Living with a chronic illness can frustrate me. I can be angry, edgy, tormented. With all our modern advances in medicine, why can’t researchers and doctors overcome this disease, I ask. I wait interminably for promised breakthroughs; I hope desperately for a miracle, I often pray for healing. Yet I don’t let the illness define me. Such experiences can help me empathize with the leper in today’s gospel. For him no medical breakthrough awaits, no healing looms, no future dawns.
Lepers in biblical times were required to proclaim “unclean” and live in social and religious isolation from the community. They lived painful lives, their only human contact being those in their same condition. Their only future was the relief of death.
The leper in the gospel, excluded from the community and well aware of his miserable plight, understandably approached Jesus with caution (“If you wish”) and humility (“kneeling down”). Jesus, however, has no doubt about his response, for his purpose in coming among us was to show the compassion of God for the outcast: “I do will it.” Jesus’ compassion gave the leper what he deeply wished—to be made clean, yes, but also once again to be restored to relations that were lost, to have a life other than one determined by pain, to have an opportunity for a different outlook on death. The leper’s boldness in approaching Jesus changed his life in so many ways.
This healing account between a leper and Jesus dramatically unfolds in a conversation punctuated by concrete and very personal gestures. The leper comes to Jesus, kneels, and boldly begs for cleansing, gestures expressing his sense of unworthiness. Moved with pity, Jesus stretches out his hand and touches the leper, gestures revealing the leper’s inherent dignity. Jesus heals more than the man’s body. Encounter with Jesus and being healed always fashions a new relationship with him. Freed from pain and isolation, the leper can let his inherent dignity spill over into proclaiming the Good News of a new Presence, a new Awakening, a new Life.
Each of us has been touched by Jesus, healed of pain and suffering, been invited to grow into a deeper relationship with him. Our own inherent dignity is reinforced by Jesus’ very personal compassion and care for each of us. We experience this compassion and care in our own moments of deep prayer as we turn to Jesus in our need. We experience Jesus’ compassion and care in the helping hand of another, in the unexpected pat on the back for something we’ve done well, in a burst of energy we get from another noticing some good we’ve done. In these and many other ways, goodness abounds and relationships grow.
Paschal mystery living means taking up our cross daily and actually doing what Jesus did—willing the good of others. Doing so sometimes means risking isolation: being snubbed by coworkers, being ridiculed for giving of our time and possessions for the good of others. Such isolation because of paschal mystery living is not the loss it seems, however, for it gains us deeper community in the Body of Christ