St Philip and St James’s church, Grafton Road, Cheltenham, GL50 2DD

These are the hands

These last few weeks we’ve learnt again about the importance of touch.  The touch we must avoid so as to not pass on this dreadful virus. We’ve also learnt about the social distancing required to save lives and safeguard our NHS.  This last week, we have learnt too about the extent of the personal protection equipment required by doctors and nurses in intensive care units.  As we, as a nation, have reflected on this- the poem of the former children’s laureate, Michael Rosen, has resonated with many.  It is a beautiful poem written to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the NHS.  A poem which has had an added poignancy as Michael himself has been in intensive care this week suffering from suspected Covid-19.  Allow me to read it to you…


These are the hands
That touch us first
Feel your head
Find the pulse
And make your bed.

These are the hands
That tap your back
Test the skin
Hold your arm
Wheel the bin
Change the bulb
Fix the drip
Pour the jug
Replace your hip.

These are the hands
That fill the bath
Mop the floor
Flick the switch
Soothe the sore
Burn the swabs
Give us a jab
Throw out sharps
Design the lab.

And these are the hands
That stop the leaks
Empty the pan
Wipe the pipes
Carry the can
Clamp the veins

Make the cast
Log the dose
And touch us last.

Michael Rosen on the 60th anniversary of the NHS

The importance of touch is also at the heart of our Easter Gospel this morning. The story is that of Mary Magdalen, realising that the tomb is open on that first Easter morning. Upon discovering this she runs to tell Peter and the beloved disciple and they in turn run to the tomb to see it with their own eyes.  They stoop to look inside the subterranean tomb, are amazed and rush away.  Mary, however, lingers, struggling to take it all in, lost in her grief- with eyes filled with tears. A stranger approaches her and she asks for help. He calls out her name and she recognises that it is Him. However, in that moment of grief and love, she is unable to touch him.  For Jesus explains that his work will only be completed when he arises to the Father and for now she must not hold onto him.

This exchange between Jesus and Mary Magdalen has been the subject of countless paintings by the world’s great artists including Fra Angelico, Titian and Holbein. You will also find a representation of it in the memorial chapel at Pip and Jim’s.  Such works are often entitled, ‘Noli me tangere’ a Latin rendering of the original Greek roughly translated as, ‘do not hold onto me’. Mary Magdalene heeds this hard request and goes to share the good news with the disciples and in doing so becomes the apostle to the apostles.

But in that moment of Jesus standing back from her, in that moment of instructing her not to touch him, she must have felt a deep pain and grief. A pain similar, perhaps, to that experienced by those who have lost loved ones to this terrible virus and who have been unable to touch their nearest and dearest in their last moments here on earth.  Indeed, I am mindful that as we gather in prayer this Easter day, our nation is experiencing what may well prove to be the peak of this outbreak and nigh on a thousand more lives may well be lost today across our nation.

The story of holy week speaks into all of this. It is a story of the city in lockdown. It is the story of people living in fear behind bolted doors. It is the story of tragic death where the love of God meets the pain of the world.  But on this Easter morning, we discover that this story is about more than that. For this morning, alongside Mary Magdalen, in the half-light, lost in our grief and with tears in our eyes, we too discover that Jesus is raised from the dead.  We realise, slowly perhaps, that tragic and lonely as Christ’s death was, beyond the reach of those whom he loved, it was not the end. For it is God who is both are beginning and our end. It is He who flings us out into the world as a gift to others and it is He that welcomes us home into His loving arms.

And that is a hope which we, the church, needs must share- this Easter of all Easters.  We must share this with our neighbours and our nation because our TV news cannot tell that story. But we can.  We can tell the story in lives of care and service, holiness and love, hope and joy.  And as I speak to you this morning, with my study wall covered with your photos, you can see the faces of those behind me who are doing that and will continue to do that because of what God has done in Christ this Easter day.

So with apologies to Michael Rosen, I would like to finish by daring to add another verse to his wonderful poem. A verse dedicated to the risen Christ, the doctor of our souls…

THESE are the hands
That shaped the earth
Worked the lathe
Beckoned the twelve
Touched the poor
Cured the sick
Broke the bread
Received the nails
And lead us home.

For Christ is risen from the dead Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia!  Amen.

Date Posted Title Listen Download
Apr 12, 2020 These are the hands Listen Download