Why I (sometimes) raise my hands

Author: Matthew van Duyvenbode

Photo: jacobus

Why I (sometimes) raise my hands

I remember the evening so well.

There were around 2,000 of us gathered outdoors in central London in the sweltering heat. I was with friends I had known for years, and the leader at the front invited us all to raise our arms heavenwards as the band played.

Without missing a beat every hand went sky high, mine included, and I felt a warm rush of exhilaration and adrenaline. A oneness that has never left me since.

What I might be describing is some kind of emotional religious experience. But, in fact, it was watching the electronic band Underworld perform at London’s Somerset House for my 23rd birthday. An unforgettable night, punctuated by many moments of arm waving and hand pointing.

The question it left me with, though, is why it seems perfectly normal for us to watch pictures from music festivals - Glastonbury, Reading, Tea in the Park, the Cambridge Folk Festival, even the Eisteddfod - of devoted fans with hands raised in the air, yet we think there’s something bizarre about it when we see it in a church?

Why wouldn’t I raise my hands in a moment of attentive worship? If it’s good enough for Underworld, perhaps it’s good enough for God?

Expression deepens impression

I’ve long felt the phrase “Expression deepens impression” rings true for me. The more I complain to others, the more bitter I feel; the more I decide to speak positively about somebody, the more I actually find I like them. But this isn’t just about speaking. It’s also about how my body expresses things.

We all know that in a meeting or lesson, we shouldn’t sit there with arms crossed and looking disinterested. We lean forward, we make eye contact – we act engaged. And, strangely enough, positioning ourselves like this helps us to feel engaged.

This is one of the reasons why we have such a structured set of actions at Mass. Positioning our bodies in certain ways helps us to internalise what is going on externally. We kneel or stand when we know there are moments of special veneration or prayer. We shake hands to symbolise peace, and we bow our heads to note moments of special veneration or prayer. Moving our bodies helps orientate our mind and heart.

So, for me, the act of raising my hands when I am praying or singing is something that is an outward sign of what is going on underneath. It helps me to convey the depth of my feeling (like at the Underworld concert), but also helps me to convey that I am deciding to praise God. My will is engaged in the process, in the same way as I decide to either kneel or sit after I have received Communion.

Is raising hands an obligatory part of being a Spirit-filled Christian? I don’t think so. Does it greatly help me to open my heart to the Spirit? You bet.

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