— Andrew McKearney fourth sermon in the series on the Wounds of Christ —
Isaiah 53.4-9 and Luke 22.47-54a
One of the most striking things about the story of Christ’s Passion is that he is completely in the hands of others. We’ve just read how he was seized and led away by the chief priests; he was then brought to the high priest, handed over to Pilate, who in turn handed him over to the soldiers. He was no longer in charge of his own destiny but very much at the mercy of others who do with him as they wish.
Of course we still do this to people – we too arrest people, handcuff them, bind their hands, just as Jesus’ hands were bound – and we too, whether for arresting or sectioning, take people away just as Jesus was led away.
What had Jesus used his hands for?
The last free act that we know Jesus did with his hands was to use them to heal someone. It happened in the garden during his arrest when the right ear of one of those who had come to arrest him was cut off by one of the disciples: “No more of this!” we heard Jesus say, before he touched this person’s ear to heal them. He wasn’t a friend, he hadn’t cried out to Jesus for help. In fact he was someone who had come to arrest Jesus. To heal this person at this moment of such tension and confusion is staggering – but that’s what Jesus used his hands for.
Throughout his ministry he was quite fearless in touching those who were sick or afflicted, and even those whom others wouldn’t touch with a barge pole – lepers, the dead – and he was still quite fearless, even as he was being arrested. His hands brought healing.
What did Jesus do on the night before he died? Whether it’s the account of the three synoptic gospels in which Jesus broke the bread and shared the cup, or whether it’s the story told by John of the foot washing, in both Jesus’ hands were used for ministry. On a number of previous occasions Jesus had taken bread, blessed it, broken and shared it, but to do so on the night before he died, at a time of heightened tension, is, as with the healing that we’ve just thought about, quite astonishing. But that too was what Jesus used his hands for – to create and sustain a community.
The other thing that comes to mind is that Jesus used his hands to bless. Mark writes:
“People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them.”
We will recall that the disciples tried to keep the children away only to be rebuked by Jesus and told of the importance of children in God’s kingdom. Mark concludes:
“And Jesus took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.”
Blessing symbolises and gives away God’s love – and that too was what Jesus used his hands for – to bless.
Of course the social life of the time in that culture was much more tactile than we’re used to. Today in the Middle East, you often see men walking hand-in-hand with one another and greetings are much more effusive than our polite handshakes. We are unusually private.
And we must remember too that, as with his feet that we reflected on last week, Jesus’ hands would have been rough, from agricultural work and whatever involvement he had with his father’s trade of carpentry, and nothing like as clean as our own hands.
So it’s these hands – that Jesus used to bring healing, to create and sustain a community, to bless – it’s these hands that, on arriving at Golgotha, are fixed to a crossbeam.
As I mentioned last week, people were either lashed or nailed to the crossbeam. In the case of Jesus, which was it?
Whenever in the resurrection appearances Jesus’ wounds are mentioned, his hands are always referred to together with the marks of nails. Remember Thomas saying that he needed to see the mark of the nails in Jesus’ hands and be able to put his own finger into that mark before he could believe. And while Christian art has nearly always placed these nail marks in the palms of Jesus’ hands, this is unlikely since nails in the palms would not be able to support the full weight of a body. Much more likely is that the nails were hammered through the wrists, in much the same way as last week we saw that the feet were nailed through the heel bone. That way the weight of a human body could be supported.
With Jesus’ hands fixed in this way, what further use could they possibly be?
In John’s Gospel (12.32-33), Jesus says this about his death on the cross:
“I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”
Christian faith affirms an extraordinary paradox: that it is precisely here, on the cross, that those things that Jesus used his hands for in his ministry – to bring healing, to create and sustain a community, to bless – this ministry doesn’t stop on the cross but in fact expands and is made available to everyone, everywhere and for ever. It is when Jesus is least able to use his hands that they are used to greatest effect! How can this be? We can only turn to analogies to help us.
The poet R S Thomas in his poem ‘The Musician’ tries to convey something of this paradox by using an unusual analogy for Christ on the cross. It is of a pianist at a concert, suffering agony in their playing, pouring their heart into the piece of music – using their hands for us.
This is something of the paradox that faith affirms – Christ’s death was for us.
The Musician by R S Thomas.
A memory of Kreisler once:
At some recital in this same city.
The seats all taken, I found myself pushed
On to the stage with a few others,
So near that I could see the toil
Of his face muscles, a pulse like a moth
Fluttering under the fine skin,
And the indelible veins of his smooth brow.
I could see, too, the twitching of the fingers,
Caught temporarily in art’s neurosis,
As we sat there or warmly applauded
This player who so beautifully suffered
For each of us upon his instrument.
So it must have been on Calvary
In the fiercer light of the thorns’ halo:
The men standing by and that one figure,
The hands bleeding, the mind bruised but calm,
Making such music as lives still.
And no one daring to interrupt
Because it was himself that he played
And closer than all of them the God listened.