The first reading from the Book of Leviticus gives just a few of the horrible rules established by the ancient Jews to protect themselves from people who had leprosy. In ancient times leprosy was believed to be deforming, contagious and incurable. Lepers were ostracised by their families and neighbours, and they were forced to live outside the villages and towns. They were referred to as the Living Dead. To the ancients lepers were considered to be cursed by God for some sin or other. Lepers had to wear ragged clothes. They had to let their hair go uncombed and uncut. They had to cover their mouths with one hand, ring a bell or a wooden clapper with the other, and call out “Unclean, unclean” as they walked. Anyone who came into close contact with a leper was also considered to be unclean.
Our Lord, moved with pity, stretched out his hand, touched the leper, and said to him, “Be made clean.” Our Lord didn’t see the leper or his disease. He wasn’t concerned with the strict prohibitions of Jewish society. Our Lord didn’t see a leper at all; he saw a human soul in desperate need, and so He stretched out his hand and touched him and healed him with his touch.
Our Lord gave this healing power to his disciples. At the end of St. Mark’s Gospel, Our Lord declares that they will lay their hands on the sick who will recover.
We all possess the incredible capacity to be instruments of Our Lord’s healing power. This means we have the duty not only to pray for the sick and to help them get effective medical help, but also to pray with them and encourage them to join their suffering with that of Our Lord who, more than anyone knows what suffering is and means. Not that I’m suggesting you visit one of the many crackpot healers who dangle crystals or utter mumbo jumbo, but rather seek God’s healing touch in the Sacrament of the Sick – surely the first resort for any Catholic who is sick or suffering.
In the second reading St. Paul challenges us to imitate Christ: like him we are to be ministers of healing. We are to touch with our lives not just the physically sick, but all those whose lives are hurting and need healing in any way possible.
It is simply unchristian to ostracise anyone for any reason whatsoever. In Christian society, even those with the most contagious diseases are cared for in a way that gives them dignity and love. Even those who have left Christian society are always welcomed back when they seek to return. Even in the rare cases of apostasy and excommunication, that person can always seek forgiveness and re-entry into the community, under certain conditions.
And yet, many people continue to throw children or relatives out of their lives. Is there ever a situation where there is no longer any possibility of healing, of mercy, or of extending the hand of Christ to those who seek reconciliation? This shouldn’t happen among Christians. The Forgiving Father may not have been able to give his Prodigal Son the remainder of the farm; that now belonged to the Elder Brother. But he was able to welcome the prodigal back into the family. The person who has hurt his or her spouse and children may not be able to resume his or her place in the marriage, but that person still can receive the forgiveness, and the healing, he or she longs for. The convicted murderer may never be able to re-assume a place in free society, but he can be forgiven and given an opportunity to amend his sins while incarcerated.
When we allow ourselves to be so overcome by hurt and hatred that we refuse to extend a healing hand to others, we take upon ourselves the sickness of the other person. When we allow hatred to become part of our lives, we are no longer Christians. As individuals and as a society we have to take measures to protect ourselves from those who would destroy us. There are times when we have no choice but to go to war. But we don’t have the right to hate anyone or any people and at the same time call ourselves Christian.
Our Lord was often moved with pity for the people as he preached the Kingdom of God. When he faced the troubled, the abandoned, and the sick, Our Lord was moved not by disgust, but by pity. Feeling pity and showing mercy are ideal Christian qualities of great minds and large hearts.
On this World Day of Prayer for the Sick, we are called to follow Christ and allow our hearts to be enlarged by the Church and her teaching.
THE BEGINNING OF LENT
ASH WEDNESDAY 14th February 2018