Thursday, October 19, 2006

Hands that flung stars into space.....

By Paul Brand with Philip Yancey | posted 4/18/00

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


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.

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