Sunday, February 14, 2021

"I do will it"

Some Thoughts on this 6th Sunday in Ordinary Time, February 14, 2021

The covid pandemic has reminded us - in case we had forgotten - what happens when we are faced with a dangerous disease, before whose power people feel defenseless. None of us alive today can remember the last such pandemic - the so-called "Spanish Flu" of a little over century ago. But those of us above a certain age - my "Baby-Boom” generational cohort - can, of course, recall how ubiquitous polio was in the early 1950s. That was the last such polio epidemic, thanks to the development of the Salk vaccine, which, as 1st graders, I and many of us were among the first to receive. Beforehand, however, that last polio epidemic had induced tremendous panic, as again people were terrified of a dangerous disease, which many feared might never be conquered and in the face of which we felt defenseless.

In ancient Israel, however, what was called leprosy was sometimes not Damien’s fatal disease but actually a superficial skin condition, which was in fact curable. Hence the Jewish law made provision for examination by a priest and an offering on the occasion of someone’s being healed. 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 - more miserable by far than the very real sufferings so many have had to endure in temporary quarantines, "lockdowns," and the other socially isolating situations that this current pandemic has imposed. In fact, even prior to the pandemic, our modern world was facing an epidemic of loneliness and lack of sufficient social relationships.

Miserable indeed was the 1st-century leper's lot, until suddenly, into this sad world of sickness and exclusion, appeared Jesus.

In this Sunday's Gospel [Mark 1:40-45], the news about Jesus and his healing powers had made the rounds and had 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 in fact violated the Law and implicated Jesus in the leper’s ritually impure status. Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand, and touched him.

Now as then, touching is one of those things people tend to be especially squeamish about with the sick - something we have deliberately shied away from, individually and as a society, thanks to this pandemic, something we may now be missing much more than we may recognize. Following Jesus' example, touching - in the form of lay on of hands, physical anointing, and other analogous rituals - has been an integral part of our sacramental experience, something we have also been deprived us in this pandemic-driven world.

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 joined the leper in his impurity and uncleanness, 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 segregation 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 each and 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 own 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.

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