Feb 14, 2015

6th Sunday: "He touched him"

LV 13: 1-2, 44-46
1 Cor 10: 31-11:1
Mk 1: 40-45

On this Sunday before the holy season of Lent we are faced with another healing story of Jesus.  While we are accustomed to such scenes there are certain elements here which make it all the more moving.

It’s helpful I think to have a sense of what Jesus faced in his day.  The scourge of leprosy, which essentially was a way to define any disease of the skin, was considered an automatic shunning by the community who feared likewise being contaminated.  Our first reading this Sunday from the Book of Leviticus spells it out plainly: “If the man is leprous and unclean, the priest shall declare him unclean . . . the one who bears the sore of leprosy shall keep his garments rent and his head bare, . . . he shall cry out, ‘unclean, unclean!’ . . . since he is in fact unclean.  He shall dwell apart, making his abode outside the camp.” (Lv 13: 1-2, 44-46).  What a pitiful and sad life those afflicted with such skin disease had to endure.  Not only were they shunned from the community of their fellow Jews but were in turn branded as “unclean.”  The tragic social condition of such folks, however, makes this miracle all the more powerful. 

So whether this man suffered the tragedy of actual leprosy or some other condition which made his skin in some way repulsive such as eczema, psoriasis, shingles he was condemned to live his life outside the social community.  Notice he is not given a name but identified by his illness. They could only keep their distance, walk with a bell they must ring as a warning to others who would scurry away lest they have any contact.  He would live with those who suffered from some a similar condition. 

The point of the story is to present this tragic person who undoubtedly felt he had nothing to lose and possibly everything to gain by approaching Jesus – a bold, courageous and perhaps desperate act on his part. The leper pleads with Jesus: “If you wish, you can make me clean.” The beauty is in what Jesus did.  While he certainly wanted to cure the man, he then: “stretched out his hand, touched him, and said to him, ‘I do will it. Be made clean.’”

What this brings to my mind is the image on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Rome where Michelangelo has God, with his hand outstretched to Adam who lies nearly lifeless with his own hand extended where the finger of God and that of Adam are about to touch.  At that moment, Michelangelo implied, life is about to pass from God to humanity.  So the same here.  Jesus is about to pass life to the desperate leprous person.

So, he touches him.  To do so, by cultural understanding and ancient Jewish law, Jesus made himself “unclean” as well by this physical contact. If there were others nearby who noticed what Jesus did they likely drew back in horror! The leper broke his obligation to not approach anyone healthy but Jesus then touched this unclean person.  So, the issue is more about the uncleanliness than it is about the disease.  That understanding was translated to symbolize spiritual unworthiness and an unclean soul before God.

Yet, moved with compassion for this man’s suffering Jesus heals him and pushes the religious prejudice aside.  It strikes me as a most human of responses for in that connection, that physical contact, Jesus identified himself with the man’s condition; as he continuously did right up to the cross.  He took upon himself the narrow understanding of his time that such suffering was the result of personal sin and blew that concept away in favor of restoring this person’s dignity and worth, despite his unfortunate condition.  It is a miracle of deep mercy and compassion and in doing so Our Lord affirms the dignity of this man despite his illness. It indicates the type of people to whom Jesus would expand his mission.

Typically of Mark, Jesus warns the now healed man to, “Tell no one anything.”  Yet, how could this person, restored, healed and loved possibly keep this a secret?  Our Lord came to bring back the lost, to break down the barriers of sin and prejudice, and to gather back to the fold of God’s community those lost and forgotten. The cross is the ultimate sign of our redemption from sin where Jesus identifies with our personal sin and redeems our sick condition.  

Where do we see this today?  In our sacraments, for example.  Each sacrament has a part of its ritual the laying on of hands.  The priest, or in the case of Confirmation normally and Holy Orders always the Bishop, prays over and in some cases actually touches the person receiving the sacrament.  In that gesture the healing, forgiving, feeding, empowering, and uniting Holy Spirit is called to carry on the ministry of Jesus we see in this weekend’s Gospel story.  It’s beautiful in its simplicity and powerful in its results for us all.

Secondly, it certainly moves us to think of the “lepers” among us in our own day.  Are there individuals, classes of people, cultures different from our own, or those who forgot they were Catholic among us who have been simply pushed away? - Perhaps not deliberately or maybe so. 

Maybe the same might be true in our own family and among our circle of friends.  Someone I’ve branded due to disagreements or hurt yet they have sought reconciliation and forgiveness and I’ve held on to my hurt, my own leprosy rather than reach out (touch them) and be reconciled. 

I think, as we approach Lent, we have a rich image to keep in mind in today’s Gospel.  In that yearly time of grace we are all called to allow ourselves to be touched by the same God and be cleansed of our own leprous sores.  May this Eucharist provide a new way to open ourselves to God’s healing grace who loves us in spite of our sin.

Peace to all . . .  

O God, who teach us that you abide
in hearts that are just and true,
grant that we may be so fashioned by your grace
as to become a dwelling pleasing to you.

(Collect of Sunday)