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Sixth Sunday In Ordinary Times (6B), Feb. 12, 2012
By Fr. Phil Bloom
Bottom line: Jesus cured the leper. He wants to heal the leper inside.
I am sure you have heard of the Scottish novelist, Robert Louis Stevenson. He not only wrote wonderful adventure stories, like "Treasure Island," but more serious works such as "The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde." In that novel, he explored the odd combination of good and evil in one person.
As Stevenson observed dramatically, a human being can have high aspirations and at the same time do horrendous things. The existence of so much evil and cruelty made Stevenson wonder if God really exists. All of his doubts came together when he first met a leper. Lepers not only suffered a painful physical condition; they often faced harsh, even cruel treatment. How can a good God allow such suffering and cruelty? Before I tell you about Stevenson's encounter with a leper, I would like to give a short description of the disease:
"Leprosy is a slowly progressing bacterial infection that affects the skin, peripheral nerves in the hands and feet, and mucous membranes of the nose, throat, and eyes. Destruction of the nerve endings causes the the affected areas to lose sensation. Occasionally, because of the loss of feeling, the fingers and toes become mutilated and fall off, causing the deformities that are typically associated with the disease."
The medical description gives some idea of the horror of leprosy. The horror was heightened because Robert Louis Stevenson first met a leper in a beautiful setting - the Hawaiian Island of Molokai. In the nineteenth century - before they had any cure for leprosy - they simply banished them to remote places. When Stevenson visited the lepers' colony on Molokai, it shocked him and made him question God's existence. Stevenson wrote that he saw "abominable deformations of our common manhood ... a population as only now and then surrounds us in the horror of a nightmare ... the butt-ends of human beings lying there almost unrecognizable but still breathing, still thinking, still remembering ... a pitiful place to visit, a hell to dwell in."
Stevenson probably would have given in to depression, even despair, if he had not seen something else. On that same island, a group of Christians had established a clinic to care for the lepers. Among those Christians was a priest from Belgium, Fr. Damien Joseph de Veuster. The life of Fr. Damien inspired Stevenson so much that wrote a lengthy letter defending him against accusations and predicting his canonization. His predictions were accurate: In 2009 Pope Benedict beatified Fr. Damien. He is now known as Saint Damien of Molokai. The compassion of Saint Damien deeply impressed Stevenson.
Today we see the greatest example of compassion. Remember that, at the time of Jesus, leprosy was more than a hideous physical disease. It also brought painful social and religious consequences: The leper had to keep his distance from others, wear a bell and cry out, "unclean, unclean." Perhaps most cruel, he was cut off from the consolation of religious rites. Jesus did something extraordinary, really unthinkable. He reached across that social division and touched the leper. By touching the man, Jesus contaminated himself. St. Matthew says, "he took our infirmities upon himself." Jesus did this because he saw beyond the disfigurement of leprosy. He saw the worth of the person - in spite of external deformity and internal decay.*
Jesus' compassion challenges us. Not that leprosy holds terror today. Thanks be to God, we now have medicines that effectively treat the disease. We do, nevertheless, meet people who suffer from a deeper form of leprosy - an internal disfigurement. I can think of people I shy away from. No one in this congregation, of course - but, then, this homily is not a public confession. :)
I would like to mention one person whom we shy away from. His disfigurements make us unwilling to look at him. We have, in fact, lived with him all our lives. I think you know who I mean. Robert Louis Stevenson wrote about him in "The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde." Like the noble Dr. Jekyll, an ignoble being lurks inside. We keep that part hidden - maybe even from our own selves. That's understandable, but it could be a fatal mistake.
Today's Gospel contains a simple, powerful prayer: "If you wish, you can make me clean." Doubt sometimes tempts us, but there is one thing we cannot doubt: Jesus' compassion. He is willing to take our illness, our infirmity upon himself. In doing so, he can help us show compassion to others. Robert Louis Stevenson glimpsed that compassion when he visited the island of Molokai. It enabled him to overcome his doubts and express his faith in God.
I would like to conclude this homily by reading what Stevenson wrote in the guest book at Molokai. He composed a spontaneous poem, where he admits that he was tempted to deny God. The beauty of compassion, however, caused him to fall silent and adore God. Here is the poem:
To see the infinite pity of this place
The mangled limb, the devastated face,
The innocent sufferer smiling at the rod
A fool was tempted to deny his God.
He sees, he shrinks. But if he gazes again.
Lo, beauty springing from the breast of pain!
He marks the cisterns on the mournful shores;
And even a fool is silent and adores."
*The example of St. Francis might help. For him the act requiring most courage was to embrace the leper. And only by doing so, did he experience freedom and joy. Could something similar be true regarding leper inside? And is it not time to obey Jesus' command, "Show yourself to the priest..."?
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