Isaac Newton said, "In the absence of any other proof, the thumb alone would convince me of God's existence." After 40 years as a surgeon specializing in hands, I am tempted to agree. Nothing in all nature rivals the hand's combination of strength and agility, tolerance and sensitivity. We use our hands for the most wonderful activities: art, music, writing, healing, touching.
Some people go to concerts and athletic events to watch the performance; I go to watch hands. For me, a piano performance is a ballet of fingers—a glorious flourish of ligaments and joints, tendons, nerves, and muscles. I try to sit near the stage to watch the movements.
Unless you have tried to reproduce just one small twitch of the hand mechanically, you cannot fully appreciate its movements. Often I have stood before a group of medical students or surgeons to analyze the motion of one finger. I hold before them a dissected cadaver hand, with its trailing strands of sinew, and announce that I will move the tip of the little finger.
To do so, I must place the hand on a table and spend about four minutes sorting through the tangle of tendons and muscles. Seventy separate muscles contribute to hand movements. But in order to allow dexterity and slimness for actions such as piano playing, the finger has no muscle in itself; tendons transfer the force from muscles higher in the arm. (Body-builders should be grateful: imagine the limitations on finger movement if the fingers had muscles that could grow large and bulky.) Finally, after I have arranged at least a dozen muscles correctly, I can maneuver them to make the little finger move. Usually, I give this demonstration to illustrate a way to repair the hand surgically. In 40 years of surgery, I have personally operated on perhaps 10,000 hands. I could fill a room with surgery manuals suggesting various ways to repair injured hands. But in those years I have never found a single technique to improve a normal, healthy hand. That is why I am tempted to agree with Isaac Newton.
I have seen artificial hands developed by scientists and engineers in facilities that produce radioactive materials. With great pride an engineer demonstrated for me the sophisticated machines that protect workers from exposure to radiation. By adjusting knobs and levers he controlled an electronic hand whose wrist supinated and revolved. High-tech models, he said, even possess an opposable thumb, an advanced feature reserved for primates in nature. The engineer, smiling like a proud father, wiggled the mechanical thumb for me.
I nodded approval and complimented him on the mechanical hand's wide range of motion. But he knew, as I did, that compared to a human thumb his atomic-age hand is clumsy and limited, even pathetic—a child's Play Doh sculpture compared to a Michelangelo masterpiece.
I work with the marvels of the hand nearly every day. But one time of year holds special meaning for me as a Christian; then, too, my thoughts turn to the human hand. When the world observes Passion Week, the most solemn week of Christendom, I reflect on the hands of Jesus.
Just as painters throughout history have attempted to visualize the face of Jesus Christ, I try to visualize his hands. I imagine them through the various stages of his life. When God's Son entered the world in the form of a human body, what were his hands like?
I can hardly conceive of God taking on the form of an infant, but our faith declares that he once had the tiny, jerky hands of a newborn. G. K. Chesterton expressed the paradox this way, 'The hands that had made the sun and stars were too small to reach the huge heads of the cattle." And too small to change his own clothes or put food in his mouth. Like every baby, he had miniature fingernails and wrinkles around the knuckles, and soft skin that had never known abrasion or roughness. God's Son experienced infant helplessness.
Since I once apprenticed as a carpenter, I can easily imagine the adolescent hands of Jesus, who learned the trade in his father's shop. His skin must have developed many calluses and tender spots.
And then came the hands of Christ the physician. The Bible tells us strength flowed from them when he healed people. He preferred to perform miracles not en masse, but rather one by one, touching each person he healed.
When Jesus touched eyes that had dried out, they suddenly admitted light and color again. Once, he touched a woman who suffered with a hemorrhage, knowing that by Jewish law she would make him unclean. He touched those with leprosy—people no one else would touch. In small and personal ways, his hands set right what had been disrupted in Creation.
The most important scene in Jesus' life—the one we memorialize during Passion Week—also involved his hands. Then those hands that had done so much good were taken, one at a time, and pierced through with a thick spike. My mind balks at visualizing it.
In surgery I cut delicately, using scalpel blades that slice through one layer of tissue at a time, to expose the intricacies of nerves and blood vessels and tiny bones and tendons and muscles inside. I know well what crucifixion must have done to a human hand.
Roman executioners drove their spikes through the wrist, right through the carpal tunnel that houses finger-controlling tendons and the median nerve. It is impossible to force a spike there without maiming the hand into a claw shape. And Jesus had no anesthetic as his hands were marred and destroyed.
Later, his weight hung from them, tearing more tissue, releasing more blood. Has there ever been a more helpless image than that of the Son of God hanging paralyzed from a tree? The disciples, who had hoped he was the Messiah, cowered in the darkness or drifted away.
But that is not the last glimpse in the New Testament of Jesus' hands. He appeared again, in a closed room, just as one of his disciples was disputing the unlikely story he thought his friends had concocted. People do not rise from the dead, Thomas scoffed. They must have seen a ghost, or an illusion.
At that moment, Jesus appeared and held up those unmistakable hands. The scars gave proof that they belonged to him, the same one who had died on the cross. Although the body had changed in certain ways, the scars remained. Jesus invited Thomas to come and trace them with his own fingers.
Thomas responded simply, "My Lord and my God!" It is the first recorded time that one of Jesus' disciples directly addressed him as God. Significantly the assertion came in response to Jesus wounds. Jesus' hands.
Throughout all of history, people of faith have clung to the belief that there is a God who understands the human dilemma. That the pains we endure on Earth are not meaningless. That our prayers are heard. In Passion, we Christians focus on the supreme event when God demonstrated for all time that he knows our pain.
For a reminder of his time here, Jesus chose scars in each hand. That is why I believe God hears and understands our pain, and even absorbs it into himself—because he kept those scars as a lasting image of wounded humanity. He knows what life on earth is like, because he has been here. His hands prove it.
This article originally appeared in the April 5, 1985 issue of Christianity Today.
Paul Brand served for 18 years at the Christian Medical College in Vellore, India, and when he wrote this article headed rehabilitation at the U.S. Public Health Service leprosy hospital in Carville, Louisiana.
With Philip Yancey, who was then (as now) Editor at Large of Christianity Today, the two coauthored Fearfully and Wonderfully Made, In His Image, and The Gift of Pain.
See our earlier Holy Week articles, " 'Hell Took a Body, and Discovered God' | One of the oldest and best Easter sermons, now 1,600 years old, is still preached today." (Apr. 17, 2000) and " The Benefit of the Doubt | The disciple Thomas reveals an important truth about faith." (Apr. 7, 2000)
Brand and Yancey's Fearfully and Wonderfully Made, In His Image, and The Gift of Pain are available at Worthybooks and other book retailers.
Yancey is also a columnist for Christianity Today. His latest column is titled "My To-Be List" (Apr. 4, 2000).
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