February 15, 2009
6th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Lev 13:1-2, 44-46; 1 Cor 10:31-11:1; Mk 1:40-45
Fr. Stephen Verbest, OCSO - New Melleray Abbey
Pimples, boils, wrinkles, lumps, blotches, rashes, blackheads, dandruff, crusty scabs, open sores and ugly scars. When looking good is everything skin afflictions are terribly humiliating. When the skin affliction is leprosy it is not only humiliating but ostracizing. Fear of contagion frightened many societies into expelling lepers from their midst. Similarly, our culture doesn't like to see pimples, boils, wrinkles, lumps, blotches, rashes, blackheads, dandruff, crusty scabs, open sores and ugly scars. But looking good isn't everything.
The man approaching Jesus was full of leprosy, it was all over him, he was covered with it. People turned away from the sight of his putrefying ulcers. He had to cry out a warning in his scratchy voice, "Unclean, unclean." He was ugly, horribly repugnant. That was "strike one" against him. Jesus saw this man who looked like walking death coming toward him and Jesus waited for him because he knew that looking good isn't everything.
The leper's heart was no less disfigured, scarred and falling apart than his face, neck and arms. No hands had held his hands for years, no lips had kissed his own. The only greetings that came his way were jeers, and looks of ice and stone. He was an outcast, debarred from social life, forced to withdraw from his family, from his trade, from everyone he had known and loved; he was, oh, so lonely. If he once had children, now he could only watch them grow from a distance, never able to hug them, never touching them. His heart was in more pain than his skin. He was socially, totally unacceptable. That was "strike two" against him. Jesus saw this man in torn clothes with disheveled hair who had a wild, frighten, hungry look coming toward him and Jesus waited for him because looking good isn't everything.
The leper's soul was no less stricken and damaged than the emotions of his heart and the skin of his body. In those days leprosy was thought to be a punishment for sinfulness. It was as if his sins had broken to the surface and were devouring his flesh. He was expelled from the synagogue and the Temple. He received no blessings, no prayers, no greetings of peace. He felt abandoned by God. His spiritual uncleanness was more contagious than his physical disease. Anyone who touched a leper was immediately unclean, cut off from the praying community. The leper was considered a very bad sinner. That was "strike three" against him. Physically, emotionally, and spiritually the leper was alone. He had no one to comfort him, not even God. Jesus saw this man who was forsaken, separated from God coming toward him, and Jesus saw himself hanging on the cross like one stricken and smitten by God, afflicted and bruised, with no beauty or loveliness to be desired, despised and rejected, a man of sorrows from whom all hide their faces, someone cut off from the land of the living. But, looking good isn't everything. When we see Christ hanging on the cross looking good means nothing at all.
As the leper drew closer Jesus was moved with compassion. Jesus did not flee or pick up a stick or stones to drive the man away as others would have done. Jesus let the leper come very close. The poor man fell down at Jesus' feet and said in a trembling, raspy voice, "Lord if you will, you can make me clean." Jesus stretched forth his hand, gently stroked the leper's cheek and swept all his sores away. He looked into his eyes with love and said, "Of course I want to, be clean." All at once the leper knew he was healed by Jesus, loved by God and made whole again. The goodness and love of Jesus poured into his heart and soul. Looking good isn't everything; being good—a loving person, that's everything.
From the moment Jesus touched this leper, the values of a culture based on appearances were reversed. Never again would touching a leper make a Christian disciple unclean. Just the opposite. Reaching out to comfort the afflicted, to love the unlovely, to embrace the ugly, makes us more like Christ, more spiritually beautiful. St. Francis of Assisi overcame his repugnance by kneeling to kiss the hands of a leper after first fleeing from him. Blessed Damian de Veuster of Molokai not only ministered to lepers but willingly became one. His handsome face grew blistered and swollen, dreadfully disfigured. Mother Teresa found Christ in the ravaged faces of dying wretches she picked up from the gutters of Calcutta. She caressed them, and they thanked her.
One day, at New Melleray Abbey, I sat down next to Fr. Joseph in our infirmary. He had a stroke and could not speak. I said, "Fr. Joseph, it must be very hard and lonely to sit here all day long and not be able to say what you want to say." He turned his eyes to me, his lips began to quiver, and he started to cry a little. I just held his hand with both of mine and loved him. It is a beautiful and life giving practice to make frequent, even daily visits to Christ present in our Blessed Sacrament Chapels. But also to visit Christ present in the hearts of our brothers and sisters who are in need or difficulty, especially the elderly and the sick. They might not look good, that's nothing. Loving them, that's everything. Will you stretch out your hand to touch them, will you show your love to them as Christ did to the leper? Will you do it today?