Physical touch is important to our lives, we were created to touch and be touched. In times of grief, we console loved ones with a hug, a kiss, or simply by holding hands. In times of illness, we soothe with a kiss on the forehead, or holding hands. In times of stress, we relax with hugs and hand holding. In times of joy, we celebrate with a hug, a kiss, or pats on the back. “The more we learn about touch, the more we realize just how central it is in all aspects of our lives—cognitive, emotional, developmental, behavioral—from womb into old age. It’s no surprise that a single touch can affect us in multiple, powerful, ways.” (The Power of Touch By Maria Konnikova , New Yorker March 4, 2015). Touch is vital to the human experience studies have shown that babies who grow up deprived of touch are emotionally and mentally stunted. Adults who have no regular loving physical contact are less healthy and more susceptible to stress.
Physical touch provides a connection, positive touch provides a positive connection and negative touch produces a negative result. Jesus understood touch, as we read the stories about his healings, like the one in Mark 1:39-45, we see that Jesus was quick to make physical contact with the person being healed. Notice how important the idea of touching is for Mark, he says, “he stretched out his hand and touched him”. The language is redundant, Mark wants us to picture Jesus deliberately moving his hand from his side and reaching it out to lay it on this man kneeling before him. Mark wants us to see the over-the-top love Jesus is demonstrating. Even in the case of the leper Jesus risked his own health to make contact with the man. Imagine how that anonymous man must have felt when for the first time in years another human’s skin intentionally touched his. What a sense of joy that man must have felt when Jesus touched him. I can imagine that Jesus not only touched his body, he touched his heart. The loneliness and pain the man must have felt because even those dearest to him would not touch him, yet, Jesus would.
A second time in Mark’s Gospel we are presented a portrait of Jesus as loving others through touch. In 10:13-16, parents have brought their children to Jesus and the disciples have stopped them from approaching, and curiously we are not told why either the parents or the disciples did what they did. It is tempting to think that these parents were extremely religious and wanted their children to get a blessing from Jesus, the text does not tell us. It could be that these parents simply wanted their children to be able to say they met Jesus as we do with celebrities today. The parents might also be thinking that Jesus was a healer, and his touch (remember touch was important to healing) would provide protection for the children from illness. Could it be these parents wanted a celebrity moment with Jesus while he was in the midst of doing something very important, like teaching or healing or eating? Perhaps the disciples were protecting Jesus’ quiet time? The only person who feelings are known is Jesus; and his anger heightens our sense of his compassion. Jesus took time out of his life to touch and bless the little children; from the description this was not a passing touch of the hand, like an athlete hurriedly giving high-fives on the way to the locker room. Jesus intentionally provided a careful blessing for the children: Jesus noticed the children and gave them his time and touch.
Perhaps, Jesus’ greatest show of love is that he allowed others to touch him. The woman with the hemorrhages (Mark 5:25-34) and the anonymous woman of Luke 7:36-50 were encouraged in their touching of Jesus. The Pharisee with whom Jesus ate understood that in allowing the woman to touch him, Jesus was creating a bond with her. The Pharisee also knew what the woman’s reputation had been and where she had come from, and for him there was absolutely no reason to create a bond with that sort of woman. The Pharisee was not willing to cross the line between himself and her and was appalled when Jesus did. The Pharisee wanted to maintain his comfort level, he did not want to form a relationship with the woman, she might negatively impact hid comfort. Jesus on the other hand gave her a way to vent her pain and grief and a reason to celebrate in the joy of God’s salvation.
In the Old Testament we do not see much positive about God’s touch, there is a recognition that God’s touch is by nature so powerful that it can crush everything. I think this is one of the great lessons of the Incarnation, Jesus proves that God’s touch is light and helpful. In the Incarnation God touched all of us in touching the human experience, God loved us so much that God touched the human condition. While during his life Jesus touched a few people, those individuals are simply examples of how God desires to touch each and every one of us. God wants to communicate love, acceptance, forgiveness, and healing through the touch of Jesus, we must understand and accept that.
This is also where we can come in. we who have touched God’s Spirit. We can be the physical conduit of God’s healing touch; we can provide the love which God desires the whole world to have. We have wonderful power in our ability to lovingly touch one another. In a TEDx Göteborg talk, Helena Backlund Wasling relates a story about her own experience in labor and the gentle hug and caress of a midwife taking away the pain and making an epidural unnecessary. Imagine, the pain of childbirth lessened by a well-timed and genuinely given hug; how much more of an effect can such affection have on those suffering in the daily grind of life. Researchers say that a hug of 20 seconds in length reduces stress and improves heart health. As Konnikova said in her article “if we often experience friendly or loving caresses, it’s safe to assume that we have a strong social network, which is itself one of the best predictors of happiness, health, and longevity.” This is our aim, to be a safe and strong social network for each other in the times of crisis; this means providing loving touch during the course of our lives.
Jesus modeled this lifestyle for us, willing to provide physical contact for any and all who sought him, willing to show them love. If statistics are to be trusted approx. 75% of people say they want more hugs on a daily basis. We are a culture starved for intimate contact (a complete irony in our sex crazed world, though also perhaps a contributing factor in that mindset). Peter and Paul both addressed the need for the Church to be a loving environment full of warmth and affection (Romans 16:16, 1 Peter 5:14). We are supposed to be the place that provides warmth and intimacy for those in need, how is it that we can live that out daily?