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The ideas for this article are inspired by Symbols and Shadows: Unlocking a Deeper Understanding of the Atonement by Donald W. Parry and Jay A. Parry. 

Photos by Scot Facer Proctor

As humans, we don’t just talk to each other, we also rely on wordless communications. We laugh, we grunt, we raise an eyebrow, we grimace—but researchers are concluding that human touch may be more powerful than we ever supposed.

Locked in our skin, lonely drifters on a planet, we can be starved for affection and contact without touch.

The New York Times tells us that “Students who received a supportive touch on the back or arm from a teacher were nearly twice as likely to volunteer in class as those who did not…A sympathetic touch from a doctor leaves people with the impression that the visit lasted twice as long, compared with estimates from people who were untouched.” Researchers have found “that a massage from a loved one can not only ease pain but also soothe depression and strengthen a relationship.”

Sports teams whose members touch each other with a hardy pat on the back are twice as likely to win.

Sadly, when researchers were trying to figure out why some orphanages had mortality rates as high as 30-40%, they learned that the babies and little children did not receive enough stimulation. Touch was as important as food to them. Without a loving touch, starved for affection, too often the babies turned their heads toward the wall in their lonely cribs and died.

We are souls who yearn for touch, who need it like air, like water in the desert, like air for the suffocating.

Nothing More Personal than the Savior’s Actual Touch

Of the many symbols of the atonement, perhaps none is more personal than the actual touch of the Savior. It is this touch from Him that transforms, lifts and heals, that strengthens feeble knees, crowds disease out of the stricken, and brings the flutter of life back to the chest where a heart has stopped beating.

Very often Jesus touched the people he healed, reached out and caressed them who were faltering, connected in that most sacred and personal flesh-to-flesh way that only a touch can be. He gave a touch that affirms and said, ‘I see you, I know you.’ His touch said ‘my soul and your soul have entwined.’ He reached across the lonely barrier that spans our distance as isolated travelers to say, “It is I. Be not afraid.”

What is interesting about physical touch is that you can’t touch a multitude at once. You can’t put your touch over a microphone and blare it to scores of thousands at once like you can a voice. A touch is, by its very nature, a one-on-one experience. It is personal, directed at you.

No Need to Touch to Perform Miracles

We know, of course, that as the mighty Son of God, He did not need to touch anyone personally to do His miracles. He could perform miracles without even a nod of his head or a wave of his hand. When the Centurion came to him pleading for the Lord to heal his servant, it was done from a distance only with a word. The servant was healed in the “self-same hour.” (Matt. 8:13). No touch was required for the Lord to heal another.

Yet we have so many references to his touching those who came to him with yearning need. He was not in any way a distant God, a being someplace else beyond a cloud. He was one to enfold people in a divine embrace.

When Peter’s mother-in-law was sick with fever, “he touched her hand, and the fever left her” (Matt. 8:15). When Peter, James, and John were awestruck on the Mount of Transfiguration, “Jesus came and touched them, and said, Arise, and be not afraid” (Matt 17:7).

When two blind men were sitting by wayside, they called out to Jesus to have mercy on them. While “the multitude rebuked them,” Jesus asked “What will ye that I shall do unto you? They say that our eyes may be opened. So Jesus had compassion on them and touched their eyes” (Matt 20:34).

Setting a Scene

We were once photographing scenes from Jesus’ life in Nazareth, with a cast of Nazarenes, for a project we are working on. Our blind person for this photo was a woman. Though there are no specific stories about a blind woman being healed in the gospels, John tells us, “And there are also many other things which Jesus did, the which if they were written every one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written” (John 21:25). We knew that surely a blind woman had been healed.

So we asked our actor playing Jesus to act as if he were healing this woman and my husband, Scot, began to photograph the scene, taking pictures quickly to catch every movement. Oh, we were so moved as we took the photos and learned new perspective. In the scene, Jesus didn’t touch this woman’s eyes from a distance. Oh no. He cupped his hands around her face with such tenderness that seemed to encompass all she had been missing, then touched her eyes lightly with his thumbs. Then as her eyes were opened, she began to weep and fell into his arms. He held her tightly while she sobbed in gratitude.

Goodness, of course, that is how it would have been. The healed and the healer connecting on such a deep and personal level. The Lord embracing those he healed. Touching them.

Taken by the Hand

When the Lord awoke Jaurus’s daughter who had died, “He took the damsel by the hand, and said unto her, “Talitha cumi” (Mark 5:41). The King James Bible at that point translates the next phrase as “Damsel, I say unto thee arise” but an even more intimate, and just as correct interpretation is “Little lamb, arise.” Such tenderness.

A father came to the Lord with his child who had been possessed with a “foul spirit” since he was small. The grievance this brought to the boy had been immense. He had “ofttimes” cast him into the fire and into waters “to destroy him.” The “spirit tare him; and he fell on the ground, and wallowed foaming.

“But Jesus took him by the hand, and lifted him up: and he arose” (Mark 9: 20-27).

A woman had been infirm for 18 years and “could in no wise lift up herself.” Jesus saw her “and said unto her, Woman, thou art loosed from thine infirmity. And he laid his hands on her and immediately she was made straight” (Luke 13: 11-13).

When Peter tried to walk upon the water toward the Savior on the Sea of Galilee, and then panicked before the boisterous sea, “immediately Jesus stretched forth his hand and caught him” (Matt. 14:31). We think of Jesus catching up the faltering Peter and wish that he were there to lift us in our tempestuous times, but, of course, He is—holding out His arms to us so we won’t sink.

All this means so much to me who also find myself so many times in need of healing or on boisterous waves. The Lord doesn’t send a substitute or watch out for me at a distance. He walks across the storm to find me where I am and touches me. How can He be so attentive and care so much?

