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Mark’s chapter 1 and the first section of Ordinary time each end with another sign of Jesus’ authority over sickness and the power of evil. To be more precise, the cleansing of the leper is the last of a series of Jesus’ transgressions. Since he arrived in Capernaum, Jesus violated the holy time of Sabbath on several occasions: he “worked” the miracle of casting an unclean spirit from a man and curing Simon’s mother-in-law (and enabling her to wait on them!). He also became unclean by the very act of touching a sick woman. That was enough to discredit Jesus in the eyes of the scribes, Pharisees and priests. But Jesus takes a step further. Today’s passage from Mark puts together a number of details that should exclude him from the world of the “pure,” those who observe and obey every commandment and statute of the Law.
Regardless of the content of passages like these in which we find a provocative breaking of the rules (in fact, of the Law with a capital L), there is a tonality, some kind of musical key, which determines the way in which these sayings and actions of Jesus must be understood and interpreted: that is, as paradox. Mark seems to insist throughout his Gospel (as do the other Evangelists, especially John) in setting before the reader apparent contradictions that underline once and again that God’s ways are not the ways humans normally follow. Today’s text, together with the rest of the readings, can be both a model and a guideline to grasp the spirit that pervades and shapes Jesus’ preaching and his proclamation of the Kingdom of God.
There is no need to insist on the double dimension that the Hebrew mentality found in disease: for them it was both physical and spiritual. Leprosy (whatever skin disease this may refer to) is the example par excellence. The text from Leviticus we read today sums up those elements: the fear of contagion (both moral and physical); the rejection the people showed towards lepers; and the feeling of carrying a stigma on their shoulders. The social abandonment and isolation lepers suffered was a burden they had to bear as a punishment all their lives. In a sense, they were “living corpses.” Psalm 102 could express their mood: they were not only “just skin and bones” but felt like “an owl among the ruins” or “a lone sparrow on the roof.” (Curiously, this text has been traditionally applied to the suffering Jesus in his passion).
Here we have some of the paradoxes we will see. In his encounter with Jesus, the impure leper breaks the Law by approaching another person, but in that illegal way he becomes clean and can return to normal life and enter the villages; whereas Jesus, the Saviour who has also transgressed the norms by touching the leper in order to cleanse him, becomes himself impure and, from that moment on, “it was impossible for him to enter the villages openly.” We can also see the contrast existing between Jesus’ authority and that of the priests. The only thing the priests can do is to “declare” the leper clean or unclean, whereas Jesus cleanses and purify him. Another fact to take into account: neither the leper nor Jesus uses the terms “curing” or “healing,” but “making clean.” A last detail: such as it happened in the case of the man with an unclean spirit (1:23-25) or the demons he had driven out of him (1:34), Jesus commands the leper not to tell anything to anyone about his cleaning. That “Messianic secret” could be a sign of his fear of being misinterpreted by the people, who might not understand the kind of Messiah he came to be. This is another paradox we will find again later on.
As usual, a double look at our environment and at our inner self. Nowadays, people do not link disease with sin or guilt, as our conception of reality is quite far from what it was in Jesus’ time. If we exclude some outbreak of fanaticism in the early days of the AIDS epidemic, we are far from seeing disease as a consequence of sin. However, we do have our lepers around us. In fact, we create them whenever we isolate, discriminate or avoid others on grounds as simple as unorthodox religious trends (we decide what is orthodox); political or ideological correctness (the media, including many serious publications, set the criteria for us to follow); social or economic status; race, gender or sexual orientation; age, nationality, or marital status … the list has no end. We seem to need people who are different, “the others,” to be able to exclude them as impure, and so feel secure in our cleanness. We call ourselves Christians, for whom there should be no Jew or Gentile, no slave or free, male or female, but, when, why and how did we lose our “catholic,” “universal” spirit? To which lepers and in what ways can we stretch out our hands and communicate Jesus’ saving and purifying message? Which risks of being considered impure do we dare take in the task of being ministers of mercy? What type of leper/impure person would we invite to our table?
A twofold prayer today: for those who feel and are rejected, discriminated against or excluded: that they may feel accepted in our Christian communities. And for us who so often create barriers of distance and isolation: that we may become signs of Jesus’ mercy, compassion and brotherly acceptance.
