The Shadow We Cast
There is an account in the Acts of the Apostles, the book in the New Testament that tells of the activities of the apostles and the development and growth of the early Christian communities after the death / resurrection of Jesus, in which sick people are taken out into the street so that the shadow of Peter might be cast on them as he passed by: “Yet more than ever believers were added to the Lord, great numbers of both men and women, so that they even carried out the sick into the streets and laid them on cots and mats, in order that Peter’s shadow might fall on some of them as he came by” (Acts of the Apostles 5:14-15). This passage follows on the earlier section where we are told that Peter and the other apostles were healing many people, the sick, crippled, wounded and those ‘possessed by demons’ and that their words and actions were gaining the attention of many. People even came in from the outskirts and the nearby towns. They were hoping that even if they could not get close enough to be touched by Peter, his shadow falling on them might heal them.
The idea that people would seek healing through the shadow of someone being cast upon them may seem strange to us. In the ancient world there were a number of ways the concept of ‘shadow’ was used and understood. In a hot country like Egypt, then as now, shadows were a blessing and were sought out and people rested in them. Then there were the metaphorical shadows thrown by the gods, and these shadows symbolised their protection. Kings, for example, were seen to be in the shadow of the gods. We find this too in the writings of the Hebrew Scriptures where, for example, the Psalmist speaks of dwelling in the shadow of God (Psalm 91). In Egypt, the holy sites at Armana were called ‘shadow of Re’ (the Egyptian sun god). In the bright sunlight of North Africa the shadow was seen as inseparable from the body. However, in the ancient world there also appears to have been a particular understanding of the human shadow which might explain the practice we see in the account of Peter. In the ancient Egyptian view of the human person, for example, the shadow is one of the constituents of a person along with the body, the name, the heart and the psyche or personality.
So the shadow of which they spoke was not an ordinary shadow cast by the sun but correlates more to the idea of ‘soul’. People thought that one’s shadow was attached to oneself but it was able to move independently of the body too. Many of the burial customs testify to the continued existence of the shadow both independent of and still linked to the body. In ancient Judaism we find a particular understanding of shadow too. In Jewish Law if one’s shadow touched a corpse one became as unclean as anyone who physically touched the corpse. The belief was that to be touched by someone’s shadow was to be touched by him or her directly. In our biblical story we see that many people couldn’t get close enough to be touched directly by Peter so they were laid on the side of the road where Peter’s shadow would be cast upon them.
Ms Kerry McCullough
Spirituality and Liturgy Coordinator