Tuesday night, at our Newman Night, we had a discussion on the Corporal Works of Mercy – acts that are found in the teachings of Jesus Christ as a model for how to treat others as if they were Jesus in disguise. They are to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, shelter the homeless, visit the sick, visit the prisoners, bury the dead, giving to the poor. We were able to share and talk about some of the ways we’ve been doing that here this past year at Newman: We’ve had members go to work with kids who had Cerebral Palsy; help clean up and prepare a garden that provides food for those in need; visit and bring cards to adults in a nursing home. This past Tuesday we wrote letters to a Montclair State University alumni who is in prison in North Carolina after he drove being impaired with alcohol and drugs and killed a young lady. In a few weeks a group of us will be heading to Kentucky to help rebuild homes in one of the poorest parts of the country – Appalachia. And a few weeks ago we had our first Midnight Run where people had donated clothing, toiletries, food – our members sorted through the piles of donations, prepared the meals and then got to deliver to the homeless in New York City on a late Saturday night.
As people shared their impressions and memories of their experiences at these different “mercy events” that evening, the recurring thing was how many of us felt we had received more than the people we were ministering to. I know that the one gentleman that night of the Midnight Run who I helped find a new winter coat – who was just so excited and grateful and just spontaneously hugged me that night, has not left my mind since that evening. For all of us, in each of these encounters, we recognized why Jesus left these demands upon us to do these acts. It’s more than just supplying a service or providing temporal, practical needs to people. It’s about providing something more valuable to the people we encountered : the importance of being noticed… being loved…
That’s what’s at the heart of tonight’s Gospel. We read about this leper coming forward to Jesus. We don’t know the man’s name and in this day and age, we don’t hear much about the disease (even though there are people who still suffer from it around the world) 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.
People afflicted with leprosy not only suffered physical pain – but imagine how alone they felt, how isolated from the rest of the world they were. The suffering in their bodies was matched by the suffering in their souls. For this man suffering from Leprosy in the Gospel, we don’t know how long it had been since someone shook this guy’s hand, patted him on the back, hugged him, touched his cheek, wiped a tear from his eye, or kissed him… The truth is, all those things were merely a memory as he lived in the leper colony in his cave.
Until he met Jesus and cried out to him: “IF YOU WISH, YOU CAN MAKE ME CLEAN.” Not – can you do this for me? – Not I’ve heard about you, you’re the miracle guy, right, can you help a leper out? In his heart and soul he recognizes that in Jesus all things are possible. That Jesus desires our wholeness, our healing, our connectedness. He recognizes that Jesus can heal him, can clean him, can restore him…
In that moment, Jesus’ healing more than miraculously restores this man’s physical health. That truly is an amazing gift – but the deeper thing, the longer lasting thing, the thing that will change the lepers perspective, change his life: To be noticed… To be loved.
Whether it’s the aged person in the nursing home; the man in prison in North Carolina; the homeless in NYC or the leper in Galilee 2,000 years ago – what unites all of these people is that sense of aloneness, isolation… in some cases embarrassment or even shame. More than likely, we can search our own memories and remember times where we can relate. Times where we felt alone, felt unloved. Moments of despair and isolation. Overwhelmed with a darkness and a despair convincing us there’s nothing that will lift it. Perhaps you’re going through one of those times right now. If that’s the case – then thank God you’re here. Because then you’re like the leper – believing in some corner of that darkened room in your heart those words “If you wish, you can make me clean.”
He does… He desires it. He can do it. He will do it. If we remain open, vulnerable, trusting to His presence and activity in our lives.
But we’re also meant to recognize we’re not always the leper in the story. By our Baptisms, we’ve been incorporated into the Body of Christ. And He wants to utilize us as well. St. Theresa of Avila once said very beautifully:
Christ has no body now on earth but yours,
no hands but yours,
no feet but yours,
Yours are the eyes through which to look out Christ’s compassion to the world
Yours are the feet with which he is to go about doing good;
Yours are the hands with which he is to bless men now.
Do we recognize the “lepers” if they are in our sight or are they part of the background that we may not notice because of our schedule or priorities? Sometimes the healing is in the seeing. Choosing to make an effort to notice those who are hurting will in turn bring healing to our souls that may have intentionally or unintentionally distanced ourselves from them. Who needs healing more? Us or them?
Who are the “lepers” – the “unclean” among us? Who are those looking for healing? Who is it that is looking to be noticed, to be loved? Who is it wallowing in the darkness of sin, the painful isolation of sickness or disease? Who is it that the Lord is putting on our hearts right now who we know, we know that are hurting in some way that we are equipped right now in some real way to bring some healing, some relief, some love and compassion to?
Will we answer the call or turn away? Who is it that is waiting for an invitation to come to meet Christ – someone you can invite to come with you to Mass – someone who’s been away from Church and simply needs someone to show them care, show them authentic friendship to invite them… This Wednesday is Ash Wednesday – the beginning of the season of Lent… it’s probably the easiest occasion to invite people who don’t ordinarily come to Mass to join us – and maybe each one of us doing that and being that friend that accompanies someone else is just what someone needs to reconnect to the Lord, to find the healing they’ve been looking for.
Maybe it’s a classmate, a colleague, a relative… maybe its someone not that we’re not too close to or think about that much but that the Holy Spirit is raising in your mind right now. There’s someone he’s trying to utilize each and everyone of us to bring the power of His love, His life, His light into the deepest, darkest recesses of their souls. Not to solve all their problems. And definitely not to enable them and keep them in their same places of suffering. Rather to proclaim to them that they are noticed – that they are loved – with a true, authentic love. They “the lepers” of the world are crying out to you and I – if you wish, you can make it clean. Do we?