The laying on of hands may seem like sentimentalism to the non-Christian outsider, or superstition to the modern thinker, or Roman foolishness to the fundamentalist. But for those who are in the Church catholic–Western, Eastern, Reformational, and Pentecostal–the laying on of hands is a deeply Scriptural, communally significant practice. It is not merely the presence of physical touch in the worship of the community, but an expression of Spirit-empowered anointing intended for the life of the Body of Christ. While many in American evangelicalism happily place hands on those they pray for, and many have even considered that what they are doing is beneficial and biblical, this is quite different from the laying on of hands as practiced by historic Christianity or by Pentecostals.
The laying on of hands in the universal tradition of the Church is commonly known to be used for ordination. Many use it in the Eucharist (when hands are laid on the bread and cup in the prayers). Some use it in the sacrament of Baptism. Some use it in rites for confirmation and prayers for the sick (which, like ordination, are not sacraments). Pentecostals are especially familiar with the laying on of hands for healing. So what’s the big deal?
The big deal is that it’s important. The Scriptures frequently reference this practice–for healing, for receiving the Holy Spirit after Baptism, for prayer, and for ordination. It’s a posture of blessing, and the nation of priests that the Lord has called through the ministry of Jesus is an expression of God’s promise to Abraham that all families on earth would be blessed. As the Church, we freely receive the blessing of God and His gifts to Jesus’ people– in redemption, in the sacraments, in the many, MANY gifts every day. In the laying of hands, we function in the primary role of the New Covenant priest: to bless freely; to be those who pronounce Jesus’ absurd love on those who come to Him– to watch Jesus’ love transform the broken, the hurting, the orphan, and the weak fragments of humanity into the whole, the forgiving, the adopted, and the enduring people of God.
Of course, we’ve got some dissension about who gets to lay on hands. Historically, orthodox Christians have never relegated the authority to ordain to just any Christian. Nor do we think that everyone can celebrate the Lord’s Supper. Some of us are particular about who baptizes, too. So how far can this go? Can the Pentecostal passion for blessing in the laying on of hands endure in the catholic tradition? I believe it can. As a family of priests, all baptized Christians are invited to lay on hands for prayer and healing as an expression of Jesus’ love and blessing for those particular people. But what we practice in the Sacraments, in ordination, in confirmation, etc. is intending to be an expression of Jesus’ love and blessing for the whole family, and it’s appropriate that they be reserved for those that Jesus has called to serve the whole family–those elders (including bishops) and deacons that the Holy Spirit has made overseers.
So, family of God, eagerly cherish your privilege to be the means of blessing to those in need of Jesus’ love. Embrace the royal priesthood for the healing of the nations and restoration of a broken creation. Joyfully receive the blessings and love of that same Jesus in the Sacraments meant for your good. Celebrate when faith is confirmed and when the Church bears witness to the calling of those called to shepherd the flock of God. And never again settle for a hands-off Christianity.