Sacrament Matters: The integrity of our gestures

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Home > Media > News > Sacrament Matters: The integrity of our gestures
Sacrament Matters:  The integrity of our gestures

Dr. Christine E. Wood, Director of the Office of Evangelisation & Catechesis

Our liturgy is rich in sacramental gestures. Are such gestures arbitrary, or do they have inherent meaning? The integrity of these gestures requires their proper context. Stripped of their context, they lose their meaning.

Let’s consider the laying-on of hands. This is a gesture proper to the presbyteral ministry (priesthood). It’s a gesture found in the conferral of the sacraments of Confirmation, Holy Orders, Penance, and the Anointing of the Sick.

This sacred gesture of laying-on of hands has its history in Ancient Judaism: the ordination of Levitical priests, the sending of a prophet, the preparation of sacrificial animals for cultic worship—a sort of consecration unto death—and the installation of someone to a leadership office.

Jesus often healed by touching the sick. He commissioned the Apostles with the ministry of healing through the laying-on of hands, which we see was practiced in the Letter of James (Mk 16:17-18; Jas 5:14).

Following the Jewish ordination rites, the Apostles ordained the first deacons through the laying-on of hands (Acts 6:6). Elsewhere, in reference to Holy Orders, Paul reminds his disciple, Timothy, of the gift he received through Paul’s laying-on of hands (2 Tim 1:6).

We discover the roots of Confirmation in the Apostles’ act of laying hands on baptised Christians so they would receive the Holy Spirit (Acts 8:17).

Bishops, today, lay hands on those to be confirmed as a sign of the gift of the Holy Spirit, who strengthens and gives them courage to be mature witnesses of Jesus Christ in the world.

In their final stages of preparation for baptism at Easter, adult converts undergo a series of scrutinies. Priests lay hands on them and pray they be defended from the power of Satan, freed from the false values blinding them, and may participate in the triumph of Christ’s resurrection.

When bishops ordain men to sacred Orders they lay hands on them as a sign of the gift of the Holy Spirit, who gives the office of sacred ministry to serve God’s people. After the ordination of a priest, all concelebrating priests are invited to lay their hands on the newly ordained as a sign of the unity of the presbyterate under their local bishop (CCC 1568).

The anointing of the sick involves the laying-on of hands as a sign of the gift of the Holy Spirit, who heals the soul (and sometimes body) of the sick, and strengthens them for the battles ahead. Likewise, the laying-on of hands in Penance bears the significance of the gift of the Holy Spirit’s spiritual healing.

The meaning of our sacramental gestures lies in the integrity of the ritual and its inherent meaning which we received from Christ and the Apostles.