Even if this seems to be out place, let me remind you that in a couple of days we will celebrate Ash Wednesday. In todays’ Lectio we have meditated upon and prayed about Jesus’ compassionate sign that restored the unclean leper to a life of wholeness and reconciliation. Lent is a period of conversion. No more than two months have passed since Christmas and, let us admit it, the revival of our Christian life after contemplating the new-born Messiah has already suffered a certain decay. Lent invites us to renew our style of Christian life by means of three traditional spiritual exercises: alms giving, prayer and fasting. I invite you to read Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18, the text for the Mass of Ash Wednesday, and see how you can prepare yourself for your Lenten adjustment and “tune-up” prior to Easter
Reflections written by Rev. Fr. Mariano Perrón, Roman Catholic priest, Archdiocese of Madrid, Spain.
Both the first and the third readings of today speak of something that generated terror in the ancient world: leprosy. Leprosy was a kind generic word that covered a whole range of diseases, specially skin diseases, and most of all contagious and incurable diseases. As a reaction to that horror men felt in themselves, they ostracized and separated the victims of those types of illness, often with religious laws, not only to protect themselves physically from the contagion, but also, obviously, to protect themselves, psychologically, from looking into themselves.
One of the great novels of our century, which won a Nobel prize of literature to its author, is The Plague by Camus, publish shortly after WWII. It is a French novel, but has been translated in English, and I am sure many of you have read it. It is the story of a town in Algeria where the population is suddenly struck by an epidemic of bubonic plague; a plague that a various time in history, before the discovery of vaccines, has decimated large segments of the population of the world. The town is put in quarantine, and the whole book is the description of the attitude of a certain number of characters, as they are confronted with that unexpected physical evil. I think that anyone who wants to reflect seriously about modern contagious illness like AIDS, for example, should read that book.
Camus is not Christian, although in his youth he wrote a doctoral thesis on St. Augustine. He is not an atheist however. He considers himself as post‑Christian. And because of his very honest questioning of the Christianity as he knew it in its reaction to evil, he rediscovers and conveys truths and attitudes that are in fact at times profoundly Christian.
The book is a modern myth about the destiny of man, about what Hopkins called “the death dance in our blood”. For Camus, this “death dance,” this hidden propensity to pestilence, is something more than mere mortality. It is the willful negation of life… the human instinct to dominate and to destroy ‑‑ to seek one’s own happiness by destroying the happiness of others, to build one’s security on power and, by extension, to justify evil use of that power in terms of “history”, of “common good”, or “national security”, or, worst, of “the justice of God”.
There are two main characters in the novel. A priest and a doctor. The physician, doctor Rieux, is the first one to discover the signs of the Plague; and it takes him time before he can convince all the others of what is obvious. All the years that the Plague last in the city, he will devote himself entirely, to taking care of the sick, organizing sanitation, burying the dead, inventing a vaccine, and finally bringing the epidemic to an end. And all of that is considered by him and by Camus, not as something virtuous or heroic in any way. It is just what he had to do in the situation where he was. You don’t praise a teacher for teaching that two and two makes four, he says. If someone is in need and you can do something for him; you just have to do it. There is nothing special in that, even if you risk your life, even if you die. After all, says Camus, there always comes a time in life where those who say that two and two makes four are put to death.
The history of the priest is interesting. At the beginning, he has all the answers. The city has been hit by the Plague because this is what people deserve. God is disappointed with the modern world in general and with them in particular. But in his mercy God is giving the city another chance. The Plague lights the path to future salvation. He can see God in action unfailingly transforming evil into good. Doing so, he “justifies” the plague and tries to make people love their sufferings. To what the good practical doctor, who is not much of a practicing Catholic says, with a lot of Christian compassion: “Christians sometimes talk like that without really thinking it” and he adds that devastating compliment: “They are better than they seem, though”. And he adds that the good Father speaks like this because he has learn only from his theology books. “That’s why he can talk with such assurance of the truth with a capital T. Every country priest… who has heard a man gasping for breath on his deathbed thinks as I do, says the good doctor. He’d try to relive human suffering before trying to point out its excellence.”
In fact, the priest, after seeing a child die in atrocious pain, will come to some of that compassion in the end.
Now, if we come back quickly to our Gospel, I don’t think I need to make a long commentary. It’s obvious that the attitude of the priest at the beginning of the novel, with all his explanations about sin and punishment by God, was the attitude of the Scribes and Pharisees, and in general of the official religion of Israel. The attitude of the doctor in the novel is the attitude of Christ, who never, in the whole Gospel, gives a word of explanation about leprosy or any other illness. He simply touches the leper with his own hand and heals him.
And I suppose the question each one of us has to answer in his own heart is: On what side are we?