Thursday, March 31, 2016

Thursday of the Octave of Easter: Discerning God's Handiwork

Shortly after he arrived at a compound for patients of Hansen’s Disease (a leper colony) in India, Doctor Paul Brand, a specialist in hands and tendons, quietly slipped into a community meeting, sitting on a mat behind the group in the courtyard. All around were smells of disease and decay, of cooking spices, and medical ointments. His eyes were drawn to the patients’ hands, most of which had missing or deformed fingers that were turned in—hands that were often called “lepers’ claws.” Some of the patients were sitting on their hands or trying to keep them hidden.

When the patients realized Doctor Brand was there, they asked him to speak. So, moving to the center of the group, he began by saying, “I am a hand surgeon. So, when I meet people, I can’t help but look at their hands. [Palm readers claim] that they can look at your future by looking at your hands. I can tell your past. For instance, I can tell what your trade has been by the position of the callouses and the condition of the nails. I can tell a lot about your character. I love hands.”

His talk then took a slight turn: “How I would love to have had the chance to meet Christ, “he said, “and look at his hands. But knowing what he was like, I can almost picture them, feel them.”

He talked about the hands of Christ, beginning with infancy when his hands were small and helpless. Then came the hands of the boy Jesus, holding a stylus as he learned to write his letters. Then the hands of Christ the carpenter—rough, gnarled, with broken fingernails, and bruises from working with a saw and a hammer.
But there were also the hands of Chris the Healer. Compassion and sensitivity radiated from them and when he touched people, they could feel the Divine Spirit coming through.

“Then,” Doctor Brand continued, “there were the crucified hands. It hurts me to think of a nail being driven through the center of the hand, because I know what goes on there…the tendons and nerves and muscles… The thought of those healing hands being crippled reminds me what Christ was prepared to endure. In that act,” he said, “he identified himself with all of the deformed and crippled human beings in the world. Not only was he able to endure poverty with the poor, weariness with the tired, but—clawed hands with the crippled.”

The people were blown away by this idea: Jesus—a cripple, with claw-hands like theirs?

“And then there were his resurrected hands,” Doctor Brand concluded. “One of the things that I find most astounding is that, though we think of the future life as something perfected, when Christ appeared to his disciples he said, 'Come, look at my hands'… He carried the marks of suffering so he could continue to understand the needs of the suffering. He wanted to be forever one with us.”

As he finished, Doctor Brand looked around and saw the patients’ hands now lifted palm to palm in the Indian gesture of respect, namaste. The hands were the same stumps, the same missing fingers and crooked claws. But the people weren’t hiding them anymore. They were held high, close to their faces, in respect for Brand, but also with a new pride and dignity…
I think we know the Resurrection stories so well that we can sometimes to take the details they contain for granted. We’ve become so focused on formation, ministry and mission, so fixated on what’s happening right now and worrying about what’s going to happen, that we forget to look back to see how God is already at work—and has been at work—in our lives and in the Church and the world.

Think about your own life. Haven’t there been times of transition or when things seem to have been falling apart—a job loss, an illness or injury, the end of a relationship, discerning a vocation—when God might have seemed far away in the moment but, when you look back, you see God’s fingerprints as he was guiding and shaping new possibilities and a future that you most likely hadn’t imagined?

That’s what today’s Gospel is about. That’s why it’s so important that Jesus wanted the Apostles to see and touch his hands and feet. Jesus is inviting the Apostles to look back not only at their journeying together, but into their past as God’s Chosen People—thinking about the words of the prophets and psalms—to see how all of the events up to that moment in that room were being shaped and guided by God. It was the only way his death—those wounds—could make sense.

When we look back at Holy Week and that first Easter day, keeping the past in mind, we can see how all God’s Providence and love was compressed, coming together for all history in the wounds of Jesus, in those hands that had healed and blessed and feet that symbolized Jesus’ mission and apostolic journeys still to come.

And so, today, we’re being invited to take a broader view of faith and we’re being asked to trust that the Resurrection life that we celebrate is a continuation of what the Apostles experienced in that room that first Easter. We’re being invited to reflect and discern how God continues to be at work, transforming our own brokenness and wounds, still shaping a future and possibilities that we can only begin to imagine.

This reflection was given during the Mass for the Salvatorian Community of Holy Apostles Formation House on March 31, 2016. The story of Doctor Paul Brand is adapted from Where Is God When It Hurts by Philip Yancy (Zondervan Press, 1977).

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