He Touched the Leper

(Homily for Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B)

Note: This weekend we celebrate World Marriage Sunday. At the end of the homily is a ceremony for renewal of vows and blessing of married couples. It incorporates the Profession of Faith and General Intercessions.

Today we hear about Jesus extending his hand to touch a leper. It is hard for us to appreciate what that meant. An early Christian writer named Gregory of Nazianzus described leprosy in vivid terms. He tells about how the disease ate away the flesh and bones of the victims to such an extent that they were unrecognizable. To identify themselves, they would say, “I am the child of that man; that one is my mother; this is my name; once upon a time you were my friend and intimate with me.” But now all that had changed. As Gregory wrote:

“They can no longer make themselves recognizable by their features, by what was formerly characteristic of their face. Gnawed by the disease, they have lost their fortune, their parents, even their bodies.”

Gregory goes on to describe the horrible smell which repels even the most compassionate person. “A mother,” he says, “would like to embrace her child, but she dreads the flesh of that child as she dreads an enemy.” Laws forbade lepers from entering cities, from traveling on public roads or from touching streams, ponds and wells.

After describing the misery and isolation of lepers, Gregory then recalls what Christ did for them. As we heard in today’s Gospel, he did not shrink from them. Rather, he touched the leper. That gesture must have amazed Jesus’ followers. It no doubt caused a chill to run down the spines of St. Gregory's congregation.

It is hard for us to think of a comparison. Leprosy holds no terror today since we know that antibiotics can effectively treat the disease. AIDS perhaps offers a certain comparison, but no knowledgeable person fears someone with that affliction. I have HIV-positive friends with whom I spend time, hug and share a plate of food.

To find a modern analog for a leper, one would have to go to a different level. There are (I admit only reluctantly) people whose approach causes me to cringe. In this I am not alone; our society does a pretty good job of keeping certain people isolated. A couple of decades ago Archbishop Hunthausen talked about the need for a new religious order to care for lost souls who wander our city streets. No one then took up his proposal – and as far as I know (with the possible exception of Franciscans of the Renewal) no one has.

There are modern lepers on our streets – people with such emotional problems that we do not wish to go near them. Similar people exist within our family circle. We try to be friendly, but we are on guard and we talk about them afterwards. Finally (and this is most important) there is one leper whom most of us do not even wish to see. We have walked with that person our entire lives, but we fear embracing him. None of us, I am afraid, really sees himself as he is – and we do not want to. Surely you have been with some person and thought, “If only he could see himself as others do.” But what if that person were your self? I have sometimes thought I was making a great impression, only to find out later that I had offended and hurt the other person.

Once a guy told me about being at a gathering where everyone was laughing and talking, while he stood on the sidelines. At the end of the evening one of the people approached him with a big smile and said, “I bet you think we are all a bunch of crazy people.” Actually, the people did not fascinate him. He felt excluded and bored, anxious for a moment to escape.

You have probably heard of Edgar Allan Poe’s short story, The Masque of the Red Death. It is about a prince during the time of the plague, who invited people to a party where they all wore colorful masks over their faces. They ate, drank and danced, believing they were safe from the disfiguring disease which ravaged the countryside. Suddenly they noticed a man with the gruesome mask of plague victim. It disgusted the guests and when the prince approached to rip the mask from the man’s face, he fell to the carpet, deathly ill. The other guests soon followed. The plague was within the castle.

Poe had a piercing sense of how we humans can carry on, oblivious to a disease which grows inside us. There is a kind of leprosy which affects us all. Poe saw it more clearly than most men and it drove him to despair. But that need not happen. There is someone who wishes to touch, even to embrace you, despite your disfigured condition. He is the one who today stretches out his hand to the leper who cries out for help. To him he says, “I will do it. Be made clean.”

This great love of Jesus ties in with what we are observing this weekend: World Marriage Sunday. God instituted marriage as an essential part of his plan to teach us love. The first step for us is to accept that unmerited love which descends upon us. Pope Benedict spoke about that love in his first encyclical, using the Greek word agape.* It is free, but it comes with an obligation: the desire be a channel of God's love to others. That happens first and foremost in family. Eros love brings a man and woman together, but only agape love can make it last. It is easy to love the other person when he is on his best behavior, but it becomes much harder when the two live together, day in and day out. It is relatively easy to love ones friends - after all, we chose them because of common interests - but to love ones brothers and sisters, uncles, aunts and in-laws, can be a greater challenge. That love might require that we touch and embrace someone less attractive. As Jesus touches even the unlovable part of you and me, may he inspire us to do the same for those near us. Married couples often show us a beautiful example of that self-giving love.

