Tuesday, February 14, 2012
Leprosy, or Hansen’s Disease, has been pretty well eradicated or at least controlled in modern times, but in Jesus’s day it was the most dreaded of all diseases. Not only the inevitable physical disfigurement but the banishment from society as a precaution was often a virtual death sentence. The afflicted person was deprived of family and community support at the very time of greatest vulnerability. Even into the last century, the Government of Hawaii sent all lepers to the dreaded island of Molokai (Now ironically a tourist destination!!). The Christ-like charity of Fr. Damian who accepted exile to serve these poor people and who eventually became a leper is one of the great glories of the Catholic Church.
The event in today’s Gospel is really extraordinary. When this man covered with scabs or flaking white scales approached Jesus seeking a cure he was way out of line. He had no business going near where people gathered without warning them. And Jesus response was astonishing not only did He welcome the man but He reached out and touched him! By law anyone who came in contact with a leper was rendered ritually unclean and so was unfit for worship. But Jesus obeys a higher law charity is higher than any man made law. Then Jesus wanted to change their attitudes towards lepers - Now He wants to change our attitudes towards the “outcasts” or those pushed aside in our society.
In our times for all our modern science and medical advances there are still diseases or conditions which grip the heart with fear and dread: Alzheimer, AIDS, cancer, etc. And there are those with serious illness even when not contagious - or those grieving the death of a loved one who are often avoided because they remind us of our own mortality and vulnerability. So we practice Out of sight, out of mind. We avoid visiting the hospital or the funeral home leaving the afflicted to their isolation! But WWJD –What would Jesus do? The Gospels give us more than a hint!
St. Mark wrote the most vivid Gospel account...... with many concrete details and descriptions of the human emotions of Jesus. His style helps us to “feel” the texture of the story, to listen with our imaginations and seeing what Jesus is doing draws us to want “to know Him more clearly, love Him more dearly, follow Him more nearly”. So, Mark writes Jesus was “moved with pity.” Just three words but they tell us so much. Biblical pity is a powerful emotion like a gut reaction, coming from deep within a person, which feels the pain of another. It contains the compassion and love ..perhaps best expressed in the phrase “My heart went out to him.”
But Pity moves beyond a feeling to action...to do something. It gets a person involved in finding a solution to another’s problem ---- either relieving their misery if possible, or at least standing beside them so they are not alone in bearing their pain. Our English word “compassion” stresses the idea of “passion”. So biblical “pity” is not standing on the sidelines wringing one’s hands but stirs us up to do something with passion!
Jesus responded to the Leper’s wonderful plea of faith in His healing power. “If You wish, you can make me clean.” Christ answers simply and directly “I do want to.” The whole life of Jesus consists of the desire of God to help those in trouble, to give to those who have the seed of faith His healing presence. And we see the beginning of how costly it was to Jesus. In a sense, after this work of mercy, He becomes “the leper” and can no longer enter the towns to preach for the crowds enthusiastically search Him out.
Mark’s Gospel reminds us that true discipleship entails more than praising Jesus as a wonder worker and a solution to our problems. As the text shows He is certainly not indifferent to our situation....watching from on high at a safe distance. The well regarded Scripture scholar Fr. Carroll Stuhlmueller, CP has been pointed out that Jesus never stays in Jerusalem but often at Bethany a few miles away. The name means “House of the Lowly” and was the closest lepers could come to the Holy City. From its hilltop they could only look towards the Temple where God’s People worshiped...and they could not, so the Son of God came to them. Our Lord was quick to reach out to touch the leper and we remember how He has touched us, especially through the Sacraments of Reconciliation and the Eucharist. He continues to touch whatever has lessened human life through us a people formed by the Gospels to be able to ask and answer the question: What Would Jesus Do? And strengthened by the Sacraments to do it!!
– Fr. Seraphin Conley, T.O.R.