Do you know why I love being human?
Okay there are other things too but seriously, with opposable thumbs human hands are fantastic. Without opposable thumbs, we couldn’t handle the fine motor skills required to make and use tools — or build civilisations. Without opposable thumbs, our hands simply would be as useful as our toes, great for walking on but hopeless for much else. Smart phones would be a nightmare.
I was thinking about this the other day when I realised that God had a plan for our opposable-thumbed hands, a plan to make them holy.
Hands in Sacred Scripture
In the Christian Tradition, hands signify the Holy Spirit. Like our hands, the Spirit is both strong and agile. But our hands are strong precisely because they are capable of the most subtle and delicate movements, just like the subtle promptings of the Holy Spirit who blows where He will. (Jn 3:8) Throughout the gospels, Christ acts by the Spirit through His hands, particularly in healing. (Mk 6:5, Mk 8:23, Mk 10:16) Similarly, in Acts the Holy Spirit is “given through the laying on of the apostles’ hands” (Acts 8:17-19, Acts 9:17, Acts 19:6)
The finger also is a symbol of the Spirit. Jesus said that “it is by the finger of God that I cast out the demons” (Lk 11:20). Just as the Law was written on stone tablets “by the finger of God” (Ex 31:18), so the Spirit writes the Law of Christ “on tablets of human hearts.” (2 Co 3:3)
In the Scriptures, we also see that it is by the laying on of hands that the apostles ordained their successors. That is why St Paul tells St Timothy “do not neglect the gift that is in you, which was given to you through prophecy with the laying on of hands by the council of elders.” (1 Ti 4:14)
By this laying on of hands, the hands of the bishops and priests are united to the apostles and conformed to Christ’s own hands. These “holy and venerable hands” of His, as the Roman Canon has it, raised the dead, healed the sick, cast out demons, washed feet, embraced sinners, instituted the Eucharist, and were pierced with nails for the redemption of the world. From these glorious, wounded hands we receive life!
But Christ is ascended to the Right Hand of the Father and has sent the Spirit of God, the Hand of God, to be His people. Not only our souls but our bodies are conformed to His.
That is what it means to be a Christian, a little Christ. By Baptism, we can all say with St Paul,
I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Gal 2:18-20)
Holy Hands of a Priest
While all our hands are Christ’s hands, in a particular way the hands of the priest are consecrated as Christ’s hands by the sacrament of Holy Orders. In this sacrament, the Holy Spirit gives a “sacred power” (sacra potestas) so that the ordained minister can exercise the apostolic ministry, “which can come only from Christ Himself through His Church.” (CCC §1538)
Every sacrament is either effected or blessed by the hands of the priest.
Bishops, priests and deacons are ordained by the laying on of hands. They bring new life by Baptism through pouring out water by their hands. They strengthen new Christians with the oil of chrism at Confirmation, applied with those opposable thumbs. They bless marriages with the Sign of the Cross.
They heal the souls of the old, sick and weak with oil-smeared hands and raise their hands to absolve us our sins, our spiritual deaths and sicknesses, in Reconciliation. Finally, by their hands they consecrate the Holy Eucharist, the true Body and Blood of the Lord Jesus.
The Catholic Church in England and Wales website, Eucharist Gallery
The 13th Century Lives of the Saints records the devotion of St Francis of Assisi to the priesthood.
He would also that right great reverence should be done to the hands of priests, to whom was given power to sacre the blessed sacrament of our Lord.
And then he said oft: If it happed me to meet any saint coming from heaven, and also a poor priest, I would first go kiss the priest’s hands, and would say to the saint: Holy saint, abide a while, for the hands of this priest have handled the son of life, and hath performed a thing above humanity.
— The Golden Legend or Lives of the Saints, compiled by Jacobus de Voragine, Archbishop of Genoa, published 1470 via Fordham Medieval Sourcebook.
The hands of the priest have handled the Son of Life: the hands of the priest give us Jesus.
Life From the Hand of Others
If that feels like it gives too much power to priests, you’re right it does.
But then, what do any of us have which we don’t receive from the hand of another?
We are brought into the world by the hands of a doctor and leave the world by the hands of an undertaker. Our parents hands feed us, wash us, clothe us, discipline us and embrace us. We all rely on the hands of others: hands that uphold us and hands that help us. What right do any of us to refuse helping hands in the life of the Spirit?
Our hands, opposable thumbs and all, are amazing but it is our dependence on the hands of our neighbour which remind us of the greatest truth of all.
No matter how great our hands are or how impressive “the work of our hands” is, all things come to us by the hand of another.
Ultimately all is from the merciful hand of God.
We are all the work of your hand. (Isa 64:8)