Handle with care—a powerful sign of love
The laying on of hands is a central action in confirmation. Jesus used his hands to heal the sick, to bless others (especially children), and to share meals with his disciples. In particular, he used his hands to take up the bread and cup at the Last Supper before he was handed over to be crucified. Upon his resurrection, Saint Thomas demanded to examine the wounds in Jesus’ hands before he would believe.
Everyday hand signals
Hands are powerful “words” in our society, and we use them to say a variety of things. We have, in a sense, a very common “laying on of hands” when we meet people. We call it “shaking hands.” When we want to express our congratulations to someone or when we want to reconcile with someone with whom we’ve fought, we shake hands. When a politician wants our vote, or when a salesperson wants to draw us into the show room, he or she will shake our hand. When we’re in love, we take another’s hand in marriage. When someone is sad, we offer a hand of consolation.
We can also raise our hand in anger. When something goes wrong, we want to know who had a hand in it. Many people in the world are living hand-to-mouth because those who might be able to won’t lend a helping hand.
Making hands holy
In the liturgy, hands have several meanings as well. The church uses the image of hands in several sacramental rites. Those who are catechumens feel the hands of others on them when they are first marked on their bodies with the sign of the cross. Throughout their catechumenate, prayers may be offered for them while the community blesses them or exorcises them by laying hands on them.
In the sacrament of penance, the presider lays hands on the penitent, and it is no accident that the same gesture of healing is used in the sacrament of the sick. In the ordination rites, the bishop lays his hands on the candidates as a sign of commissioning for service. In the Eucharist, those newly ordained will use their hands as sign of the power of the Holy Spirit when they extend them over the community’s offering of bread and wine. All liturgies end with a blessing during which the presider extends his hands over the assembly.
Hand-powered, world-changing faith
In the rite of confirmation, the laying on of hands is also a sign of the power of the Holy Spirit. The bishop calls on the Father to pour out the Holy Spirit and to strengthen the candidates with the abundant gifts of the Spirit.
These gifts are not like Christmas or birthday gifts can sometimes be. These are not for the personal use and possession of the candidates. These gifts are primarily for the community. Everyone in the Body of Christ receives different gifts for the good of the Body. The candidates are each uniquely gifted with those talents and resources that will best serve the mission of the church. Saint Paul reminds his friend and disciple Timothy that he cannot let his gifts remain dormant:
For this reason I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands; for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline. (2 Tim 1:6-7)
Ultimately, all the gifts of the Spirit are gifts of power and love and the discipline to know how to use those gifts wisely. God’s gifts can be harmful if misused and powerfully helpful if used in love.
In the next session, we will look at the anointing with chrism.