The notion and practice of physical touch in public settings has been under scrutiny for some time now. Long before the pandemic made touch an individual and communal public health no no, touching others who are not family or close friends in public was an awkward and dicey proposition given concerns over maintaining and respecting appropriate personal space boundaries. Covid was the last stake in the coffin. The Fist and elbow bumps became de riguer, a minimally invasive quasi touch just a step above an air kiss.
But, thankfully, don’t count out authentic and appropriate touch, it seems to be making a comeback, albeit in measured ways.
All this angst about the limited ability to do something like put a hand on the shoulder of a colleague or a parishioner in crisis made me realized just how much the practice of ministry has been altered over the last few years.
At times, physical touch is an important aspect of ministry, especially in the course of healing ministries and the laying on of hands. I recall the time years ago when I was involved in lay ministry in my longtime parish in Rockville, Maryland, a woman named Kaye who was in her eighties ran our healing ministry which included offering prayers during service in the side chapel. She was what you call an old school prayer warrior who came out of the rural church. Picture Robert Duvall as the fiery evangelical minister in the movie the Apostle who would pulled over at a roadside crash and prayed over the barely surviving crash victims.
Like that fictional champion of prayer, Kaye packed real doozies of prayer intercessions. You felt the heat come through her hands on your shoulders or on your head. She was a truly a healer in word and through the simple physical presence conveyed through her hands.
The experience recently with the slow but sure reemergence of physical touch as we emerge out of the pandemic reminded me that touch is relevant to healing and human well being at all stages of life, especially in the first few years of life.
Now to the gospel and the picture inserted in your bulletin. I decided to blow out our color printing budget for the year and insert a page. The painting is called the “Return of the Prodigal Son” by the Dutch master Rembrandt. As the title suggests, it portrays the parable of the Prodigal Son which was our gospel reading today.
While he passed away some years ago, many of you know that I consider a Henri Nouwen to be one of the finest spiritual writers of our day and a key spiritual companion of mine via his writings. Fr. Henri was a theologian and not an artist, but among his many gifts, he had the ability to see spiritual nuances and details in paintings. I dare say that he could run circles around anyone including PHd’s in art history when it came to the spiritual interpretation of art.
The Rembrandt grabbed his attention. Henri found himself immersed in the painting, even inserting himself in the frame at times.
In particular, he was drawn to the Father’s hands which are draped around the Son, the ragged, one shoe on, disheveled figure kneeling really supplicating himself before the Father who is clearly moved.
As a brief recap of this parable, we recall together that the son had demanded his inheritance and gone off to live a life filled with wine, women and song in a far off land. The ask was a huge insult to the Father and equivalent to wishing that he was dead in the culture of ancient Jewish Palestine. Of course, as is always the case in these instances, the errant and reckless son ran through his cash and found himself destitute without anything to eat or any shelter. He decided to come home and beg his Father to hire him as a lowly servant.
Upon seeing his son in the distance, the Father runs to meet him with open arms. In the painting the Father, embraces the lost son with hands upon his shoulders. And he kisses his Son.
That the Father laid his hands on his wayward son and then kissed him would have been a huge shock to all those in eyeshot.
Especially his elder son, the one who quickly became resentful of all this embracing and loving up on his younger brother.
And then when the Father extends the sentiment of the embrace towards the lost son by ordering up a big Feast, the elder son was furious.
Nouwen was gripped (so to speak) by the qualities of the Father’s hands as portrayed in the Rembrandt. He wrote: “in them mercy becomes flesh, upon them forgiveness, reconciliation and healing come together, and through them, not only the tired son, but also the worn out Father find their rest.”
Henri had himself had an experience which spoke of the importance of this kind of blessing. He was the priest at L Arche a home for profoundly disabled. Once after the Eucharist, a young man came to him and said bless me Henri. Henri gave him a perfunctory crossing, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The young man protested. “No Henri, not like that. I want a real blessing.” Henri paused and then embraced the young man and held him while he blessed him. “Yes, Henri, that is a blessing.”
In the parable, both the elder and younger son find themselves at a distance, you might say exiled by different types of prodigality, which moves each away from their true inheritance--which is to be blessed.
The younger son is the prodigal who spent wastefully and without restraint.
The elder son is the prodigal who works only out of obligation and who has stored us massive amounts of resentment.
In this telling, the break, the exile is about their distance from blessing, a tragic but common self-imposed state of exile.
But what is also clear from the text and from the painting is that the Father is willing to embrace both sons if they turn to him seeking a blessing.
The Father longs to have each back in his loving arms, with his hands draped upon each of them. No explanation needed. The Father is not looking for apologies, he just wants his children back in his arms.
The Father welcomes each of us a sons and daughters who are called out the self-imposed exile of either reckless self-indulgent wastefulness or alternatively of resentful, joyless obligation into the life exemplified by the Father, whose is the figure who holds all things together through compassion, vulnerability and forgiveness.
Over the past two years and perhaps going back further as I said earlier, I believe most of us have missed human touch and basic physical connection. Zoom is great, fist bumping is fine, but from the time we are babies on, we are hard wired for real touch. Touch is holy as blesses us and makes us feel safe, wanted and loved.
Rembrandt masterfully captured the image of the Father’s hands which paint a picture of a God longs to hold us and tell us that we are home.
I pray that each us claim our blessing from the God who will not force us to claim it, but who broods over us and gently gathers us under the shelter and shadow of her wings.