I have been struck recently how many people use the phrase ‘Touch wood!’ and seek to reach out and tap something wooden.
What does this superstition mean? It seems to be some sort of supernatural insurance policy and surprisingly it’s found almost globally. Some suggest it’s about preventing malevolent wood-spirits from hearing and upsetting your plans. Others that it comes from auction houses when an auctioneer’s gavel falls, and your bid wins, your hope is realised. But it seems certainly to have a connection with medieval Christianity and its many relics which included pieces of the supposedly ‘true’ cross. It was then an expression of faith in Jesus’s victory over the powers of darkness in his death.
But why does such a superstition still persist in our modern age? Most of the people I hear uttering ‘touch wood’ are educated and intelligent yet they seemed utterly confident that ‘touching wood’ would avoid bad luck coming their way. Many people have a spiritual awareness yet often it is mixed with uncertainty and fear that fuels such irrational superstitions.
A Christian would say that muttering ‘touch wood’ is completely unnecessary. Our lives are in God’s hands and he is a good and gracious and generously heavenly Father. We sing, ‘In Christ alone my hope is found… No guilt in life, no fear in death, this is the power of Christ in me; from life’s first cry to final breath, Jesus commands my destiny.’ Exactly! It is Jesus who commands and controls what happens in our life. We are in the safest of hands.
But what if you’re not a Christian? May I suggest you might think about why you say ‘touch wood’? Because performing this little ritual is actually making an admission. It is to concede that you are not the master of your own destiny. In which case, who is?
In any case such superstition is misplaced because faith is not mechanical. Even if we were able to touch the wood of the cross on which Jesus died, it would make no difference. However if, facing an uncertain future, you reach out in faith, not to the cross but to the One who died on it, that’s a very different matter. To put your life under the control of the God who in Jesus Christ loved you so much he died for you is, quite simply, the only safe way to face the future.
with every blessing
Philip de Grey-Warter, Vicar