Although today’s readings focus on disease, specifically leprosy, and more importantly, compassion and healing, it is also the traditional feast of St. Valentine (AKA Valentines Day) and for Catholics around the world, World Marriage Day, an observance begun back in 1981 as a project of Worldwide Marriage Encounter and celebrated annually on the second Sunday of February. It is the culmination of a week of preparation known as National Marriage Week. This year’s theme has been “To Have, To Hold, To Honor.”
This week, however, most of us probably paid less attention to love and marriage (except perhaps on the White House Lawn) than to the Senate trial of the former president of the United States, now mercifully ended, if the drama can be expected to drag on for months if not years to come.
It is especially appropriate to focus on honor at this time in our collective history, when so little of it seems to be in evidence where it is most needed. No less should we recover our sense of compassion and healing, not least because of the Covid pandemic still raging throughout the world and the economic hardship it has left in its wake.
The cure of a leper in ancient Palestine may seem to offer little opportunity to reflect on the scripture of the day with
an eye on the TV screen (or as Karl Barth had it, the bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other). But it is worth recalling that Hansen’s Disease (the proper name) and similar skin infections were terrifying to people millennia before the advent of antibiotics. Rare today, except in the poorer parts of the tropical world where between 10 to 15 million people still suffer from it because of poverty and neglect, there are cases of it even in the United States where pockets of poverty and neglect still fester.
Caused by a bacterial infection, Hansen’s disease is only mildly contagious and rarely fatal, and can be controlled with antibiotics and other treatments – if these are available. But in the ancient world, it was believed to result from some spiritual failing. There was no cure short of a miracle. (For those with a good memory, the culminating scenes from the 1959 MGM film Ben-Hur accurately depicts the horror and suffering innocent people endured because of this dread disease.)
We don’t call people who suffer from Hansen’s Disease “lepers” anymore, exactly because of the disgrace that made the term a catch-all phrase for anyone who is socially repugnant. But for that same reason, there are still many “lepers” among us today, it is those lepers who occupy the real focus of the readings from this morning’s liturgy. We are presented with a serious conflict: how we tend to treat people who frighten us or seem to threaten us, and how we ought to behave in their regard as those who profess to follow Jesus.
In it here that the second reading is important. St. Paul tells us “do not give anyone offense, whether pagan or Jew or Christian” [1 Cor. 10:32] — something in itself we could think long and hard about, as anti-Semitism once again increases here and abroad. The word Paul uses is stronger than what we mean by “offense” — it means “to chop at someone, to cut them down, to attack them.”
And this brings us to Mark’s account of the Jesus and the leper, which follows directly after the story of his curing the man afflicted by an evil spirit which we heard last week.
Jesus not only allows the suffering outcast to approach him, he actually touches him — which immediately made Jesus unclean in the eyes of the Law. But like the woman with the hemorrhage in Luke’s gospel, the leper’s desperate appeal touches Jesus and by his faith he, too, is healed. Their faith opened the way for the grace of God to heal both of these victims. But here, each seems to violate the very norm that St. Paul endorses — not to give offense to anyone. Both the leper and the unfortunate woman gave plenty of offense.
What must have amazed Jesus’ disciples and outraged his enemies is that he took no notice. He saw only need, and recognized only faith. Not to be offended is at least as important as not giving offense. Not when we are dealing with those desperate in their need for help and assistance.
We would do well to remember that God is particularly attentive to those who suffer oppression, discouragement, and outright persecution — the poor, the neglected, the forsaken. “I did not come to call the righteous,” Jesus said, “but sinners” [Luke 5:32]. It is not those who profess to be well who need a doctor, but those who know they are ill. It is our need that gives us title to the mercy and grace of God.
When we are able to welcome and assist those the world despises, to recognize in them our sisters and brothers, then we will have glimpsed the kingdom of God. Then we will experience our own healing, and the healing of our nation and the world.
Let the last word today be about honor, compassion, and the greatest force for healing in the world today – unflinching and unconditional love:
World Marriage Day Prayer
“Father, … we thank you for your tremendous gift of the sacrament of Matrimony. Help us to witness to its glory by a life of growing intimacy. Teach us the beauty of forgiveness so we may become more and more one in heart, mind and body. Strengthen our dialogue and help us become living signs of your love. Make us grow in love with our church so we may renew the Body of Christ. Make us a sign of unity in the name of Jesus, Our Lord and brother. Amen” (Fr. Bill Dilgen, S.M.M.)