by The Rev. Daniel P Strandlund | December 22, 2020When a new priest is ordained, it’s common for folks to ask her for a blessing after the ordination service. Maybe in the receiving line right after worship, or maybe during a reception afterwards (in non-pandemic years), lay people and clergy alike line up and ask the newly ordained to pronounce God’s blessing upon them.
In a denomination like ours, to bless is to perform a uniquely priestly function: neither lay people nor deacons fulfill this particular role for the community. So when the person asking for the blessing is himself a priest, it has the added weight of an older member of the priestly guild not only welcoming a newer member into the order, but also of his submitting to her pastoral authority at that moment. In this submission, there is celebration. She is finally getting to do the thing God has called her to do, and the gathered Church, lay and clergy alike, gets to receive God’s blessings in a new way, through hands which have never blessed quite like this before. God’s blessing is made particular in a way it never has been before.
It’s a beautiful thing. Ordination day blessings are at once playful, tender, and a little awkward, as holiness almost always is. This was doubly true for me on Saturday, when the newly ordained priest happens to be my wife.
After the service there were a dozen or so of us visiting on this big outdoor porch area of her church, and sure enough, the blessings started. (The congregants always instigate this; never the new priest!) Some were very socially distant; some stood; some knelt; some closed their eyes; some giggled a little. Lucy blessed us all.
I decided to kneel. I still had all my worship robes on, so it was a bit awkward, and Lucy put her hands on my head and traced a cross on my forehead with the soft blade of her thumb. She invoked the Holy Trinity in words almost identical to the ones I say to kids when (in more usual times) they come to the altar rail with their arms crossed.
It was one of the great moments of my life. As I’ve pondered it over the past few days, the memory has sort of dilated in my mind, widening and bringing other memories into it, raising them up, somehow.
One memory is of being a little kid and coming to the altar rail and getting a blessing. There’s no face on the priest who is doing the blessing in this memory; it’s just this big hand in a billowy sleeve reaching down in a way that is both friendly and intimidating. Lucy’s hands are not like those—hers are smaller, sometimes the nails are painted, and one finger wears a sparkly ring—but the shape of the gesture is the same. Somehow, her blessing me on her ordination was exactly the same as every other blessing I have ever received from a priest.
Another memory is more recent. Whenever I give myself a haircut, I always have to have Lucy come take the clippers to finish the job. Neaten up the back of my neck, fix this particularly unruly bit on my crown, edge the mustache just so. I sit very still, and her hands are at work on and around my head, attending very carefully to that which I am unable to do myself. Just like the blessing she offered on her ordination day, this work comes very much from Lucy’s hands, but the gesture itself is very different. Still, there’s something about the intimacy of haircut day for me that was also there when I knelt before her on the pavement.
So there we are, on her ordination day, a somewhat awkward clergy couple doing church things. I am at once just an ordinary Christian person asking a blessing of an ordinary Christian priest, and I am also this woman’s husband. When she said the words and put her hands on my head, they were at once the hands of this great big historical community we call the Church, and also these very small, particular, ring-wearing hands of my wife, hands which are a necessary part of haircut day.
There was one touch there, but two relationships.
I linger on this blessing memory not only because I love it, but also because it is teaching me about the Mystery we celebrate on Christmas. When God becomes human flesh and blood in Jesus of Nazareth, God is choosing to locate himself among us as one of us. God’s hands are no longer simply divine, transcendent, cosmic. They are here, now, particular.
No human being has ever led a generic life; none of us lives in the abstract. There are always concrete details. When God becomes incarnate in Jesus, God joins us in the fields of particularity. God’s blessings are now no longer pronounced transcendently, cosmically from on high. They come from these hands, a carpenter’s hands, not theoretical or theological ones. And when this happens, the door is opened for the particular lives we lead to also bless.
By the incarnation of Jesus, God has so graced human nature that these particular hands, these small hands which sometimes have painted fingernails and one finger wears a sparkly ring—these, too, are now the hands by which God blesses.
When Mary of Magdala, or the brothers James and John, first sat down with Jesus to break bread, or to rest in the shade, or to decide where to go next, they had a kind of dual relationship with him. He was both this man who was their friend and teacher, who was left handed maybe and popped his knuckles a lot, but he was also their God (though they did not know this latter bit). In Jesus, the two are not distinct. When Jesus washes their feet, there is one touch, but something like two relationships. By his divinity, we are saved. By his humanity, we are given the grace to participate in our own, and in each other’s, being saved. There is a person-shaped space for us in the very Trinity.
The world is hallowed now, as are its people.
This Christmas, when God comes to us in human form, perhaps God is telling us that it is always His hands we are feeling when a blessing finds us. The tall and vaguely intimidating priests of your childhood reaching down in blessing at the altar rail. Your wife’s palm turning your chin to the side as she trims your mustache. For me, receiving a blessing from the Rev. Lucy Bridgers Strandlund on her ordination day embodied the truth that it is always God’s hands that bless, whatever form the blessing takes. The love of a priest for her people, the love of a wife for her husband—both were gathered in one touch.
On Christmas, we celebrate the coming of our Lord. In Christ, in this one man, God’s touch is loves unnumbered. The softness under your grandmother’s medical bracelet. Your grandchild sticking her squidgy fingers into your mouth. Your neighbor’s squeeze on your elbow as you make your weary way to your seats. Your sibling’s playful yet perpetually antagonistic pinch on your knee under the table. The soft palm of a hospice nurse. “These hands, these particular touches,” God seems to say, “these are always my hands.”
On the other side of every blessing you have ever received, God is there. There, just there, Emmanuel.