“Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him.” Matthew 14:31
Why does Jesus reach out his hand? We know from the story of the raising of Lazarus that miracles do not depend on physical touch, so why does Jesus choose to reach out and take the hand of the drowning Peter? What is the purpose of the physical contact? What needs are met in a simple touch?
It is was in September 2004 that lecturer spoke in a college chapel. It was a fine early autumn evening, the start of a new academic year, the listeners were very attentive.
The lecturer’s father had died during the long vacation, and he reflected on his experiences coping with the funeral and the sense of grief he felt. He was a man in his early sixties, so his father must have been someone born around the time of the First World War, if not before.
Preaching on the story of Jesus walking on the water, he held up a poster. The poster pictured a hand reaching down and firmly grasping a hand that reached upwards. The lecturer looked at the assembled faces and said, “do you know? I do not remember a single time in my life when my father gave me a hug.”
It seemed an intensely sad moment that has lingered in the memory since. For an experienced academic to share such a thought must have meant the lack of expressions of affection from his father had been significant for him since the days of his childhood more than half a century previously.
Touch is the most basic of human senses, it is the most basic form of human communication, to be deprived of touch is to be deprived of love.
Appalling stories from the Mother and Baby homes of former times tell of the mothers of newborn children being forbidden to cuddle their children; they could feed them, but any shows of affection were prohibited because physical contact would build bonds of love.
Our retreat into a world where communication is almost exclusively online, and where the only reality is increasingly a virtual one, threatens our welfare as human beings. It is a sensory deprivation that impoverishes our lives, it leaves us without the very thing that has bound us together since the brief history of homo sapiens began.
Real friendships and real relationships are built on our physical presence, on communication made through touch; touch ranging from the handshake of business associates to the bodily embrace of lovers. Touch communicates at a level inaccessible to the words of even the most articulate of people. When someone is enduring grief or emotional pain, there is no vocabulary that is remotely comparable to the feeling conveyed in a single hug. Touch is sometimes a confession of our inarticulacy, an honest admission that we have no words adequate to the occasion.
If touch conveys a sense of being present with a person, if it is the means of expressing affection or love, if it is all we can do to express sympathy or concern, then to be without touch can be to experience a great sense of loneliness. The death of a partner, the end of a relationship, the rupture of a friendship, it is in the physical that loss may be most keenly felt. Just a touch says something for which we have no words.
The present virus crisis threatens to undermine a fundamental way of communication, it threatens to isolate people from the sense of reassurance that Jesus offers Peter.
Jesus understood the human need for touch. He understood Peter’s need to grasp firmly the hand that was outstretched.
Perhaps it is time to put on a mask and gloves and to return to a life of handshakes and hugs.