Over the past five years we have become familiar with Pope Francis’s unique commitment to the Gospel Way, thereby giving new hope to many and sometimes leaving others in a rage of disbelief or worse. Today’s Gospel reading reveals Jesus being presented with a request from a man infected with leprosy. In light of the prohibitions set out in the Old Testament reading from Leviticus (13; 1-2. 45-46), how was he going to respond?
Leviticus tells us that ‘the Lord told Moses and Aaron that persons infected with leprosy must live apart, outside the camp, wear their clothing torn, their hair disordered, shielding their upper lips, and cry, ‘Unclean, unclean!’ as they moved around. Jesus would have been familiar with this passage from the Old Testament and all such passages which forbade people living with leprosy to associate with the rest of the population, since it was generally believed, until relatively recently, that the disease was contagious.
When the man came to Jesus, pleading on his knees saying, ‘If you want to you can cure me.’ Jesus, responding without hesitation, stretched out his hand and touched him. Jesus touched the man living with leprosy. He touched the excluded one, the unclean one, the one with the torn clothes, the one bound by the Law of Moses ‘to shield his upper lip and cry, ‘Unclean, unclean!’. Jesus touched him and the leprosy left him at once and he was cured. No hint of Jesus worrying about the huge consequence of breaking the Law of Moses. Jesus’s total focus was on the man in front of him pleading on his knees to be freed of leprosy. ‘Of course I want to,’ was Jesus’s response to him, without fear of consequence, followed by two words never said to this man before: ‘Be healed.’ Jesus’s healing of the man (Mark 1:40-45) was a compassionate, intuitive, immediate act which satisfied the demands of Love. Remember the verse from the Old Testament prophet Micah (6: 8) with which Jesus also would have been familiar: ‘This is what your God asks of you, only this – to act justly, to love tenderly, to walk humbly with your God.’
Having satisfied the requirements of Love Jesus then makes the following request of the man he had healed, saying, ‘Go and show yourself to the priest, and make the offering for your healing prescribed by Moses as evidence of your recovery.’ In making this request Jesus in humility and obedience showed that the Law of Moses was important to him, but here as elsewhere throughout the Gospel, Jesus gives precedence to the Law of Love, showing us through the simple action of stretching out a hand to another and giving all that we are capable of giving at any given moment, is all that is required to proclaim the Good News from God. The man cured of leprosy showed his own wisdom by becoming the messenger of Good News as he began talking freely everywhere about the miracle of healing that had taken place in him.
At the beginning of his Gospel Mark introduced Jesus as the beloved Son of God, who is guided by the Spirit to withdraw into the wilderness. In today’s reading also, we find Jesus, once he had healed the man, staying outside towns ‘in places where nobody lived.’ This movement of engagement with people and then withdrawing to places where nobody lives is a common theme throughout the Gospels, shows that Jesus too, needed an environment where he could enjoy undisturbed, the meeting of his own being with the being of his beloved Abba, Father. The renewal and empowerment which came from such encounters enabled Jesus to be and expand the Kingdom of God on earth. Once refreshed in body and spirit he engages again in his ministry of preaching, teaching and healing. When he gathered the Twelve around him they too followed this rhythm of withdrawing to be alone in the company of Jesus and of his Abba, Father.
Today’s Gospel reading brought me back to the time my mother told my sister, brother and me the story of Damien the Leper and his work with the poor and the sick far, far away. In my early adult life I discovered that this Damian, now known as St. Damien of Molokai, was the first person outside my immediate family, to influence my calling to religious life. I was 7 years old when I first heard of Damien, the same age I give when asked, ‘And what age were you when you decided to be a religious?’ Father Damien also desired to be a missionary from an early age.
Having read parts of his life story lately, I would describe Damien now as one who truly walked in the footsteps of Christ, equalling St. Paul commitment in many ways. I sense that Damien must have been very familiar with St. Paul’s exhortation, ‘Whatever you eat, whatever you drink, whatever you do at all, do it for the glory of God. Never do anything offensive to anyone… just as I try to be helpful to everyone at all times, not anxious for my own advantage but for the advantage of everybody else, so that they may be saved’ (1 Corinthians 10:31 – 11:1).
Fr. Damian was truly one who did not have to wait for a Pope Francis to tell them the importance of having ‘the smell of the sheep.’ Yes, Damien lived the Gospel message to the best of his ability. He did not experience himself as perfect, and neither did others have that experience of him. He had the reputation of being a person who readily acknowledged his sins (as recommended in the responsorial psalm today, ‘I said: “I will confess my offence to the Lord” and you Lord, have forgiven the guilt of my sin’ (Psalm: 31). Christ was his rock of safety, the stronghold that saved him and this enabled him to continue to minister to the people of Molokai before and after he had contracted leprosy. He died at the age of 49 in April 1889. He was canonized in October 2009 by Pope Benedict.
Sr. Caitriona Geraghty OP