In May 2014 Neil Gillespie, a team leader with ‘The Street Population’ ministry in the London district of King’s Cross and Camden, was diagnosed with stage one testicular cancer. He reflects: ‘not many things seem as important in comparison,’ but ‘it was not a time to panic, get all philosophical or be filled with sorrow, but just to face it head on and fight it hard.’ Thankfully, ‘four months’ from his ‘surgery to the completion of [his] chemotherapy’ led to his ‘full recovery’. And, ‘although it was not a long time in the grand scheme of things …, it was … distressing and painful – not only for me, but for my family and friends as well.’ Yet ‘thank God … for his peace that ruled my heart’ while in the thick of it (Colossians 3:15).
He concludes his testimony by commenting on a key referred to by Francis Spufford: ‘in our suffering we don’t ask the Creator and Sustainer of the universe to explain himself, but instead we want an embrace.’ Neil found that to be true for him. ‘Through my illness, the tangible embrace and love of Christ was manifested through the community that surrounded me: my loving family, friends, colleagues and church. It’s not a conceptual love: it’s real and very close.’ As a result, ‘I want to bring God’s love amid mess, just as God has done for us through Jesus.’
Surprising, ‘the tangible embrace’ is mentioned very rarely in our English Bibles. The famous verse among its Wisdom literature asserts: There is ‘a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing’ (Ecclesiastes 3:5b). However, the New Testament Greek word for ‘greet’ implies embracing as well as speaking words of salutation. And there are several indicators of other occasions when it is appropriate to embrace.
- On reunion after absence
Laban embraced his nephew Jacob, son of his absent sister Rebekah (Genesis 29:13) – a hug by proxy? Joseph’s embrace of his brother Benjamin was first-hand (Genesis 45:14).
- On reconciliation after alienation
Esau hugged his long-lost brother Jacob who had stolen from him (Genesis 33:4); Jacob had been prepared for this dreaded meeting by God’s wrestling embrace throughout the previous night (see Genesis 32)! Compare Luke 15:20. Psalm 85:10-11 is worth a longer consideration: ‘Steadfast love and faithfulness meet; righteousness and peace kiss each other. Faithfulness springs up from the ground, and righteousness looks down from the sky.’ In the context of the song, the theme here is of a good harvest because ‘Lord, you were favourable to your land’ (Psalm 85:2). Possibly the song was composed in the days of drought referred to in Haggai 1 – 2. When the people showed ‘steadfast love’ and ‘righteousness’ then ‘the Lord will give what is good, and our land will yield its increase’ (Psalm 85:12), manifesting his ‘faithfulness’ and ‘peace’ from ‘the sky’ – the heavens, in the form of much-needed rain.
- In remembrance at a distance via an associate nearby
Most of the New Testament letters end with greetings. In Romans chapter 16 Paul mentions five times those who send the recipients hugs, and asks them sixteen times to greet various friends of his in Rome, according to the Greek text.
- As a romantic action in marriage
Twice in the Song of Solomon the bride whimpers with delight about her man: ‘His left hand is under my head, and his right hand embraces me!’ (Song 2:6; 8:3).
- In closure on parting
In Acts 20:1 Paul ‘embraced’ (King James’ Version) those he would not see again (Acts 20:36-38). Compare Genesis 48:10, Jacob’s death bed embrace of Joseph’s two sons.