Those of us above a certain age can recall how widespread polio was just over a half-century ago. My “Baby-Boom” generational cohort can clearly remember the last of the great polio epidemics in the early 1950s – the last such epidemic, thanks to the development of the polio vaccine, which as 1st graders many of us were among the first to receive. Beforehand, however, that last epidemic induced tremendous panic. Swimming pools were closed and school openings delayed. People were terrified of this dangerous disease, which many feared might never be conquered and before whose power people felt defenseless.
Recalling all that should help us appreciate the anxiety ancient people felt when faced with the mysterious disease they called leprosy. Hence, the Old Testament’s extensive instructions on how to deal with it, some of which we just heard in today’s 1st reading [Leviticus 13, 1-2, 44-46]. Generally speaking, those suffering from the disease were simply segregated by law and required to live outside inhabited communities. Also, since the disease was widely believed to be contagious, they were supposed to warn away anyone who approached them. Until 1969, the United Sates had a similar system of legally enforced segregation of lepers in Hawaii – made famous for generations of Catholic school children by the heroic story of St. Damien of Molokai, whose statue stands in the U.S. Capitol Building’s Statuary Hall.
In ancient Israel, what was called leprosy was not Damien’s fatal disease but a curable skin condition. Hence the Jewish law made provision for examination by a priest and an offering on the occasion of someone’s being cured. Until one had been properly examined and certified as healed, however, a “leper” remained ritually impure.
In such a world, where it was believed that only God could heal leprosy and where sickness was seen as a serious threat, the leper was shunned. Cut off from ordinary life and regular relationships with others, the leper’s lot must have been a miserable one indeed. Then suddenly, into this sad world of sickness and exclusion, appeared Jesus [Mark 1:40-45].
Apparently, the news about Jesus and his healing powers had made the rounds and reached even the marginalized leper. So suddenly we see a leper actually approaching Jesus directly, doing precisely what the Law prohibited him from doing. A leper came to Jesus and kneeling down begged him and said, “If you wish, you can make me clean.”
“If you wish!” What exactly are we to suppose that “if” meant? Did the leper doubt Jesus? And, if so, what exactly was he doubting about Jesus? Apparently, he didn’t doubt that Jesus had the power to heal him – quite amazing actually, given the general belief that only God could cure leprosy! If the leper had little or no doubt about Jesus’ power, Jesus’ ability, to heal him, however, he still seems evidently to have wondered whether Jesus would heal him, whether he would want to heal him, whether he cared enough to heal him. (Fear of germs, after all, is only one of many motives for erecting barriers between ourselves and others).
Jesus understood and answered: “I do will it. Be made clean.” But, before he said that, Jesus did something even more meaningful to the leper, something so radical it implicitly violated the Law and implicated Jesus in the leper’s ritually impure status. Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand, and touched him.
In his desperation, the leper had boldly broken the Law and approached Jesus directly. Jesus reciprocated with a dramatic, unexpected touch, that spoke more than all the words in the world. With that one touch, Jesus united himself with the leper, dramatically ending his segregation from society. With that one powerful touch, Jesus summarized his entire mission to become one with us, and so to end our separation from God and enable us to join together in the fuller, more abundant kind of life that God wants us to live.
The same Jesus, who stretched out his hand, and touched the leper, continues his healing touch here and now in the institutional and sacramental life of his body, the Church. That touch is every bit as necessary now as it was then – not just because sickness and suffering still abound in our world, but because the leper’s doubt also persists. How many of us at times really wonder whether anyone cares? How many of us at times doubt deep down whether even God cares? It is the mission and challenge of the Church – the mission and challenge therefore of every one of us – to express visibly, to embody physically, and so to become God’s healing presence and saving power present in our world, to continue Christ’s caring for us, by caring as he does.
As the Law required, Jesus sent the leper to the priest to verify his healing, and to make the ritual offering in thanksgiving that the Law prescribed. Presumably, the leper went and did what was required for him to re-enter society, but the leper’s principal offering in thanksgiving was to spread the report abroad and publicize the whole matter.
Whatever difficulties and doubts we may harbor, our healing will not be complete until we let Christ’s healing touch transform us, in and through our life and worship together as his Church, into agents of Christ’s caring touch to and for all the world.
Homily for the 6th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Chiesa di Santa Susanna (Church for the American Catholic Community in Rome, Staffed by the Paulist Fathers since 1922), February 12, 2012