THE HAND OF FRIENDSHIP
The First Degree Beginner
The hand of friendship is a well-known image that has become associated with Freemasonry and is that of two people, both wearing white gloves and shaking hands; very often the picture will be of just two gloved hands. Hopefully it is seen by those who are not Freemasons as two people meeting and greeting each other with a friendly gesture – quite appropriate for Freemasons! Others outside the Craft may think of societies and fraternities which will often use handshakes to identify themselves as initiated brothers or sisters from those who are not members. Perhaps some will think of the popular saying ‘hand in glove’ which literally means people in a close relationship or people working closely together – again quite appropriate for Freemasons!
“Let me extend to you the right hand of friendship.” In general terms a handshake is a short ritual in which two people grasps each other’s hand, usually the right; often accompanied by brief up and down movement. While its origins remain obscure archaeological ruins and ancient texts show that handshaking was practiced as far back as the 2nd Century BC; the practice however, could very possibly predate written history. The handshake is thought by some to have originated as a gesture of peace by demonstrating that the hand do not hold a weapon; a basic level of trust perhaps!
Clasped hands a symbol of unity, very natural and significant. It is customary for friends to “shake hands” when they meet, part or offer congratulations in token of their friendship; and a refusal to accept and offered hand is always understood as a refusal to acknowledge friendship or a rejection of it when it existed before. To shake hands or to clasp hands is also a common token of reconciliation after a quarrel; and also often indicates a conclusion of a bargain, when the subject if it is important. The hands of the contacting parties are always joined together in the solemnisation of marriage.
In the Volume of Sacred Las, that Great Light in Masonry there are many references to the hands. For example in the Book of Proverbs, when speaking of wisdom King Solomon said “She is more precious than rubies; nothing you desire can compare with her. Long life is in her right hand; in her left hands are riches and honours”. And from the Book of Psalms: I will wash my hands in innocency so that I will compass thine altar , O Lord”. Also “Who shall stand in his holy place, He that hath clean hands and a pure heart, who has not lifted up his soul unto vanity nor sworn deceitfully “!
To attain such knowledge of God is surely one of the objects of Freemasonry; and hence the candidate in Freemasonry is required to have clean hands and a pure heart; Hands are the symbol of human actions; pure hands and pure actions; impure hands are deeds of injustice.
In the Ancient Mysteries, lustration or the washing of the hands was always an introductory ceremony into initiation; in fact in low Latin (folk speech) of the Middle Ages, the word ‘lustrare’ meant to initiate. It was symbolically used to indicate the necessary of purity from wrong as a qualification of those who sought admission to the sacred rites. Purity of the heart and life was an essential pre-requisite to initiation, because by initiation the aspirant was brought to a closer knowledge of God, whom to know was not permitted to the impure.
The practice of washing the hands appears to have existed in Roman times if we think of the well-known actions of Pontius Pilate, Prefect of the Roman’s Province of Judea, who when the people clamoured for Jesus that they might crucify Him, appeared before them and having taken water, washed his hands saying “ I am innocent of the blood of this just man”
Among the Jewish people during the time of Jesus, the right hand was considered a token of friendship and fidelity; this is demonstrated when Paul wrote in his letter to the Galatians that he and Barnabas had been given “the right hand of friendship”. Washing the hands before a meal was and still is an important part of the ‘table ceremony ‘ of the orthodox Jewish home. Apart from the cleanliness aspect, it is disrespectful to dine with dirty hands.
Throughout the world many people gather together in New Year’s eve to sing, at midnight, what is perhaps one of the most famous songs anywhere in the world , Auld Lang Syne. Some consider it to be an international expression of friendship, fellowship and hope. Others perceive it to be a simple song, remembering the past and re-affirming the importance of the future and those dear to us. Auld Lang Syne, three simple words from the old Scots dialect is all of the things. The words, Auld Lang Syne, may be translated into English literally as ‘days gone by’. There as in fact five verses but perhaps the song is best summed up by just one. Robert Burns the great Scottish poet and Freemason, wrote these simple lines which surely express what many of us often far too often fail to say to those important to us.
And there’s a hand my trust fiere
And gies a hand o thine
And we’ll tak a right guid-willie waught
For alud lang syne.
The English equivalent is-
And there is a hand of trust my friend,
And give me a hand of yours,
And we will take a good toast,
For days gone by.
Too often today one hears the term “I have washed my hands” of something or other, implying that one has finished or cast off a certain person or custom. So, is the candidate for Freemasonry expected to cast off all unclean acts, before his is allowed to place his hands on the Volume of Sacred Law for the purposes of taking an obligation?
One of the very first uses of the hand in our ritual is at that point in the First Degree is when the Junior Deacon takes the initiate’s had in order to lead him, hoodwinked and haltingly into the Lodge Room. The ritual book states clearly that the Junior Deacon takes the candidates right hand firmly with his left hand, a true sign of trust, union and friendship; firm and indissoluble.
In the Masonic ritual of some other European countries, the Candidate for initiation is taken on three journeys. After the second journey his hands are dipped in a basin of water and reference made to the necessity of clean hands and a pure heart. On the completion of the third journey he takes an obligation after which he is then led to the West where is invested with a white apron and given a pair of white gloves to wear. He is also given a pair of ladies’ gloves which he is directed to hand to hand to “her whom he considers most worthy to receive than, from the hands of a Freemason”. It was one a custom in many English Lodges to present the Initiate with gloves for his wife; how strange that a custom preserved in other European countries was once practiced in England.
The left hand can me thought of as a constant reminder if equality and justice towards all – always maintaining a true and sincere freedom from bias, we should strive to be fair in all our in all our actions. The right hand can be seen as a sign of trust, a word also meaning faithfulness to an obligation. When we take a brother by the hand, we act and expect action with sincerity. This act of friendship and Brotherly Love reaches out to show our trust and fidelity, and truly does allow one Mason to know another, by night as well as by day, in the dark and as well as in the light.
“Hand to hand”; when the failing of a brother calls for our aid we should not withdraw the hand which might sustain him from failing; but we should pour the healing balm of consolation into the bosom of the afflicted; which without determent to ourselves or our connections, may help in the saving of our Brother.