“How bare could a bare bear be and still bear through the winter?” – Carson Brisson, Hebrew professor, Union Presbyterian Seminary
Any student who’s had the privilege of taking Hebrew with Dr. Brisson would find this sentence quite familiar. He would repeat it (or some variation of it) in those moments when we would be exasperated at the similarities among words, frustrated by the foreignness of the Hebrew language. His intent was to illustrate that our relative ease with English was merely indicative of our familiarity with the language, and said nothing about the language itself. This sentence, along with the way he allowed his love for the language and for teaching to show through, have made it possible for students, year after year, to fall in love with Hebrew – a mighty feat by any standards.
I was reminded of this story recently while translating some of the New Testament, and noticing that the Greek word “apto” can be translated as either “touch” or “ignite.” For instance, in Mark 5, when a woman who’d been hemorrhaging for twelve years sneaks through a crowd up to Jesus, she does so knowing that even to touch (apto) his clothes will heal her. Or, in chapter 8 of Luke, Jesus says that “No one after lighting (apto) a lamp hides it under a jar, or puts it under a bed, but puts it on a lampstand, so that those who enter may see the light. . .”
It brings to mind the static electricity that happens on cold, dry days like today – you got to open the door and are hit with a shock – a little electric jolt.
The thing is, Jesus got into a lot of trouble for touching a lot of the people he touched – people who had been marked as unclean, and therefore were unfit for society. His act of reaching out, of touching many of those he healed became an open act of defiance – a refusal to submit to the idea that some people were simply untouchable. They saw his ability to bring healing to their suffering, and he saw their faith, and desire to be healed.
I worked at a coffee shop for a couple of years and would frequently interact with people over the cash register. It was common in these interactions for my hand to brush the hand of the customer, taking their money, returning their change, or maybe handing them a cup of coffee. There was a certain intimacy in those moments – a connection that came in a simple exchange, when for an instant our humanity – our fleshy existence, came into contact. I love serving communion for the same reason: for that moment when I put bread in someone’s hand, look them in the eye, and offer them the bread of life. (I also love receiving communion for this reason, but serving communion allows me the opportunity over and over again, which I kinda like.) In communion, we are reminded of the flesh of Christ, of his humanity, even as we share our humanity with one another.
There is a certain closeness that comes in these moments, a vulnerability which is counter to much of what we, in our fast-paced, individualized, screen-saturated, Western society, are told is appropriate. To touch someone is to be close enough to experience the softness of their humanity, even in the coarsest of skin. It is to acknowledge our own fleshiness, too – our fragile, wounded, beautiful flesh. To touch someone is to connect – to honor the fact that we are confined to vessels that will decay, and to transcend the boundaries of those vessels. That space between us – that intimacy that is possible when we let ourselves connect – that is sacred space. It’s Holy Spirit space. It is the light of an individual igniting the light of another, refusing to be overtaken by the lie that tells us that we are all alone in this world.
Honor your fleshiness, your humanity – and do the same for others. We were made to shine; and, we will always shine more brightly when we’re together.