With that I would now like to invite married couples to receive a special blessing. (Married couples may stand and come forward.) Please join with me in honoring them and praying for them as we celebrate World Marriage Sunday.

Dear Married Couples: On the day of your wedding, the bride wore a beautiful dress, symbol of the baptismal garment. The husband asked for grace to love his wife as Christ loves the Church, who willingly offered his life to protect and sustain her. Today you wish to renew your vows in the presence of your children and friends. Before you do so, I ask you first to join this congregation in re-affirming your baptismal promises:

Do you reject Satan? R. I do.

And all his works? R. I do.

And all his empty promises? R. I do.

Do you believe in God, the Father Almighty, creator of heaven and earth? R. I do.

Do you believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord, who was born of the Virgin Mary was crucified, died, and was buried, rose from the dead, and is now seated at the right hand of the Father? R. I do.

Do you believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy Catholic Church, the Communion of Saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting? R. I do.

And now, dear husbands, please take your wife's hand. I ask you: Do you renew your marriage vows to your wife, do you promise to be true to her in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health, to love and honor her all the days of your life? R. I do.

Dear wives: Do you renew your marriage vows to your husband, do you promise to be true to him in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health, to love and honor him all the days of your life? R. I do.

Now let us turn to Lord, as we pray for these married couples and for all of our needs:

Celebrant: In the tender plan of His providence, God our almighty Father has given married love, its faithfulness and its fruitfulness, a special significance in the history of salvation. Let us therefore call upon Him saying: Lord hear our prayer.

Deacon/Lector:

For our Holy Father, our bishops and all priest and religious, that they may be faithful in their call to fidelity and service, let us pray to the Lord.

For all married couples, that God give them comfort and strength in each other and joy in their children, let us pray to the Lord.

For all those preparing for marriage, that God guide them to a deep appreciation of this Sacrament, let us pray to the Lord.

For widows and widowers, that God may comfort them with compassion, let us pray to the Lord.

For those who suffer the pain of a troubled marriage, separation or divorce, that God guide them into a future filled with hope, let us pray to the Lord.

For a greater respect for the dignity of marriage and family in our nation and society, let us pray to the Lord.

For all our deceased family members and those of our parish who have died in faith, let us pray to the Lord.

Celebrant (with hands outstretched):

Almighty and eternal God, you have so exalted the unbreakable bond of marriage that it has become the sacramental sign of your Son's union with the Church as His spouse. Look with favor on these married couples, whom you have united in marriage, as they ask for your help and the protection of the Virgin Mary. They pray that in good times and in bad they will grow in love for each other; that they will resolve to be of one heart in the bond of peace. Lord, in their struggles let them rejoice that you are near to help them; in their needs let them know that you are there to rescue them; in their joys let them see that you are the source and completion of every happiness. We ask this through Christ our Lord. AMEN

**********

*In his encyclical letter Pope Benedict offers this provocative reflection on the mutuality of the sexes and the institution of marriage:

The biblical account of creation speaks of the solitude of Adam, the first man, and God's decision to give him a helper. Of all other creatures, not one is capable of being the helper that man needs, even though he has assigned a name to all the wild beasts and birds and thus made them fully a part of his life. So God forms woman from the rib of man. Now Adam finds the helper that he needed: “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh” (Gen 2:23). Here one might detect hints of ideas that are also found, for example, in the myth mentioned by Plato, according to which man was originally spherical, because he was complete in himself and self-sufficient. But as a punishment for pride, he was split in two by Zeus, so that now he longs for his other half, striving with all his being to possess it and thus regain his integrity. While the biblical narrative does not speak of punishment, the idea is certainly present that man is somehow incomplete, driven by nature to seek in another the part that can make him whole, the idea that only in communion with the opposite sex can he become “complete”. The biblical account thus concludes with a prophecy about Adam: “Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife and they become one flesh” (Gen 2:24).

Final Version

Spanish Version

Spanish Version

From the Archives:

Sixth Sunday, Year B, 2012: The Leper Inside
2009: The Power of Compassion
2006: He Touched the Leper
2003: Show Yourself to the Priest

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