The laying on of hands is a religious practice found throughout the world in varying forms. In Christian churches, this practice is used as both a symbolic and formal method of invoking the Holy Spirit during baptisms, healing services, blessings, and ordination of priests, ministers, elders, deacons, and other church officers, along with a variety of other church sacraments and holy ceremonies.
The tradition of the laying on of hands has its roots in the times of the bible. The laying on of hands was an action that conferred blessing or authority. To wit, Isaac blessed his son Jacob by laying hands ( ), and Aaron and the High Priests who succeeded him transferred the sins of the Children of Israel to a sacrificial goat (Leviticus 16:21). Finally, in the Old Testament priests were ordained by the laying on of hands.
In the New Testament the laying on of hands was associated with the receiving of the Holy Spirit (See Acts 8:14-19). Initially the Apostles laid hands on new believers as well as believers who were called to a particular service. (See ). In the early church, the practice continued and is still used in a wide variety of church ceremonies, such as the ceremony of confirmation, where a bishop, priest, or minister lays hands on the confirmand and prays for them to receive the Holy Spirit. Many churches also lay hands on a person when commissioning them to particular work, such as missionary or pastoral service.
In its healing form, the laying on of hands is based on biblical precedent set by Jesus. Jesus would walk for days, offering his healing power to peasants and prostitutes, alike. Both Christian and non-Christian faith healers will lay hands on people when praying for healing, and often the name of Jesus is invoked as the spiritual agency through which the healing of physical ailments is believed to be obtained.
Distinct uses by different religious traditions
In the Eastern Orthodox Church and Eastern Catholic Churches, the chrism (Greek: myron) which is used at chrismation and the anointing of sovereigns is believed to be descended directly from oil which the Apostles blessed and laid their hands on. This is added to as needed by the Primates of the Autocephalous Churches, and is dispersed to priests for their use in administering the Sacred Mysteries (Sacraments). In the Eastern Christan Tradition, anointing with the chrism is the equivalent of laying on of hands. The presentation of this chrism which has received the laying on of hands, together with an antimension is the manner in which a bishop bestows faculties upon a priest under his omophorion (i.e., under his authority).
The Orthodox also use laying on of hands for the ordination (called Cheirotonia) of the higher clergy (bishops, priests and deacons) which is distinguished from the blessing (called Cheirothesia) of the lower clergy (taper bearers, readers and subdeacons). Priests and deacons receive the laying on of hands by a single bishop, bishops are consecrated by three or more bishops.
The laying on of hands is also performed at the end of the Mystery (Sacrament) of Unction. This Mystery is usually performed by seven priests. Six of the priests lay their hands on a Gospel Book which has been placed over the head of the one being anointed, while the senior priest reads a prayer.
In the Roman Catholic Church, the laying on of hands is performed in the sacrament of Holy Orders and is the means by which one is included in one of the three major orders: bishop, priest, or deacon. Ordination can be administered only by a bishop in Apostolic Succession (valid), and should only be accomplished by a bishop who is properly authorized by the Holy See (licit). The laying on of hands to the priesthood enables a person so ordained to act in persona Christi; i.e., "in the person of Christ." Ordination allows a priest validly to administer sacraments, most notably giving that individual the authority to celebrate the Eucharist. The sacraments of ordination and confirmation are, however, reserved exclusively to a bishop (with certain exceptions).
The sacrament of Confirmation is "the special outpouring of the Holy Spirit as once granted to the apostles on the day of Pentecost", and "brings an increase and deepening of baptismal grace." In the Latin-Rite (i.e., Western) Catholic Church, the sacrament is customarily conferred only on persons old enough to understand it, and the ordinary minister of Confirmation is a bishop. Only for a serious reason may the diocesan bishop delegate a priest to administer the sacrament (canon 884 of the Code of Canon Law). However, a priest may by law confer the sacrament, if he baptizes someone who is no longer an infant or admits a person already baptized to full communion, or if the person (adult or child) to be confirmed is in danger of death (canon 883).
Laying on of hands is part of Anglican confirmation, anointing of the sick, and other parts of liturgy and pastoral offices. The Guild of St Raphael, founded in 1915, is an organization within the Anglican church specifically dedicated to promoting, supporting and practicing Christ's ministry of healing through the laying on of hands as an integral part of the Church.
Latter Day Saint movement
In the The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and other sects in the Latter Day Saint movement, the practice of laying on of hands is employed to confirm a person as a member of the Church and bestow the Gift of the Holy Ghost, bless the sick and give counsel to those in need, to ordain males to offices in the priesthood, and to set church officers apart in their duties. In addition, a Patriarchal blessing is given by the laying on of hands of a Patriarch to a church member.
Catharism and other Christian sects
A Cathar Perfect, the highest initiate in the Cathar hierarchy after spending time as a Listener and then Believer, had to undergo a rigorous training of three years before being inducted as a member of the spiritual elite of the now defunct religious movement. This took place during a ceremony in which various Scriptural extracts were quoted, including, most particularly, the opening verses of the Gospel of John. The ceremony was completed by a ritual laying on of hands as the candidate vowed to abjure the world and accept the Holy Spirit. At this point, the Perfecti believed, the Holy Spirit was able to descend and dwell within the new Perfect — hence the austere lifestyle needed to provide a pure dwelling place for the Spirit. Once in this state of housing the Holy Spirit within themselves, the Perfect were believed to have become "trans-material" or semi-angelic, not yet released from the confines of the body but containing within them an enhanced spirituality which linked them to God even in this world, as expressed in the Gospel of Luke. The Cathars were decimated and annihilated as a sect during the Roman Catholic Church's Albigensian Crusade in 1208, which killed tens of thousands of people and is considered the first recorded European genocide.
The laying on of hands, known as "the Divine Touch," was performed by kings in England and France, and was believed to cure scrofula, a name given to a number of skin diseases. The rite of the king's touch began in France with Robert II the Pious, but legend later attributed the practice to Clovis as Merovingian founder of the Holy Roman kingdom, and Edward the Confessor in England. The belief continued to be common throughout the Middle Ages but began to die out with the Enlightenment. Queen Anne was the last British monarch to claim to possess this divine ability, though the Jacobite pretenders also claimed to do so. The French monarchy continued to believe and perform the act up until the French Revolution. The act was usually performed at large ceremonies, often at Easter or other holy days.
- Pomazansky, Protopresbyter Michael (1984) (in Eng.), Orthodox Dogmatic Theology, Platina CA: Saint Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, pp. 270-271, loc # 84-051294
- Parry (1999), p. 117
- Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraphs 1302–1303.
- for example: Book of Alternative Services - Anglican Church of Canada, p 628
- http://stmarks.byethost9.com/ for example: Book of Alternative Services - Anglican Church of Canada, p 555
- New Bible Dictionary (ISBN 0-85110-630-7)
- Parry, Ken; David Melling (editors) (1999). The Blackwell Dictionary of Eastern Christianity. Malden, MA.: Blackwell Publishing. ISBN 0-631-23203-6.
- "H.B. Swete, Laying on of hands"
- "Imposition of Hands", Catholic Encyclopedia
- Jewish Encyclopedia: Ordination