The Gospel story this Sunday begins with a request, “My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her.” (Mark 5:23)
In the environment of today, that request would not be responded to with the immediacy Jesus showed.
Rather there would be caution, a sense of alertness, a sense of “ is this ok?”
Each of the rites of our Sacraments has as part of them a ritual laying on of hands.
I know several priests who, today, are very wary of that ritual action! particularly when the Sacrament is celebrated privately, for example, the First Rite of Reconciliation and the Anointing of the Sick in a private home or hospital.
Is there cause for us to reclaim a genuine theology of the body and of touch?
Our life began when a man and a woman physically touched each other in the act of making love. [I acknowledge there are times when, for physical reasons and otherwise, this physical process is not part of the conceiving of a child, e.g. IVF].
On most occasions, this was indeed an act of love. So, we were born out of physical touch and love.
Immediately after birth, the birth; having gone without complications, we are placed on the breast of our mother, and she holds us to herself.
A gentle mother’s touch.
Soon after there will be that moment of being held to the breast and we begin to feed.
Each of these is a moment of intimacy, a moment of touch and a moment of flesh upon flesh.
They are ‘body moments.’
Much of our theology today has the passion, death and Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth as being the redemptive act.
Extraordinarily, little attention is given to the truth that this redemptive act began when “the Word was made flesh and lived among us.” (John 1:14).
When one takes a moment to examine Renaissance artworks, we notice something which today many might well regard as crude, rude, or downright indecent!
For example, in Francesco Botticini’s, Madonna and Child with Angels, c.1490, the angels bestrew the infant’s genital area with flowers!
Or again in Bartolommeo Montagna’s, Holy Family c. 1500 the infant’s genitalia are clearly visible.
And then, lo and behold the woodcut by Hans Baldung Grien, Holy Family, 1511, we have St. Anne, the mother of Mary, in a gesture which looks very much like fondling her grandchild’s penis!
If you bother to take the time and explore these artworks, and many others of the period, how we respond will tell us more about ourselves and our own theology (or perhaps lack of!) of the body and touch than reading any book.
Intriguingly, the Renaissance artist does the same when painting the Crucifixion of Jesus; there is an absence of a loincloth.
Again, we might well say rude, crude, and indecent.
Again, might I suggest, how I/we respond may well be the clearest indication of our own theology of body and touch.
Somewhat intriguingly when many artworks of the Crucifixion of this Renaissance period are cleaned of the dust and grime gathered over the centuries, what comes away is a loincloth covering the genitalia of Jesus which had been painted on, many years after the original.
Reclaiming a genuine theology of the body and touch, for me anyway, begins with the fundamental truth that each of us is “imago Dei” made in the image of God.
“So God created humankind in [his] own image, in the image of God [he] created them; male and female [ he] created them.” (Genesis 1:27)
And, again, from Psalm 139 “For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb”.
We were originally blessed not cursed!
That image has been restored through the redemptive act of the Word becoming flesh and living among us.
When reading the Gospel stories of Jesus’ healing ministry, almost invariably there is a moment of physical touch e.g. eyes, ears, spittle, the leper’s body, and each of this Sunday’s Gospel declare that most profoundly.
It seems to me, that Jesus is re-enacting that glorious creative impulse of the Creator God; in his moment of healing touch to all who came to him, Jesus is saying “you are imago Dei, you are made in the image and likeness of your God!”.
Each of us who receives the Sacred Body and Blood of Christ during Eucharist are also party to “the healing touch of Jesus.”
How do I hold the Body offered? Might I suggest when next you receive the sacred Host on your hand, you pause for a moment and truly feel the touch of the Body on your hand, and hear the words of Jesus to the leper, “Of course I want to heal you – be healed.” (Mtt. 8:23).
An elderly Jesuit priest was, at one time, heard to comment that he only ever gave one Penance when in the Confessional – he would invite the penitent to, ‘go out and looked redeemed!’
If that were to happen, we may well have the beginnings of a genuine theology of the body and of touch.
Touch becomes not possessive, rather liberating, touch becomes compassionate rather than controlling, touch becomes healing rather than hurting, touch brings forth life rather than suffocates and brings about death
For anyone wanting to consider these ideas further, there is a book “The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion”, by Leo Steinberg and is published by University of Chicago Press. 1983.