Little children he “took…up in his arms, put his hands upon them, and blessed them” (Mark 10:16). For those who were sick in a multitude he laid “his hands on every one of them and healed them” (Luke 4:40).

Touching the Unclean—the Untouchables

But that is not all. The Jews had a very clear standard and rigorous view about those people infected with leprosy. They were considered filthy and ritually unclean. They were completely untouchable and, what’s more, wholly deserving of their plight. People believed they had been stricken by God with this agonizing malady because of sin.

They were banished from society. If people saw them, they threw rocks at them, disdained them, ran. People would not touch them because they believed the disease to be rampantly contagious. In a society where ritual purity was critical to their religion, touching those affected with leprosy made one ritually unclean. You can only imagine the social stigma and agonizing pain for those with this already terrible disease.

Jesus did not take any of this into account. Nothing could dissuade the mighty one from extending complete compassion and healing love toward these already unfairly marginalized, disdained and innocent people. For example, we have the story of a man with leprosy coming to Jesus and saying, “Lord, if thou wilt, thou can’st make me clean. And Jesus put forth his hand, and touched him, saying, I will; be thou clean” (Matt. 8: 2,3).

The Lord made the infected man clean. Though scarred, broken and oozing with leprosy, the man did not make the Lord unclean through this touch.

Note the sequence. The Lord could have first made him clean and then touched him, so no social stigma could have been attached to Him for touching a man with leprosy. It is, after all, just a simple reverse of order. This He didn’t do. As He did with the man eaten by leprosy, He comes to touch us while we are yet unclean. He does not wait until we are whole.

George MacDonald

Of this healing of the sick man in Matthew 8, George MacDonald, a 19th century Christian writer said, “Jesus could have cured him with a word. There was no need he should touch him. No need did I say? There was every need. For no one else would touch him. The healthy human hand, always more or less healing, was never laid on him; he was despised and rejected. It was a poor thing for the Lord to cure his body; he must comfort and cure his sore heart. Of all men a leper, I say, needed to be touched with the hand of love…

“It was not for our master, our brother, our ideal man, to draw around him the skirts of his garments and speak a lofty word of healing, that the man might at least be clean before he touched him. The man was his brother, and an evil disease cleaved fast unto him. Out went the loving hand to the ugly skin, and there was his brother as he should be—with the flesh of a child.

“I thank God that the touch went before the word. Nor do I think it was the touch of a finger or of the finger-tips. It was a kindly healing touch in its nature as in its power.

“O blessed leper! Thou knowest henceforth what kind of a God there is in the earth–…a God such as himself only can reveal to the hearts of his own. That touch was more than the healing. It was to the leper…what the [statement} Neither do I [condemn thee] was to the woman [at] the temple.”

Perhaps most remarkable, Jesus even reached out to touch the servant of the high priest who came to arrest him in Gethsemane. When Peter, thinking to defend the Lord, cut off his ear, Jesus “touched his ear and healed him” (Luke 22:51).

Bringing Light with His Touch

The Savior is a God who reaches out to us, even the worst of us. He touches us in the most personal way, with an affection that is customized to our very need. When we see Him again his face will be familiar—and so will His loving, redeeming touch. Sometimes in our best prayers, we can even imagine his reaching out right now to enfold us in His arms, with the only touch that completely understands our hearts because He has already been there before us in Gethsemane.

With this touch that symbolizes the atonement, he heals us, blesses and comforts us, and, yes, he even lights the way before us that can be so very dark. Our life is like the journey the Jaredites anticipated across the stormy sea, where the mountain waves would dash them, they would be carried here and there by the winds, and they would be tossed by strong currents. This is a journey they could not survive in the dark.

The brother of Jared sought a remedy for the darkness. Putting his mind and muscle to the solution, he “did molten out of a rock sixteen small stones; and they were white and clear” (Ether 3:1). I have tried to imagine the work and ingenuity it would take to melt stones. What kind of grueling labor in those times was required to create a heat source that can melt stones, sweat dripping from your brow?

Yet still, after all the brother of Jared could do, after hard labor and effort, and the best solutions of his own mind, still he had only sixteen dark stones. They were only able to shine when they were touched by the finger of God.

So often we are troubled and hurried, wearied and overworked. We create the equivalent of sixteen stones in our lives, and that is where we leave it. The world is so much with us11 that we do not take the journey to the mountaintop and let the Lord touch all our dizzying effort with his finger and fill it with light. Until he does, however, we are still traveling in the darkness.

Employs No Servant There

The great privilege of being touched by the Lord, of being enfolded in his divine embrace is not just something for other people. We all find ourselves pleading like Nephi, “O Lord, wilt thou encircle me around in the robe of thy righteousness!” (2 Nephi 4:33). We hope the very God of the universe notices us. We want him to love us—and the great truth is we cannot be separated from his love. When we see Him again, He will not greet us indifferently, but embrace as His friend, His son or daughter. Elder Neal A. Maxwell said at the gates of heaven, the reason ‘he employeth no servant there’ (2 Nephi 9:41) is because He awaits there to greet us ‘with open arms’ (Mormon 6:17).

Elder Neal A. Maxwell said, “I will tell you…out of the conviction of my soul…what I think the major reason is [why he ‘employeth no servant there’] as contained in another Book of Mormon scripture which says he waits for you ‘with open arms’ (Mormon 6:17).

He said, “That imagery is too powerful to brush aside…It is imagery that should work itself into the very center core of one’s mind—a rendezvous impending, a moment in time and space, the likes of which there is none other. And that rendezvous is a reality. I certify that to you. He does wait for us with open arms, because his love of us is perfect.”

Having been where we are, having entered into every moment that disappointed or wounded us through His atonement, no one else’s touch could be so reassuring, so comforting, so utterly full of love.