“But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.”Matthew 17:7
A gentle touch. For comfort. For reassurance. Indicating closeness and empathy. Understanding. Words are not needed to say, I’m here, or it’s okay. But they are added none the less: Get up, and do not be afraid. The disciples had fallen to the ground in fear. Not at the bright white vision of Jesus, nor the vision of Elijah and Moses – indeed the disciples are planning to pitch camp high on the mountain at the sight of these three together. Yet they are fearful at the bright cloud that overshadows them and the disembodied voice that speaks directly to them. “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” So, yes, I too would probably fall down in fear if such a thing were to happen atop a mountain.
Then Jesus comes and touches them and speaks words of comfort. It was a natural thing to do. The thing about touch, about physical contact, it somehow makes everything a little more real. Certainly for Thomas after the resurrection, ‘if only I can touch his wounds then I will believe.’ Physical contact, the simple touch of Jesus at that moment assured them that all was well.
How often is it that we actually have physical contact with each other? We shake hands in greeting and in church services at ‘The Peace’, a hug perhaps between those who are close. Yet for the most part physical touch is something reserved for intimacy between those who are family, partners. We might even shy at the unexpected hand on our arm intended to be reassuring, but uninvited. There are social etiquettes and boundaries beyond which one should not cross, yet closeness is something that humans crave. Whilst I see the many benefits of our digital age and social connections virtually I’m also conscious that it is something which has created a distance between people, exacerbated by the 2 meter rule of the pandemic, so that physical closeness is now something rarer.
When we went in to meet the Asylum Seekers, we were told – not to get too close to them – yet they were seeking out connection to other humans who were going to treat them with care, dignity and respect. It was important for us to gain their trust to be able to say ‘do not be afraid’ but we did not have the shared language, yet a smile, a handshake, and the gentle touch of a reassuring hand on a shoulder or arm spoke many more words. Touch then becomes a privilege which we can share or allow to be shared with others. We say don’t we, that touched my heart or that touches a nerve, we use the language of touch to describe things which have come close to our own understanding of what it means to be human for better or for worse.
Two weeks ago we filled St. Mary’s church in Betws for the Ceilidh a socially acceptable moment to swing multiple partners by the arm, do-se-do, promenade etc. We could have sold half as many tickets again – feedback from folk who attended suggested that these opportunities are not as frequent as they were and we are all the more poorer for it.
This coming Wednesday is Ash Wednesday and our tradition is to mark the forehead of those who come with the sign of the cross, rather than the starkly blunt traditional words associated with this action, dust though art and unto dust thou shalt return, I’m tempted this year to say, as we are sent out into the wilderness of Lent ‘do not be afraid’, and to add the words of Julian of Norwich ‘for all shall be well.’ It should be a touch and a mark of comfort rather than of fear. If attending church these days it is a counter cultural thing to do, then it seems even more so to offer these moments in the liturgies when we come close to each other and to allow that privilege of a gentle touch which says: ‘All shall be well, do not be afraid’.