A couple of years ago around noon on a Saturday I got a call from the Chaplain’s office at North York General Hospital. The SARS fright was going on at that time. I’d been to the hospital the day before for my weekly Friday morning rounds. I saw a number of people, some in the Intensive Care Unit, some in emergency and some in Isolation. That particular Saturday we were to celebrate the First Communion of the children in our Children’s Faith program. Back to the phone call. As I said it was from the Chaplain’s Office at the hospital.
The Chaplain, Rev. Joan Silcox-Smith, called to inform me that they discovered a new outbreak of SARS in the hospital and that I had to go into quarantine immediately. I told her I couldn’t do that, I had the children’s First Communion at the 4:30 Mass. She wasn’t impressed. Get someone else to do it. She’d just called Rabbi Weiss and told him the same thing, he was quarantined. He was not to conduct the Sabbath Service that day. One phone call turned everything up side down. Being quarantined meant I couldn’t go out for 12 days, I had to eat alone and I couldn’t be in the same room with the other priests and I couldn’t leave the house. As I mentioned when all this was over, I was so bored I even ended up watching Oprah and Dr. Phil.
Imagine what it would be like to quarantined, to be cut off from all interpersonal contact for the rest of your life.
Through no fault of his own that was the situation of the leper in today’s gospel. As we heard in the first reading, by law he was forced to live outside the camp. By law he could not have contact with family or friends. By law a leper was to make his appearance as unpleasant as possible. He was to warn people off by calling himself unclean. Talk about isolation, separation, talk about loneliness.
When the leper meets Jesus they are both outside the town, Jesus by choice, the leper by law. I wonder what was going on in the leper’s mind as he approached Jesus. He must have been in turmoil. Dare he get close to Jesus, dare he speak to him. Again, by law he was not supposed to come close to anyone but he had to, he was desperate. He wanted so badly to be clean, to get back to his family and friends, to get back to work. Summoning up his courage he says, “If you choose you can make me clean.” The old translation was, “if you want to, you can make me clean” and Jesus’ response was, “course I want to.” And then Jesus does the unthinkable, he put out his hand and touched the leper and the leper’s life was changed forever. A simple touch caused such a wonder.
A friend of mine worked at the Catholic hospital in London, she was a pastoral visitor. The bishop asked her if she would take a course that prepared people for working with men and women with AIDS. She took the course. The first day she was to meet a patient with AIDS she was a nervous wreck. She had to force herself to go into the young man’s room. When she went in she was shocked by his appearance. She approached his bed, took a chair and sat down beside him. She reached out and took his hand in hers and said, “I don’t know what to say.” He looked at her and said, “You’ve said everything, you touched me.” You touched me. That gentle gestured made such a difference in that man’s life.
I guess every time we hear this gospel story of the meeting of Christ and the leper we wonder, who are the lepers in my life? Who do we shun, exclude or keep out of our lives. Who do we rule out of our love and concern and acceptance because of who they are or what they are? Do we see people of different faiths or cultures, life styles or social standing as people to be avoided? Are they outside the area of our acceptance?
Or, do we see ourselves as unclean? Haunted or obsessed by our own past sins and failings do we see ourselves as unworthy of God’s love or shunned by God? Do we question whether or not Christ cares for us, answers prayers – do we wonder if Christ would reach out and touch us and make us clean? The truth of the matter is, our spiritual life consists of being made clean over and over again which is the same thing as allowing Christ into our lives to touch us with His healing grace. Remember His response to the leper plead, if you want to – of course I want to, be made clean.
As we continue to celebrate this Mass we can think on this; if we want to be touched and made clean by the healing Christ, we must be willing to reach out and touch and embrace those who, for whatever reason, we exclude from our lives and offer them the same love and acceptance we so desire from Christ.