” . . . I move my hand and my hand is Christ entire.” -St. Symeon the New Theologian, Hymn 15, line 144.
Skin, dirt, blood, grass. Oil, ink, paint, metal. Handshake, caress, slap, punch.
Look at our hands. Think of the mundane everyday grime we get on our hands and casually wash off. Think of our hands’ utility, their thumb-twiddling fidgets, their immense power when holding the correct tools. Think of the persons our hands have touched, have soothed, have harmed. Symeon’s hands were just like ours – dirt under our nails and stains of sin on our palms – and by God’s incredible grace he marvels at the glory of Christ in them: “How do You make my wretched hands resplendent? / Hands that have sinned, and I have defiled them with the defilement of sin” (Hymn 19, lines 15-16).
Defiled though they may be, it is these very hands by which and through which the Lord sets us apart and uses us in his service. In Hebrew, the idiom that is often translated as “ordain” or “consecrate” literally means “fill the hands” (מָלֵא יָד – mālē’ yāḏ). It’s an odd saying, but one that represents literally the content of priestly ministry. Exodus 29 describes an elaborate sacrifice of a bull and two rams as part of the ordination ceremony. Verses 22-24 read:
“You shall also take the fat from the ram and the fat tail, and the fat that covers the entrails and the lobe of the liver, and the two kidneys and the fat that is on them and the right thigh (for it is a ram of ordination [literally ‘a ram of filling’]), and one cake of bread and one cake of bread mixed with oil and one wafer from the basket of unleavened bread which is set before the Lord; and you shall put all these in the hands of Aaron and in the hands of his sons, and shall wave them as a wave offering before the Lord.”
To be set apart for the Lord’s service under the Old Covenant was to have your ordinary human hands filled with the bloody reality of the Lord’s sacrifices. Ministry was not about having clean hands, but about having hands filled with the things of the Lord. And under the New Covenant, our unclean hands are to be filled with Jesus Christ. “At the hands of the apostles many signs and wonders were taking place among the people” (Acts 5:11). Everyday objects become vehicles of Christ’s glory (Acts 19:11-12). The people we touch become Christ Himself (Matthew 25:34-40).
But it does not stop there. For Symeon, to say that we are the Body of Christ is more than a metaphor. Hands that have been filled with Christ’s ministry which touch Christ in the world also become partakers of Christ: ” . . . Christ becomes my hand and the foot of all-wretched me, and wretched I become the hand of Christ and the foot of Christ” (Hymn 15, lines 142-143).
These hands which are being transformed into Christ are the same human hands – once filled with harm and filth – now being filled with Christ through worship. We ask with Symeon, “how would I approach your table? / How would I take your immaculate body / when I have hands completely stained?” (Hymn 20, line 75). Our stained hands approach His table only because these hands have been baptized into Christ and thus made Christ in order to be filled with Christ in both sacrament and mission. And from Christ’s presence in such hands, glory shines.