“If you wish, you can make me clean.”
The man with leprosy was facing a serious problem in three areas of life, physical, social and spiritual problems, and the kind of problems we face. The leprosy at that time was the most dreaded sickness, which was incurable. The sickness slowly eats out the body and the body deforms. Now if you are facing a physical problem today, perhaps you can identify with this man. Or perhaps you can be thankful that your problem is not nearly as bad as the physical problem this man was facing.
The man had social problem: The leper was a social outcast. One reason for this was due to the fact that leprosy can be contagious. It can be transmitted through the air or through contact with something the leper has touched. The leper had not only to bear the physical pain of his disease; he also had to bear the anguish and the heartbreak of being banished from human society and shunned literally like the plague. The only friends they could have would be other lepers.
The man had spiritual problem. According to the law he is spiritually unclean. Today’s first reading from Leviticus narrates that the person with such disease is unclean. The priest will declare him unclean. In this condition that person was required to be separated from others. That meant that he could not participate in temple worship or many other activities. But whereas most conditions of uncleanness were only temporary, leprosy was usually a lifetime condition. The second spiritual problem this man had was the fact that he was made to feel that his leprosy was due to his sin, or perhaps the sins of his parents. The Jewish Rabbis loved to trace disease to moral causes. They would say, that the sickness is not healed, until all his sins are forgiven. Thus, leprosy was described as a chastisement from God.
Throughout the ages “lepers” of all sorts are considered a menace to the society and are alienated. Our Lord Jesus, however, does not stand at a distance fearing of contamination. He “touches” the leper and the afflicted one is made clean. In today’s Gospel reading (Mk 1:40-45), the evangelist Mark depicts one of the most beautiful pictures of Christian compassion. In this narrative, he portrays Jesus as offering a completely new and radical response to the unmitigated human suffering personified by a leper. Breaking down the barriers of hygiene and ritual purity, Jesus does the unimaginable. Responding with compassion to the leper’s faith invocation, “If you wish, you can make me clean”, Jesus stretches out his hand and touches him saying, “I do will it. Be made clean.” He touches the “untouchable” with his healing hand. He comforts the outcast with an authoritative word that would bring him wholeness. Indeed, in the Gospel accounts, the cleansing of lepers is a victorious messianic sign that the Kingdom of God has come.
The healing ministry of Jesus, moreover, is always linked with his paschal victory on the cross. The great healer restored our wholeness, totally and radically, at the moment he surrenders his life on the cross. Blessed Paul VI underlines the relationship between the passion of Christ and the healing of our infirmities: “The loving gesture of Christ, who approaches lepers comforting them and curing them, has its full and mysterious expression in the passion. Tortured and disfigured by the sweat of blood, the flagellation, the crowning with thorns, the crucifixion, the rejection by the people he had helped, he identifies himself with lepers, becomes the image and symbol of them, as the prophet Isaiah had foreseen, contemplating the mystery of the Servant of the Lord: ‘He had no form or comeliness … He was despised and rejected by men …as one from whom men hide their faces … we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God and afflicted.’ But it is just from the wounds in Jesus’ tortured body and from the power of his resurrection that life and hope gushes for all men stricken by evil and infirmity.” Indeed, in his suffering and death on the cross, Jesus assumed in himself the human misery symbolized in the afflictions of a leprous victim. In his compassionate acts of healing and in his paschal victory on the cross, Jesus is truly “the fellow sufferer who understands” and strengthens us.
One of the exigencies of Christian life is to bring the healing ministry of Jesus to the many “lepers” of today, especially the millions of victims of Hansen’s disease all over the world who, more than all others, fit the description “the poorest of the poor”. Mother Teresa of Calcutta dedicated her ministry of charity in a special way to these lepers, impelled by the slogan that was a rewording of the ancient taboo. “Touch a leper with your compassion.” Mother Teresa, moreover, spoke of the “leprosy of the Western world”, which is, the leprosy of loneliness. In her ministry to the lonely, the unwanted, the marginalized, the rejected, the AIDS victim, etc. she had given witness that with the love of Christ, there is healing for the leprosy of our modern times. Indeed, Mother Teresa of Calcutta, together with St. Francis of Assisi, Blessed Damien of Molokai, and many other Christian disciples, had shown that it is possible to respond to the Christian missionary imperative: “Cure the sick … cleanse the lepers!” (Mt 10:8) and that it is necessary to replicate the healing gesture of Christ: “Touch a leper with your compassion.”
St. Paul in the second reading of the day emphasizes that the “glory of God” is the supreme object of all our actions. But in seeking the divine glory, we must always be animated by charity – like our model, Jesus Christ. St. Paul’s exhortation to imitate Christ in dealing with the weak and vulnerable reinforces the challenge of this Sunday’s Gospel reading (Mk 1:40-45) and Old Testament reading (Lv 13:1-2, 44-46). The Christians of today and in every time and space are called to imitate the compassionate stance of Jesus Christ, especially for the marginalized and the “lepers” of human society. Our loving Lord and Savior achieved the fullness of his healing and saving ministry upon the Cross – covered with sores and wounds – despised and rejected like a repulsive leper. Like Jesus Christ, we too are called to be healers for others, even and especially in our own experience of passion and suffering. The liturgical scholar Aelred Rosser remarks: “Jesus is the great healer – restoring our health at the moment he surrenders his life. The kingdom he brings is one in which all are healed and called to be healers. To be his disciple is not to be free of wounds and scars, but to be like him, a wounded healer.”