to me like every proud parent : ‘Look, this is my very own son; isn’t he lovely, pay attention to him’. God does not appear or intervene much in Jesus’ life on earth. We know Jesus often talks to him, goes off to be alone with him, talks about him a lot and clearly trusts him utterly; but God is not visible or tangible in the Gospel accounts, except as an occasional voice. And the same is (mostly) true for us in our human lives.
God’s touch in the sacraments
This is one reason why the sacraments are so important and so different from everything else: they are the moments when God the Father can put out a hand and intervene in this world which he created. They are moments when we are literally ‘in touch’ with God. At any child’s baptism, you can hear the voice only with the ear of faith, but God says again,’Look at this lovely child; from today it is one of my own.’
God’s touch in (our) creation
In Genesis 2, in the second account of the Creation, God ‘fashions’ human beings out of the mud. He moulds them like a potter, or like a child playing with sand or mud. His familiar touch is described in the psalms, and he knows his creatures so well because he knitted them together in the womb, the one who can search their hearts (Ps 138/139). Knitting is not the work of a moment; this is a slow job, a labour of love. Above all, it’s a very physical relationship.
God hidden from our sight
In the narrative of the other books in the Old Testament, especially the early ones, after his earliest appearances, walking in the garden and chatting to Adam etc., God operates without visible presence, although other things stand in for him (clouds, burning bushes, a fearsome voice like thunder, and so on). Prophets are there just to pass on the messages which God wants to give to his people; the idea of foretelling comes much later. No one but Moses can look upon him and live, so the Chosen People are happy not to try and see him in the flesh. God comes to talk to Job, but this is a book of poetry rather than history, and the encounter is not sited in the world in which we live.
Just like me, /they want to be /close to you
But we remain physical beings, bodies as well as souls, and we crave the touch of those whom we love. Babies need to be touched, if they are to grow up healthy. Luckily, there is also the phenomenon of what you might call ‘transferred touch’: if you can’t be with someone, you can give them something which represents you, a blanket, a toy, a necklace, a pebble – almost anything can be one of these magical objects if we choose to make it so. It’s not as good as the real thing, but it’s a lot better than nothing, and there is enough comfort in it to keep us going till we are together again. Many love poems focus on the touch of the beloved; many of the psalms are love poems; how do the psalmists talk about touch, when they talk about God?
God’s touch in the Psalms
We can manage without physical touch to some extent, if we have the perception of presence. God shows his presence in the psalms through his creation. He’s always doing something which shows his effect upon the physical world he has created, either with his voice (‘The Lord’s voice shatters the mountains, and stripping the forests bare’ Ps 28/29) or by the movement we feel as he passes (‘He rode upon the wings of the wind’ Ps 17/18). But the psalmist goes further than this. God is so real a presence to him that he imagines him actually touching him physically (Lord, you search me and you know me ‘ Ps 138/139….’My soul clings to you, your right hand holds me fast’ Ps 62/63). This intense nearness is striking. There’s an early poem in one of G. K. Chesterton’s notebooks, called ‘The Prayer of a Man Walking’, where he thanks God for several things ‘but most of all for the great wind in my nostrils/ as if thine own nostrils were close’, which again uses an acutely carnal metaphor to indicate the nearness of the relationship with God, who obviously doesn’t have nostrils.
God and the human touch
The impression is strengthened by the way that the psalmist portrays God in his own image (‘the heavens the work of your fingers’ Ps 8, ‘Sit at my right hand’ Ps 109/110). He calls on God not just to save him but to beat up his enemies and smash their teeth in (cf Ps 4). This is an almost shockingly physical God, because his presence is overwhelmingly close to us. And he’s a lot bigger than anyone else’s god (Pss 76/77, 88/89).
God is much more present in the Psalms than in many other Old Testament books (it’s partly because of all those second-person verbs, not ‘he’ but ‘you’), and this is one reason why Christians count the book of Psalms as almost part of the New Testament, which must annoy the Jews slightly. But people only adopt poems, prayers or plays for love, and that tends to be forgiven.
Jesus’ hands were kind hands
In the New Testament, of course, the question of touch is completely different, because Jesus touches people all the time to heal them, and seems to do it completely freely and unselfconsciously (even, remarkably, with women). He takes a girl’s hand (Mark 5.41), he washes his friends’ feet (Matthew 26). He picks up a random child to demonstrate a point (Mark 9.36). Indeed, as the woman with a haemorrhage (Matthew 9) perceives, he doesn’t even need to touch you, you just need to touch him, even his garment. This is an indication of the enormous power of Jesus’ physical presence, and he can do it with no more than a word if he chooses (the ten lepers, Luke 17 ) though sometimes he uses spittle and mud in what seems almost a self-parody (healing the blind man, John 9). He tells stories where people touch each other : the man in the Good Samaritan takes good physical care of the victim before confiding him to someone else (Luke 10); the prodigal son is greeted with embraces before he even reaches home (Luke 15). Jesus is not squeamish about touch, even about touching his wounds, which he encourages Thomas to do (John 20).
God’s finger, the Holy Spirit
There are two more conclusions I would like to draw from talking about God’s touch. The first is, as Saint Teresa says, that we now have to be Jesus’ hands, since he is no longer here with us on earth and God has no other body. Just as we can be angels, bringing his messages, so we can do his work in our physical bodies, bringing the feel of his touch. The second is that we should always be on the lookout for the Holy Spirit. Look again at the picture of Jesus’ baptism. The Holy Spirit is there, in the form of a dove, and you can see God’s finger just above. This is an old idea in the Church. The beautiful ninth-century song about the Holy Spirit, the Veni Creator, calls the Holy Spirit ‘Finger of God’s right hand’ in the standard English translation, which is exact. The Holy Spirit brings God’s touch to us. God wants to touch us just as much as we want to touch our children or the people we love; the Holy Spirit, in the sacraments or elsewhere, is how he does it. And it doesn’t even strike us as strange; and that is because of the way the psalmists sing about it.
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