‘Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him.’ Matthew 14:31
A former colleague died on Friday. Memories of him are plentiful but the one that remains strongest does not come from his intellectual or academic brilliance, both of which were considerable, but of a passing moment when he was not even aware that he was being observed.
Walking down the corridor of a hospital ward, I caught a glimpse of him beside a bed in one of the bays. He was knelt on the floor with his back toward me. The patient in the bed was very ill and he did not drain the patient’s strength by trying to talk to them, instead he just knelt there holding the person’s hand.
Once, sometime later, I spoke to him of it. He dismissed it as nothing, as simply a passing whim, but however he might have downplayed the moment, it was something of profound significance. One does not kneel on the floor of a busy hospital ward, with people coming and going, and hold the hand of a person without that moment being imbued with significance.
Jesus would have understood that moment. Jesus would have understood the importance of taking someone by the hand.
Look at the Gospel reading, Jesus reaches out his hand and catches Peter, why does Jesus reach out his hand?
We know from the story of the raising of Lazarus in Saint John Chapter 11 that miracles do not depend on physical touch, Jesus might have raised Peter from the water by word alone, 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?
Touch is the most basic of human senses, it is the sense that comes before all others, 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 in these islands tell of the mothers of newborn children being forbidden to cuddle their children. They were permitted to feed their babies, but any shows of affection were prohibited because physical contact would build bonds of love.
The retreat of much of contemporary society into a world where communication is almost exclusively online, and where the only reality is increasingly a virtual one, actually threatens our emotional 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.
The touch that makes us human ranges 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 a simple 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 the capacity to touch or be touched can be to experience a great sense of loneliness, a sense of complete isolation. The death of a partner, the end of a relationship, the rupture of a friendship, it is in the absence of a sense of physical touch that loss may be most keenly felt. Just a touch says something for which we have no words.
To be without touch is to be without 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.
The simple handshake, the brief hug, a devoted priest kneeling at the bedside of a person coming to the end of their earthly journey, the presence of Jesus is to be found in such touch.