Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Scripture Readings: Lev 13:1-2, 44-46; 1 Cor 10:31-11:1; Mk 1:40-45
The man approaching Jesus was covered with leprosy. People turned away at the sight of his ulcers. He had to cry out a warning in his scratchy voice, “Unclean, unclean.” His body was pitifully ugly. That was “strike one” against him. Jesus saw this man who looked like walking death coming toward him and Jesus waited for him.
The leper’s heart was no less disfigured and scarred than his face. No hands had held his for years, no lips had kissed his own. The only greetings that came his way were jeers, and looks of ice and stone. He was an outcast, debarred from social life, forced to withdraw from his family, from his trade, from everyone he had known and loved; he was so lonely. If he once had children, now he could only watch them grow from a distance, never able to hug them, never touching them. His heart was in more anguish than his body. He was socially, totally unacceptable. That was “strike two” against him: first his body and now his heart. Jesus saw this man who had a wild, frighten, hungry look coming toward him and Jesus waited for him.
The leper’s soul was no less stricken than his heart and his body. Leprosy was considered a punishment for sin. It was as if his sins had broken to the surface and were devouring his flesh. He was expelled from the synagogue and the Temple. He received no blessings, no prayers, no greetings of peace. He felt abandoned by God. His spiritual uncleanness was more contagious than his physical disease. Anyone who touched a leper was immediately defiled, unclean, cut off from the praying community. The leper was a sinner. That was “strike three” against him. Physically, emotionally, and spiritually the leper was alone. He had no one to comfort him, not even God. Jesus saw this man who was forsaken, separated from God coming toward him, and Jesus saw himself hanging on the cross like one stricken and smitten by God, afflicted and bruised, with no beauty or loveliness to be desired, despised and rejected, a man of sorrows from whom all hide their faces, someone cut off from the land of the living. So Jesus waited for him.
As the leper drew closer Jesus was moved with love. He did not flee or pick up a stick or stones to drive the man away as others would have done. Jesus let the leper come closer and closer. The poor man fell down at Jesus’ feet and said in a trembling, raspy voice, “Lord if you will, you can make me clean.” Jesus stretched forth his hand, gently stroked the leper’s cheek and swept all his sores away. He looked into his eyes with love and said, “Of course I want to, be clean.” All at once the leper was made whole again, clean, healed by Jesus and loved by God.
From the moment Jesus touched this leper, the values of cultures based on appearances were reversed. Never again would touching a leper make a Christian disciple unclean. Just the opposite. Reaching out to comfort the afflicted, to love the unlovely, to embrace the ugly, makes us more like Christ, more spiritually beautiful. St. Francis of Assisi overcame his repugnance to a leper by kneeling to kiss his hands after first fleeing from the disfigured man. Blessed Damian of Molokai not only ministered to lepers but willingly became one. His handsome face grew blistered and swollen, dreadfully disfigured. Mother Teresa of Calcutta found Christ in the ravaged faces of dying wretches she picked up from the gutters of India. She caressed them, and they thanked her.
One time long ago I was visiting one of our elderly monks in the infirmary who could no longer speak because of a stroke. I said, “It must be very hard and lonely to sit here all day long and not be able to say what you want to say.” He turned his eyes to me, his lips began to quiver, and he started to cry a little. I just held his hand with both of mine and loved him. Pope John Paul II once asked us to make frequent, even daily visits to Christ present not only in the tabernacles of our churches, but present in our brothers and sisters who are in need or difficulty, especially the elderly and the sick. Will you stretch out your hands to them? How will you show your love to them?