Friday, June 15, 2012

Passing the Peace & Christ's Ministry of Physical Touch

Have you ever thought about the word “incarnation”? Our Christian tradition teaches that Jesus Christ was God incarnate, God coming to us in this world, in a body. The roots of the word “incarnation” highlight the sheer physicality of this miracle: the word “incarnation” comes from the Latin word caro, which means flesh. The word “incarnation” is related to the words “carnage” and “carne” (as in chili con carne – “with meat”!)

The word “incarnation” asserts that Jesus really, truly had a body, experiencing all of the joys and nitty-gritty realities that we know come with being embodied people. A workshop I attended recently at a conference for UCC clergy in their 20s and 30s highlighted one aspect of Jesus’ incarnation: his ministry of physical touch. We focused on the many stories of physical touch in the Gospel stories of Jesus’ life. Sometimes he touches people for healing: in one story he heals the eyes of a blind man by making mud out of dirt and saliva, and applying it to the man’s eyes! Other stories show Jesus communicating love through touch: stories of washing the disciples’ feet, or placing a child on his knee. A third kind of story shows Jesus being touched by others, such as the woman who anoints him in Bethany. 

Many Christian worship services contain a moment where we celebrate the ministry of physical touch: we call it the Passing of the Peace. In my congregation, the passing of the peace is an extended affair; we make time for one another, smiling and greeting and rejoicing as we make our way up and down the aisles. It is a moment of joy in community, and it is our own way of celebrating the ministry of physical touch as we embrace, shake hands, pat shoulders, and sometimes even kiss cheeks. 

Of course, harmful physical touch is widespread in our contemporary world, and the Gospels also tell negative stories of physical touch: Judas’ kiss is a gesture that communicates not love, but betrayal. As we pass the peace, it is important to remember that some people may not wish to be touched because of past experiences of harm. There is another story of a woman who touches the hem of Jesus’ garment for healing, and the scripture says he “feels the power go out of him.” For those who are shy or introverted, sometimes physical touch can be exhausting rather than invigorating. As we pass the peace, we can respect each other’s differences by paying attention to see who wishes to embrace, and who would prefer to shake hands. 

One of Paul’s letters instructs the early Christians to “greet one another with a holy kiss” (Rom. 16:16). When we pass the peace with one another, we participate in this tradition of Christian love and community expressed incarnationally -- in the flesh. Furthermore, we celebrate that we are empowered to extend love and peace on Christ’s behalf, remembering that we are members of the Body of Christ!

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