A leper came to Jesus and kneeling down begged him and said, “If you wish, you can make me clean.” Moved with pity [compassion], he stretched out his hand, touched him, and said to him, “I do will it. Be made clean.” The leprosy left him immediately, and he was made clean. Then, warning him sternly, he dismissed him at once. He said to him, “See that you tell no one anything, but go, show yourself to the priest and offer for your cleansing what Moses prescribed; that will be proof for them.” The man went away and began to publicize the whole matter. He spread the report abroad so that it was impossible for Jesus to enter a town openly. He remained outside in deserted places, and people kept coming to him from everywhere. (Mark 1:40-45)
This weekend before Ash Wednesday, we hear the remarkable story of Jesus healing the leper. In preparing for the upcoming Lenten season, three aspects of this healing account come into view. First, the behavior of the leper is shocking. He boldly approaches Jesus, kneels down, and asks to be healed. Although, this might not seem surprising to us, the first reading from Leviticus reveals how alarming this behavior would be. Leviticus articulates the norms for those afflicted with this disease: “The one who bears the sore of leprosy shall keep his garments rent and his head bare and shall muffle his beard; he shall cry out, ‘Unclean, unclean!’ He shall dwell apart, making his abode outside the camp.” (Leviticus 13:44-46) Yet, instead of keeping a safe distance and crying out unclean, the leper boldly approaches Jesus with the request to be made clean. To those who witnessed this event, this was an audacious act of faith. Even though Jesus had just begun his ministry, this leper knelt before Jesus and placed his faith in his healing power. The leper not only knew that he needed Jesus, he was brave enough to break the social norms to ask for healing.
Second, Jesus’ response to the leper is just as surprising. Leprosy is a highly contagious disease (exponentially more than Covid-19) and there was no cure for it at the time. Death was slow, painful and one dies alone in quarantine. Risking becoming unclean himself, Jesus just reaches out and touches the leper with words of healing: “Be made clean.” The word that St. Mark uses to expression Jesus motivation goes beyond mere pity but is tinged with indignation. Jesus expresses frustration at the existence of such illness, much as he cries out in anger at the death of his friend Lazarus before he weeps. The existence of sin, disease and separation from God was not part of the original creation, and at every turn in the Gospel, Jesus takes pains to restore with his healing touch.
Third, Jesus’ final instructions to the cured leper are perhaps the most surprising of all. Instead of encouraging the man to share his story with everyone, he tells him to “go and show yourself to the priest” and to offer thanksgiving in the temple. This admonition to keep quiet seems at odds with Jesus’ other exhortations to spread the good news and preach the gospel to all. In the end, Jesus’ reasons for silence become clear. When the man publicizes the event, Jesus’ fame as a miracle worker spreads to such great lengths that his ministry is actually limited. Instead of focusing on how the man was brought from the margins of society into the heart of the community, those who flocked to Jesus were looking for a miracle or some other feat of the extraordinary. In the Gospel of Mark, the theme of silence underscores Jesus mission to be more than simple a wonderworker or magician. Jesus is not so much concerned with curing, but with healing. In fact, Jesus cures in order to heal. Obviously, in the years following his cure, the leper ultimately died. But the cure that he experiences in this moment heals him forever, since it reconnects him to family community and the life of worship in the Temple. Whereas his leprosy cut him off from others, Jesus’ cure leads to healing, i.e., a spiritual reconnection with others.
In applying this story to our lives, we too might consider the aspects of our lives which separate us from others. It is not simply an exercise in “Catholic guilt” to reflect on the ways in which we need healing in spirit. Like the leper, when we are bold enough to ask Jesus to heal us, he can make us clean. Such restoration not only brings about personal blessing, but also reconnects us with the community around us. As we prepare to enter the great season of Lent, we recognize our need for healing, we reach out to our Lord and we can expect to hear those powerful and comforting words: I do will it. Be made clean.~ Fr Michael