Touch. Simple, warm, human contact. Reassurance, comfort, strength. This is the thing that so many are missing right now as we live with the restrictions necessary to keep us all safe and well. All through our lives it is the simple act of touching that communicates so much of what it means to be alive and to love. It is the loving security we give to a baby, the healing warmth we give to an injured child, the expression of intimacy we give to a lover, the encouragement we give to a friend facing difficult times, the reassurance we give to one who is uncertain of us, the expression of communion and forgiveness we share at the Liturgy, the love we share with the dying. And all these experiences are the reasons we find it so hard to be distanced from one another at a time that we most strongly want to be in touch.
Today is the Sunday of Thomas, the day where we remember that disciple whose questions and whose faith are so compelling to those of us ‘who have not seen and yet believe.’ The traditional depiction of this Gospel in iconography carries an interesting title. Rather than ‘doubting’ Thomas, we are presented with ‘touching’ Thomas. He stretches out his hand to make contact with the wounded yet glorified flesh of Jesus at his invitation. Of course, the text doesn’t tell us whether or not Thomas did what Jesus invited – to put his fingers, his hands, on the scars so recently made. But it makes perfect sense to us that Thomas did just that. His touch is not the confirmation sought by a suspicious mind but contact desired by one who loved him. It’s not proof he’s looking for but intimacy. Belief for Thomas is not a matter of evidence but of embodied knowing, physically mediated truth.
For that is how we always know. We know with our bodies. We know what our senses open up for us. We know that food is good through smell, taste and sensation. We know that love is real through caresses and tones of voice. We know loss in the pit of our stomach, fear in the depths of our loins, joy in the lightness of our hearts, contentment in the restfulness of our breath. We learn skills through the training of our muscles in repeated movements and music through the refinement of our listening. And we pray through the bending low of our bodies and the lifting up of our hands, through the tracing of the cross upon our torso and taste of sweet wine on our lips, in the gaze of our eyes upon the face of Christ and the inhalation of aromatic incense. Prayer is in our knees and our hands as much as it is in our minds and memories.
So Thomas had it right when he expressed his desire to see and to touch, to feel the presence of Christ rather than simply to imagine it. The other name for the icon of Thomas’s meeting with Christ is the ‘assurance’ of Thomas. Faith is brought to life through contact.
So how does that work for us? In normal times, we get this through the rich physicality of our worship and I hope that some of that is possible for us even in this constrained online format. But we also continue to find faith in very physical experiences. When we take a deep and nourishing breath; when we feel the warmth of the sun on our skin; when we savour a mouthful of food and give thanks for the many labours that brought it to us; when our feet make contact with the firm earth that supports us; when we feel the warm hand of a loved one. All of these are sacraments that draw us close to one another and to the very source of life itself.
And for those who suffer in this present pandemic, the healing hands of carers, physicians, nurses, chaplains and friends bring an immeasurably powerful reassurance. For those of us at home, we still have the healing touch of a familiar voice to offer to others and the power of our prayerful breathing to share. Our breath connects us with all that lives so it is not surprising that the risen Jesus breathes on his disciples send their attention far beyond their limited horizons and to share with them the forgiving and healing love that first drew them to him.
So in this time of isolation, we may still find space to pray with our bodies and our breath, to savour the goodness of life in the food and fresh air that sustains it and to make contact with one another in whatever ways we can. In doing these simple things, we open ourselves to One who will come among us and say ‘peace be with you’ and to whom we respond, ‘My Lord and my God.’