In the readings from Mass a couple Sundays ago it said that they chose seven deacons and laid hands on them. What’s that all about? Does it mean they grabbed them or something?
Zachary “Zach” Ramentahl
I often say the only stupid question is the question unasked, though yours comes close. The laying on of hands means that the people with appropriate authority placed their hands on the heads of those chosen in a gesture of ordination. There’s a lot of significance in this simple gesture.
It certainly goes back to Israelite beginnings, we read about it in the Torah, especially in the books of Leviticus and Numbers. Moses laid hands on Joshua. By laying his hands on Joshua’s head, (Num 27:15-23) he conferred leadership on him. Moses did the same with the 70 elders of Israel (Num 11:16-25). They in turn ordained their successors in the same fashion. The succession of elders ordained by the laying on of hands certainly continued until the destruction of the temple in 70 and perhaps beyond. Rabbis were ordained by the same procedure.
In the Old Testament, priests (sacrificers) were not ordained. They were consecrated by being anointed with the blood of the initiation sacrifice. It was called, “the filling of the hand.” The priest’s hands were filled with the offering he brought for his installation in ministry. Kings were consecrated by an anointing with sacred oil, but there was no laying on of hands for (sacrificer) priests. Altars were consecrated, doorposts were consecrated, corner stones were anointed, but elders were ordained. Consecration was symbolized by anointing. Ordination was symbolized by the laying on of hands.
Things get complicated here. In English as well as German, French, and Italian we have a problem with the word priest. The word priest (pruester, German; prete, French; preti, Italian) is used to translate two different Bible words — Zaqen in Hebrew and Presbyteros in Greek mean elder. Kohen (Hebrew) and Hiereus (Greek) mean “one who offers sacrifice”.
The confusion arises from a translation error. Both the Greek words Hiereus and Presbyteros are translated “priest” in most languages. This causes chaos. Unlike this article which at this point is causing boredom. Let us stop using the word priest for a moment.
Sacrificers are consecrated by an anointing. Hebrew sacrificers didn’t need designation for service by the laying on of hands. They were designated by virtue of their physical, genetic descent from Aaron. To be consecrated as a sacrificer in the temple, it was necessary that one be a descendant of Aaron the first High Priest Elders were chosen from among the respected older men of Israel and were ordained by the laying on of hands. Sacrificial victims (goats, sheep, oxen etc.) are also “ordained” by the laying on of hands. Consecration and ordination are clearly two different things.
I was ordained to the sacrificer-hood (priesthood) of Christ in the order of elder. Francis Cardinal George was ordained to the sacrificer-hood of Christ in the order of supervisor (bishop). Here in Chicago-land, he is responsible for the sacrifice of Christ the Great high Sacrificer. In union with Christ, the bishop offers the sacrifice of the Mass for the salvation of the world. He couldn’t make it here last Sunday, so he sent me who am only ordained to the sacrificer-hood of Christ in the order of elder, but it'll do in a pinch. He and I were both ordained with the laying on of hands and consecrated with the anointing of oil and the Holy Spirit. We combine the sacrificial order of ancient Israel with the presbyteral order of ancient Israel. We both govern and sacrifice. That’s the symbolism behind the words and gestures.
Well, that’s all lovely, but what’s it all for? What’s all this dreary nonsense about sacrifice anyway? How does some pigeon getting its neck wrung, or a lamb roasting on a giant barbecue pit in the temple of Jerusalem have to do with my spiritual life? Worse still, how does Jesus gasping for breath on a cross save me from my sins? It’s all kind of awful this priest-presbyter-zaqen-kohen-sacrificer business. Why do this?
Easy, we do it for Love. The word used almost exclusively for love in the Bible is of course the word “agape.” Agape is a specific kind of love. Jesus defined it when He said, “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one's life for one's friends.” In that endless parade of sheep and birds and oxen brought to the altar, people were bringing their very lives and livelihoods to lay before the God they loved and who loved them.”
If it is true that God is love, and true that love is sacrifice, then it is reasonable to say that God is sacrifice!! The Christian faith believes that from the altar of the Cross, Jesus taught that sacrificial love is the purpose of life.
The world (which is a complete mess) says that the purpose of life is acquisition. The young couple in love gets the dream wedding and lives happily ever after. We get the big send off when we die. We get the good job. We get the trophy wife. We get the big house in the suburbs. We get early retirement, wonderful health and special blue pills that keep men frisky well into our 90's. We get the 2.3 children who are enough to be ornamental and visit us when we are old, but not enough to cause us much expense or inconvenience, even if we have to hatch them in a Petri dish or kill their unwanted siblings to keep the family a manageable size. We can have it all!!! At least that’s what the TV teaches us and that’s what we, in turn, teach our children.
Christianity is the most counter-cultural movement alive today. Its founder teaches that the meaning of life is to give. The spirit which runs the world says that the meaning of life is to get. Giving is the purpose of life. That’s what the gesture of the laying on of hands means. Elders and sacrificial goats get ordained by the laying on hands. The laying on of hands is woven through the whole sacramental life of the Church.
Baptism was originally conferred at the same time as confirmation, which has a laying on of hands. Penance calls for a laying on of hands when there is no confessional screen. Even then, the hand of the priest (elder) is raised in blessing. Holy Orders (Ordination) is conveyed by the laying on of hands. The anointing of the sick involves a laying on of hands and even marriage implies a laying on hands. During the ceremony the priest says to the young man and woman, “Please join hands” All these sacraments are gestures of sacrifice. Baptism, Confirmation and Holy Orders clearly offer people to the service of the Lord. In Penance the promise or change is made for the sake of the Lord. Even in the Anointing of the Sick we place ourselves completely in God’s hands. Holy Matrimony is not the bride’s special day. A young man and a young woman come to the altar to pledge as an offering for one another’s salivation, and for the salvation of the children God may give. They swear to share the joys and suffering of this brief life in the hope of eternal life for one another.
And Mass. Mass is the great sacrifice. In Mass there is a laying on of hands when the priest (who is both ordained as elder and consecrated as sacrificer) stretches his hands over bread and wine to designate them as the sacred offerings that will be transformed into the flesh and blood of Christ that were offered on the altar of Calvary. In the sacraments we pledge ourselves by a most solemn oath to live a purposeful, sacrificial life. We don’t go to Mass to get. We go to Mass to give. We give ourselves to the Lord for the salvation and redemption of the world in union with His own sacrifice on the Cross.
This is why people who can’t stay married to one person or people who aren’t living the Christian life shouldn’t take Holy Communion. If they cannot be faithful in a world they can see, how can they be faithful in a world unseen? How can they offer their lives for something intangible when they don’t understand that the purpose of life is to give oneself away?
So why sign up for this dreary sacrificial religion with its complicated sacraments and sacrifices and all of its mumbo jumbo and laying on of hands? Simple: Christ. He said that if you lose your life in this world you will gain eternal life. There is nothing more wonderful to know Jesus Christ, who is infinitely true, perfectly good and the unimaginably beautiful. I can hear the old hymn, “Turn your eyes upon Jesus. Look full in His wonderful face, and the things of this earth will grow strangely dim in the light of His glory and grace.”
Ultimately death comes for us all when we must give up all those things to which we cling so desperately. Why cling to that which you cannot keep when by letting go of it, you gain what you cannot lose? Let the Lord lay His hands on you and claim you for His own.