LAYING-ON OF HANDS
The laying-on, or imposition, of a bishop’s hands on a person’s head on the occasion of his nomination to the priesthood or diaconate is a rite first mentioned in the Old Testament and has been practiced in the church ever since the apostolic age.
Before the Ascension of Christ, He appeared to the disciples while they were meeting behind locked doors, and insufflating them, He gave them the gift of the Holy Spirit, by which they could grant or withhold forgiveness. In their turn, the apostolic fathers ordained others as bishops, priests, or deacons by laying their hands on them.
In this way, they appointed the first deacons, including Stephen (Acts 6:6). When Saint Paul and Saint Barnabas ordained elders in churches, following prayer and fasting, they did this through the laying-on of hands. The Greek term used in Acts 14:23 is cheiratonesantes, which appears in various English translations as “chose,” “appointed,” or “ordained” and originally meant “laid their hands on them.”
When Saint Paul ordained Timothy Bishop of Ephesus and Titus bishop of Crete, he did so by laying his hands on them. This is confirmed by his words to Timothy, when he wrote to exhort him to stir into flame the gift of God “which is in thee by the laying on of thy hands” (2 Tm. 1:6). In an earlier epistle he had warned Timothy not to be overzealous in the laying-on of hands in ordination, lest he incur responsibility for other people’s misdeeds (1 Tm. 5:22).
The APOSTOLIC TRADITION stipulates the imposition of hands as part of the process of ordaining bishops: “Let the bishop be ordained after he has been chosen by all the people. When someone pleasing to all has been named, let the people assemble on the Lord’s Day with the presbyters and with such bishops as may be present. All giving assent, the bishops shall impose hands on him, and the presbyters shall stand by in silence. Indeed all shall remain silent, praying in their hearts for the descent of the Spirit. Then one of the bishops present shall, at the request of all, impose his hand on the one who is being ordained bishop” (Hippolytus, 1970, Vol. 1, p. 166).
The same provisions are made in the Constitutions of the Holy Apostles: “Concerning the ordinations of presbyters, . . . when thou ordainest a presbyter, O bishop, lay thy hands upon his head, in the presence of the presbyters and deacons, and pray” (1951, p. 491). The same procedure is recommended in the ordination of deacons.
According to al-SAFI IBN AL-‘ASSAL, “the Bishop shall be installed on a Sunday, with the approval of all the congregation, both the people and the clergy testifying for him. The bishops who are present shall lay their hands upon him, saying, “We lay our hands on this servant who has been chosen for God, in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, to be installed to an upright rank, for [the service of] the One Church of God, which is without blemish'” (1927, pp. 32-33).
From Acts 8:14-17, it seems that the act of laying-on of hands was a requisite for receiving the Holy Spirit. Thus, having heard that in Samaria there were converts who had accepted the word of God and been baptized but had not been visited by the Holy Spirit, the apostles sent Peter and John to pray for them, asking that they might receive the Holy Spirit. When Peter and John laid their hands upon them, their mission was fully accomplished.
Acts 9 relates that when Saint Paul in the course of his voyages came to Ephesus, he found a number of converts and wanted to ascertain from them whether they had received the Holy Spirit when they became believers. They replied that they had not even heard of the Holy Spirit and that they had been baptized according to John’s baptism. Paul therefore baptized them into the name of Christ, and when he had laid his hand on them, the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they spoke in different tongues and prophesied.
The Power of Healing through the laying-on of hands was demonstrated by Christ on various occasions, as when He was at Nazareth (Mk. 6:5), at Bethsaida (Mk. 8:23-25), and at Capernaum (Lk. 4:40-41), and again when He healed the crippled woman who was also possessed by a spirit that left her enfeebled for eighteen years (Lk. 13:12-13).
This power was given to the disciples in Christ’s final commandment: “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to the whole creation. . . . In my name they will cast out demons . . . they will lay their hands on the sick; and they will recover” (Mk. 16:15-18).
The Acts of the Apostles records various instances of this miraculous healing. Saul of Tarsus regained his sight when Ananias was commanded by the Lord to go to the house of Judas in Damascus and ask for a man from Tarsus named Saul and lay his hands on him to restore his sight (Acts 9:10-12). Later on, having himself become a powerful tool in the hands of God, Paul laid his hands on the father of Publius, the chief magistrate of the island of Malta, and cured him and others of their physical ailments.
- Mika’il Mina. ‘Ilm al-Lahut (The Study of Theology), Vol. 2. Cairo, 1936.
- William Sulayman Qiladah. Kitab al-Disquliyyah, Ta‘alim al-Rusul (The Didascalia). Cairo, 1979.