February 11, 2018: Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Published with permission from Father P. Forlano
There were very few afflictions in biblical times more terrifying than that of leprosy. It was an incurable disease – a virtual death sentence. Besides the physical ravages of the disease that a person suffered, the person was also ostracized from society by the law. We hear this in the first reading from Leviticus: “The one who bears the sore of leprosy shall cry out, ‘Unclean, unclean!’… he shall dwell apart, making his abode outside the camp.” Even worse, since he was ritually unclean, the leper was prohibited from entering the Temple and participating in the communal life of the society, most importantly ritual worship. The law could do nothing to help the leper; it could only protect the community from the spreading of the disease. The leper was obligated by the law to warn people to stay away because to touch someone or something “unclean” made one unclean as well.
But what we witness happen in the Gospel today is unexpected on all counts. First the leper approaches Jesus without calling out “Unclean, unclean.” This is a bold move. Not only is he violating the prescriptions of the law, but he is risking rejection, the reaction of horror and revulsion. But his plea, “If you wish, you can make me clean” reveals not only his deepest desire but something different about Jesus. The man doesn’t ask to be healed but that he be made clean. The deeper desire is to be free to partake in the worship of God’s people. It reveals that the deeper suffering is not the physical but the spiritual or emotional suffering. We are made for communion with God and with each other; to be separated from the divine presence and human contact causes a much greater pain than the physical effects of the disease. Why did the leper take the risk to come to Jesus? What did he recognize in Jesus? He saw in Jesus what is the cure for the deeper suffering. He was willing to expose himself in that way because he recognized in Jesus the presence of Divine Mercy. Love in the flesh. God who has come near. Jesus is not scandalized or put off by his disease, but is “moved with pity” for him in his suffering, and this moves Jesus to draw near and touch him. The touch of Jesus makes the man clean. [And then Jesus instructs him to make the offering prescribed by the law – to go to the priests and take part again in the ritual worship. The prescribed rite for his cleansing was to take two clean birds, sacrifice one, and set the other one free after dipping it in the blood of the one that was sacrificed. This ritual would be a symbolic foreshadowing of Jesus’ own sacrifice – that we would be set free from sin and be able to enter into communion with God after being washed or bathed in the blood of the Lamb.]
Recently, I heard a talk by the Medical Director of Calvary Hospital in New York. Calvary Hospital is an acute care hospital that primarily deals with patients suffering from end-stage cancer. Dr. Brescia spoke about the nature of human suffering and how he and his staff respond to it. Suffering does not just pertain to the patient, but to the family and the staff that care for them. The patient may have the physical suffering, but the family and staff, as well as the patient himself, suffer spiritually and emotionally. The motto of the hospital is “compassio” – to suffer with. “Whatever you do to the least of my brothers, you do to me”. Seeing Christ in every patient and responding with mercy to the one who is suffering defines the mission. The doctor said that all physical pain and the spiritual suffering associated with mental illness like delirium, depression, and panic attacks can be addressed and eliminated with drugs, but what makes Calvary different is that they intentionally treat the emotional suffering, the suffering that comes from an absence of love. This is the feeling, like that of the leper, that, because of my condition, “I’m unloved and unloveable.” Dr. Brescia made the point, that what he describes does not just apply to his patients but to all of us. What addresses the suffering is love. And he described in very concrete terms how that love is expressed. He said, 1) Be present to them. When you say, “I’m coming back”, come back. 2) You must touch. Don’t go into the patient’s room and not touch him. Hold his hand. We are all tactile creatures and we need human touch in order to thrive. 3) You have to hold one another. Hold your patient. 4) You have to speak. You can’t love without saying it. They need to hear it. We’ve heard this before: “I know my husband loves me, but it would be nice if I heard him say it sometime.” Dr. Brescia said he prays before he enters every room, “Lord, my love for you brings me here because the greatest of your commandments is to love one another”. Say that prayer, then do your work. When you say that, God comes, and that room becomes a sanctuary. Calvary Hospital was cited as a reason to eliminate proposed legislation for assisted suicide in New York because when a patient is treated this way, when their God-given dignity is recognized, the rationale for assisted suicide goes away. The most painful kind of suffering is addressed.
We are all meant to identify in some way with the leper because in our weakness, shame, and sin, we are all to some degree like him. What we need to be healed, what addresses our deepest need, is divine love that comes through a human touch. We need to be embraced or held and hear a loving word when we have sinned. While leprosy has been virtually wiped out in developed countries, the loneliness and social stigma associated with many physical and interior afflictions, e.g., mental illness, depression, addictions, is very widespread. The defilement of sin often causes a deep inner shame, even if the person won’t admit it, that makes the person hesitant to turn to God. They fear rejection or judgment if the truth came out or if they approached the Lord, since they are not “holy.” “I am not worthy.” “I am a disappointment. I let him down.” The temptation is always to hide our sin, keep it to ourselves, not admit we have a problem, but we will not be healed unless we admit the fact that we are unclean and let the Lord touch us. We all want to be made clean, but will those around us who are suffering spiritually and emotionally because of their sin and poor choices find in us hearts moved with pity for them? Hands that will reach out to them? A loving embrace? A word of kindness or, instead, a word of rebuke? If we are angry because we think others will somehow defile or tarnish our name or will suck the life out of us if we open the door to them, we need to pray for hearts that are moved with pity for the suffering, because it is our touch, the touch of mercy, that will make them clean.
Click on the link HERE to review a video referenced in this homily.