Towards the beginning of the first lockdown last March, I was out walking round the little circle in front of the church. One of our older parishioners was passing by and I went up to greet her, stopping of course at a “safe distance” as we are told to do these days. I think she was startled a little when I stopped short of what would have been a normal distance between people only a few weeks before. She remarked, “I feel like a leper!”
I suppose in a small way she was expressing what lepers really went through at the time of Jesus and, indeed, long before him, as that first reading from Leviticus tells us today. Lepers were effectively outcasts. In fact, it was worse than that. The command the leper was given by the Book of Leviticus to cover his upper lip and cry “Unclean! Unclean!” actually equated him to a corpse. It was the corpse that was unclean, and you were defiled if you touched it. You could not offer sacrifice to God or enter the Temple if you were unclean. So, lepers were considered to be the “living dead”, as we would say with those films of recent years depicting the horror of walking corpses. Lepers were alive but were treated as if they were dead. They even lived in the tombs and deserted places. They were not just marginalized but placed well outside the margins of society.
The lady who told me that she felt like a leper just because of a short distance between us, suggests how great the suffering of true lepers must have been. It would not just be the physical disfigurement, with their skin being eaten up and their limbs falling off. That was bad enough. There would also be the suffering of being rejected, physically, emotionally, psychologically and spiritually. They would have felt oppressed, depressed and repressed. There was no hope for them. If someone was cured, it was seen as a miracle, a blessing of God. This meant that the leprous condition was seen as a curse of God, a curse which the community had to ratify in obedience to God. So, the desperation the leper must have felt was something he had to live with, day and night.
This inhuman situation explains why the man in today’s Gospel took the risk of being executed by approaching Jesus so closely, falling right at his feet and on his knees.
What happens next is beautiful. The man begs Jesus for help. The sense of it is that he kept on asking, he kept insisting and persisting. The words he uses, though, reveal so much about this man. “If you want to, you can cure me.” What he is doing here is recognizing the priority of the will of Jesus (“if you want to”) and also the power of Jesus (“you can cure me”). In this way, he is also saying that he knows Jesus is not just a man.
The response of Jesus to this man’s humility and faith is equally beautiful. Before the leper’s misery and suffering, the Gospel text tells us that Jesus “felt sorry for him.” What we normally mean by these words is not what Jesus was experiencing. What the evangelist is doing by using these words is telling us that Jesus was shaken in the depths of his divine nature and of his human nature. It is God’s reaction to the ravages of sin in the human being, to the catastrophic plight symbolised by this man’s leprosy. And that reaction translates into the positive will and exercise of power by Jesus: “I will (of course I want to)! Be cured!” and the leprosy leaves him at once.
But the evangelist also tells us that Jesus “stretched out his hand” and touches the leper. That outstretched hand will have immediately been understood by the Jewish hearers of the Gospel as referring to the marvels of God in the Old Testament. When the Lord saved his people from Pharaoh, he did so by “stretching out his hand” and delivering them from the power of evil. St. Mark is telling us in an indirect way who Jesus is. This reaching and stretching out by Jesus of his hand to a man oppressed by evil speaks to his divinity, to the in-built desire of the divine to save.
Think also of what that touch of Jesus’ hand meant to that poor leper. Probably for years upon years, he had never felt the warmth of human touch. His loneliness and abandonment will have been terrible. So, to feel the touch of Jesus’ hand will have left him trembling for joy: I am accepted! I am recognised! I am wanted! I am not dead but alive! It will have been a kind of resurrection from the dead. That touch from the incarnate Son of God was the means through which the power of the omnipotent Lord healed him in his whole being, and not just physically.
Jesus tells the man not to tell anyone he had healed him because Jesus wanted to be able to continue going around, preaching and teaching. He knew that if word got out, everyone would be after him for healing. And that’s precisely what happened when the now cured leper practically started himself preaching about Jesus to all and sundry. Curiously, it was now Jesus, not the leper, who had to live in deserted places: by curing him, Jesus had become the “leper”! Yet, even so, crowds would go to him, attracted by his goodness and his power.
My brothers and sisters, whatever ails you, whatever sickness of mind, body, soul, heart or conscience afflicts you; whatever suffering you have from broken relationships, broken marriages, broken families, or from the difficulties of this pandemic which seems to make us all lepers, separated from one another with grandparents not able to see their grandchildren or hug them; no matter what pain may be yours because you are living in a situation which you know is not what the Lord’s love wants for you … God loves you all to bits. As Jesus says in the Gospel: of course I want to heal you, of course I want to help you, of course I want you to live in a way that my Father’s love asks you to live. So, let’s go to him like the leper, with humility of heart – not shouting the odds about our enlightened views and opinions or the self-righteousness we say our conscience gives us – but with humility, with a naked and exposed and vulnerable heart. Let’s kneel at his feet and beg him insistently, “Lord, if you want to, you can cure me.”
Now, of course, it may happen that my insistent prayer for healing still leaves me suffering. Is that because Jesus is selective in whom he listens to? Not at all. Remember that we are saying to him, “if youwant to.” We are submitting to his will for us. And so, if he does not answer in the way we ask, it can only mean that he wants to give us something else. If our pains continue, then what he is asking of us is something very sublime, very beautiful and, yes, very challenging. He is asking us to turn our sufferings around to his Cross and to join him there. He is asking us to let him into our sufferings so that, in us, he can continue that suffering which is his until the end of time, until the wounds of humanity are finally healed. In other words, he is giving us the vocation to heal the wounds of others as we suffer in union with him. And if we feel that there are others who, because of their guilt, deserve to suffer rather than we, let us remember that there was no one more innocent than He.
We must of course do everything in our power to defeat suffering and sickness and disease and all the other sources of suffering in our world. But when that fails, or when Christ permits it to continue for the providential reasons of his own heart, then that suffering need not be wasted. Of course, we can say no to him, and choose bitterness and resentment at the suffering, since it goes against everything the human being cries out for. But if we stop and think of the grandeur of his invitation, if we can let our love lift us up and out and beyond our bitterness, he will give us the wisdom of the Cross to understand that far better than the immediate healing we wanted is the healing that we, with him, can mediate to others who may otherwise never know it. It is those who suffer in union with Christ who bring final healing to the world. At times, the suffering will still numb us and make it impossible for us to think of anything or even to breathe. But if in our spirits, we have made the simple yet magnificent act of surrender to the Lord, then our suffering by his doing will bring healing to others and, eventually, albeit in death itself, to ourselves. For death, as we know, yields to the definitive healing of the resurrection.