One of the most moving moments as a high school teenager was the time I was visiting my mother in a hospital. She was slowly recovering from an infection that had taken its toll on her. As she lay there calmly I chose to inform her that I had made a terrible mistake that would cost me dearly. I will never forget her smile and the gentle caress of her hand on my face telling me that this time of suffering will pass and that it would make me a better and stronger person. What I felt most from her at that moment was her love and mercy, cultivated through her own sufferings and joys. As she held my face I knelt down beside her and kissed her hands now moistened by my tears. I experienced God’s love in a profound way. Like life giving food, it would nourish me well in the days ahead as I began to confront the consequences of my deeds. I embraced the pain of my sin and emerged from it with a renewed sense of hope and joy.
Rembrandt’s 17th Century painting Return of the Prodigal captures a scene from the 15th Chapter of St. Luke’s Gospel. The parable of the man with two sons is one I remember fondly from my childhood and one of my favorite stories in the Bible. One of the striking features in that painting are the hands of the father welcoming his son home. Henri Nouwen, in his classic book entitled Return of the Prodigal Son, puts it this way:
“The true center of Rembrandt’s painting is the hands of the father. On them
all the light is concentrated; on them the eyes of the bystanders are focused;
in them mercy becomes flesh; upon them forgiveness, reconciliation, and healing
come together, and, through them, not only the tired son, but also the
worn-out father find their rest”.
Nouwen continues with further reflections on the father’s hands and speaks of them as embodying both masculine and feminine features that symbolize God, “in whom both manhood and womanhood, fatherhood and motherhood, are fully present.”
In my darkest hour, the hands of my mother became for me the conduit of God’s mercy. As Nouwen says so well, in them mercy becomes flesh, or in the words of the great Spanish mystic Teresa of Avila:
“Christ has no body but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Your are
the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world. Your are the feet
with which he walks to do good. Your are the hands through which he blesses
all the world. Christ has no body now on earth but yours”.
Cecilio Reyna is a Board Certified Chaplain serving as a Hospice Chaplain in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He holds a Masters in Divinity from the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, Texas.