Hands, Life, and Hope in Holy Week
This week, I’m thinking about his hands. They were large, strong hands that loved to work with wood—strong hands that were “skilled at the plane and the lathe.” Many of the items in his house were created by his labors on the lathe, at the saw—“dovetail” is a term that had a literal meaning for him. This week, I’m thinking about his hands.
I’m talking about my father. His name is John Gibbs, and last year in the week of Advent 2, at age 87, he died. He died. That’s the most basic, profound, spiritually true thing I can say about him. I can say other things, of course, because the Spirit of God had kept his baptismal faith alive from age 27 all the way through to the end of his life. So, he is resting with Christ in a way that is true and good, even if we know precious little about what that rest is like. He is no longer suffering—yes, that’s true. He is in a better place . . . well, not exactly. Part of him is in . . . oh, wait. No; a piece of him is? If I weren’t thinking about his hands, I guess this would not be as complicated. If I didn’t think that John Gibbs’ body was he, and he was his body—it would be simpler. But that wouldn’t be true. My father died. He became my father when God blessed the union of his body—himself—with my mother. He was his body–his hands, his heart, his arms and feet and legs and mouth. That was he. And now he is in the ground. He is among those who are called in Scripture the dead in Christ.
John Gibbs was a human creature, designed by God as a unity, to live and breathe and have hands and arms and to be alive. John Gibbs was also a sinful human creature, with an inheritance from Adam to which he had made his own deadly investments. He was a sinner. He lived in a fallen world. By God’s grace and calling with his ears he heard the Gospel of Christ, and his body—he!—was baptized, and with his mouth he ate Christ’s body and blood. Then, my father died. I wish he were alive. I wish I could see and grasp his hands.
My father’s death is not an imagined loss; it is real. My grief is not caused by my own selfishness or anything like that. My father is broken; he is dead. I grieve because of a real, true, profound loss. The promise of his present rest with Christ, though true, does not address this loss. It doesn’t speak to it. It doesn’t do much good. Moreover, in his present rest with Christ, my father is not all that God intends for him to be. His hands are still and powerless, because he is dead. I need . . . my father needs . . . someone to speak to this loss.
Another pair of hands speaks to this loss. Perhaps many of the items in his house also resulted from the labors of his hands, skilled at the plane and the lathe—the Lord of all eagerness, of all faith. I believe that the hands of Jesus were strong enough to overturn tables, and gentle enough to welcome children. What were the gestures those hands made when he rebuked a storm and it obeyed him, or when he spat and made mud and re-created the eyes of a man born blind? My father’s hands were real. Jesus’ hands were real.
Because our rebellious world is filled with loss, with sin and death—the hands of Jesus were stretched out. Rather than driving nails himself, nails were driven through his hands. Then, like my father, Jesus died. For my father Jesus died. The creation convulsed, as he took the part and the place of sinners, all the torment of a tormented world. Jesus died.
If there would be hope, someone had to speak to this loss, to do something about this loss. And someone did. God the Father raised Jesus from the dead. The hands were strong once again—and strong in a new way. Though still bearing the marks of the nails, now his hands are no longer subject to weakness or death; risen, he is no longer mastered by death and he never will be again. Easter is the solution and the reversal of the loss. On Easter, God reversed the world’s verdict on Jesus and all that he means. On Easter, The Father vindicated the Son and installed him into the office that, in some mysterious and eternal sense, he had never left: Son of God with power.
And Easter means that my father’s hands will not always be still and powerless. Not always. Not forever. The great day is coming, and it is guaranteed. We have pictures and images, of course—banquets and gardens and rivers. All of it is true—it’s just not precise. Here’s a picture that may not be true—but it might be. I picture Jesus reaching down into the ground, driving his hand powerfully into the dirt, and finding my father’s hands. At the touch, there is life. And my father rises, pulled back into life by the power of the Lord. The loss will be removed, and God will be glorified. That is my hope. In my loss, that is my song during Holy Week.