Here’s my homily for the 6th Sunday in Ordinary Time – February 15, 2009. The readings can be found at http://www.usccb.org/nab/readings/021509.shtml. Thanks for reading and for all your comments and feedback! God Bless – Fr Jim
There’s a tendency when we hear Gospel stories like this one, where Jesus heals a leper, to liken Jesus to some type of magician. Perhaps it’s the result of televangelists spoofs in which we see an old person with a cane being touched on the head – and then running and dancing down the aisle. These types of images create a sense of disbelief in miraculous healing, and can be one reason we seem to have a lack of connection to these “miracle stories.”
The thing about this leper is that he is not asking Jesus to heal him from just any old illness. Leprosy is a bacterial infection of the skin, which can eventually paralyze someone and ultimately kill them. It is repulsive on many levels: people’s body parts literally decay in plain sight; there is a horrible stench associated with it; and (as if all that weren’t bad enough) it is highly contagious. That’s why lepers were separated from the rest of the community, and even required to wear a bell to announce there presence – so people could run away from them. Because of all this, people afflicted with leprosy not only suffered physical pain – they felt alone, isolated from the rest of the world. The suffering in their bodies was matched by the suffering in their souls.
Have you ever felt that alone? Have you ever felt that type of pain? Do you have something you’ve carried in your heart that’s so painful that you’ve given up hope of ever getting rid of it? You’ve tried everything – but it doesn’t seem like anything will help? If you do now, or have in the past carried that kind of pain, you can begin to understand how this poor guy in the Gospel felt.
One time that I really felt like that was during my s enior year of high school. My birthday being in November, I was one of the last in my class to turn 17 and get my drivers license. And that’s really one of the greatest feelings you experience at that age – that sense of independence. I remember thinking how amazing it was to be alone in the car driving back to High School that day I got my license. And, a few days later, I convinced my parents (after a whole day of furious arguing) that I should be allowed to drive some friends to the movies. It was going to be my first time driving at night. It had been raining all day, and tey were concerned – not because they didnt trust me, but because I didn’t have enough experience driving (by the way, it couldn’t have been a lamer plan – we were going to see Home Alone). But, finally, after a whole day of fighting (and using my ace card of you-never-did-this-to-my-brothers) my parents gave in. I picked up my friends. All in all, there were going to be three girls with me (that was the one lie I had told my parents – I was only supposed to have two people in the car with me – but what’s one more?).
I remember I had just picked up the third person, and started to drive. It was pretty dark out, even at 7:00. And I was unfamiliar with this part of town – but I finally saw the “main drag” up ahead, which was pretty well lit up, and just focused on getting to that . . . Not even realizing I had pulled into another intersection . . . not even realizing I had gone right through a stop sign – with a car coming right at me. The car slammed right into my truck – we spun practically 360 degrees, finally coming to a stop by crashing into a curb. I remember I couldn’t even open my door, and all I could see was someone lying on the ground.
“Oh my God, did I hit someone?”
I climbed out of the passenger side of the car and looked down. It was the girl who had been sitting right behind me. She had crashed through the rear passenger window, and was on the ground, unconscious, with severe internal injuries – so severe she needed to be airlifted to a trauma center in Newark. The rest of the night was filled with interviews by cops, tests to make sure I hadn’t been drinking (which I hadn’t) or taken drugs (again a no) – and it was finally determined to be just a terrible mistake, an awful accident. I went to the hospital to see my friend in a coma, with doctors unsure of her prognosis – and I kept apologizing over and over to my friends, my family .
No one could comfort me – in fact, I didn’t believe I deserved comfort when I still didn’t know if my friend would live or die – or would have to live with permanent disabilities. The pain I felt, thinking that my friend could die because of a mistake I had made, was one of the darkest emotions of my life. I truly felt loneliness like I’ve never experienced. I cried like I’ve never cried before. I not only had this guilt that my friend’s life could be over, or ruined – but that mine could be ‘over’ as well.
I got home, went into my bedroom and started to sob again, as I looked up at the cross and just said, “Jesus I don’t even know what to do – help me”. I knew he couldn’t make the clock turn backwards and restart the whole night (or if he could, technically, because he is God, I didn’t expect that to happen). I almost couldn’t believe my prayers for my friend mattered (since I had been the cause of it all) – I really didn’t know what I needed – I didn’t even know what to pray for. But – here is the key thing I learned that night – I knew Who to go to. Which is why today’s Gospel triggered my painful memory. For the leper doesn’t really know what to ask for either. He goes to Jesus and basically says, “I know you can do anything – if you want you can cure me”. And Jesus did
For me, in my prayer that awful night, a peace came over me. I felt like I heard a voice in my head saying, “Everything’s going to be alright, just have faith in me.” At the time, I didn’t know what that meant, but I believed it. It was so real that I was finally able to fall asleep, and wake up the next day, even momentarily forgetting what had happened the night before.
In the end, it wasn’t the miraculous healing I had wanted. I wanted my friend to wake up that same morning, 100% better, maybe be back in school in a couple of days, and for everything to quickly get back to “normal”. In reality, her recovery would be a lot longer, and more painful than I can ever imagine, even to this day. And I didn’t immediately recover from the emotional pain and tremendous guilt that plagued me long after that day.
But I can say that I truly felt Jesus healed me during my prayer that first night. In that moment of complete aloneness, complete isolation, complete darkness – where I felt totally unlovable because of the mistake I had made – where I felt that no one would ever be able to forgive me (especially if the worst had happened, which it could have) – that night Jesus really touched me and healed me of horrible void. And in the days and weeks and years that followed, I was able to accept and believe in the people Christ sent into my life to help me through this painful recovery.
Why this painful memory resonates in reading this Gospel reading is because Jesus’ healing is more than just a miraculous thing that wipes away physical afflictions in a magical, gimmicky way. Which is why I think Jesus tells the healed leper not tell anyone. Its not that Jesus has a one-leper- per-day-maximum. He was more interested in removing the spiritual pain that was afflicting the leper – the isolation he felt – the feeling that no one could ever love him again – and, if Jesus had to heal him of his leprosy to convince him of the truth, than so be it.
What about us? I know there are people here who are in pain. Real pain. Pain that they’ve kind of grown accustomed, to or work so hard to hide. And that’s why I’m sharing my difficult story, because I know Jesus wants to heal you of your pain, too. Can we embrace the leper’s faith and say to Jesus, “If you wish, you can cure me?” He is waiting, eagerly to touch our lives and say, “I do will it.”