LORD, IF YOU WISH YOU CAN PURIFY ME. Jesus had power to cure the sick and to drive out evil spirits. He was well known for exercising these powers in favor of the unfortunate in great numbers who came to him for that purpose. He even cured those with serious defects from birth: the blind, the deaf and dumb, the crippled. More than once he healed lepers a feat which, in the view of the Evangelists, was especially remarkable due to the fearsome effects of that disease as they understood it. [Leprosy as used in the Bible actually designates a variety of skin diseases, a number of which were curable; only a minority of cases seemingly were real leprosy. True leprosy is identical with the ancient "Elephantiasis of the Greeks" as Westerners called it.. Its cause was distinctively identified only in 1873 by a Norwegian bacteriologist, G. Hansen]. The ravages caused by this malady were not only physical but social. Those afflicted with it were to be diagnosed by priests and formally declared unclean. This state of uncleanness meant they had to be separated from their families, their friends and even from the society of the healthy. They were considered threats to the healthy and so forced to become social outcasts. A source of vaguely identified contagion that menaced the happiness and well-being of others, a moral stigma was associated with their condition. They were reputed to be not merely sick but ritually unclean; consequently, they could not participate in public worship. Thus when the leper spoken of in todays Gospel accosted Jesus he did not ask for healing but cleansing.
Since lepers were viewed to be unclean anyone who actually touched them contracted ritual uncleanness. This fact did not deter Jesus; on the contrary, he made a point of showing his compassion not only by speaking the healing word but, as our text puts it:" he extended his hand and touched him as he said ' will it; be cleansed.&q'uot; Later on Jesus' followers would consider the leper as a symbol of the spiritual devastation resulting from our sins, and our Lord's touch a sign of his compassion and efficacious mercy. And so in some way it stands for all of us who are in need of cleansing from sin. Christ himself, after all, had become, in the expression of the Latin Vulgate, "quasi leprosus", that is," like a leper" in the words of the prophet Isaiah (53.4), for our sake. He substituted himself for us in order to clean us from sin, out of compassionate love.
The later history of the treatment of lepers cannot be told without reference to Jesus' compassionate cures. There were decidedly mixed feelings about lepers in the Patristic era since they were interpreted as types of public sinners and heretics, persons to be shunned. The modern disease that comes closest to the leprosy of earlier ages is Aids. It too stirs up mixed feelings of dread and compassion. Yet in the same period the attitude of many saints, beginning with St. Basil, St. Martin of Tours and St. Gregory the Great was one of merciful concern. In 549 A.D. the Council of Orleans, to give one example from many of the Church's care for these victims, required every bishop to provide food and shelter for them. Later, in the Middle Ages, a leper was called missellus, a term which means literally a poor wretch. Merton, in an essay on the leper in the Middle Ages, whom he viewed as a symbol of the marginalized in today's society, has translated it with the colorful word, measel, which well catches the contempt and disdain tinged with horror, that many felt for these unfortunates. In modern times, one articulate sufferer from this malady stated that "The stigma hurts more than the bacillus.". Thousands of miselli were treated in clinics and hospitals called Lazarets, after the leper in the parable told by Jesus of the poor man with sores who sat begging in vain at the door of the rich man's mansion.
The story of Christ's healing of the leper is told at this time of the liturgical year when we celebrate his birth and will soon recall his baptism in the Jordan for a very good reason. It looks forward to his public ministry and suggests his coming passion and death by which he will fulfill the purpose of his coming in the flesh, namely, to restore our race to God's favor. Put in other words, this healing of a leper is a symbol of redemption, rebirth and new life brought by the One sent by God to cleanse all people from sin and the darkness of error and to bestow the gifts of grace and eternal life.
<Here at the altar where we offer the Eucharist and receive in communion the body and blood of the risen Savior we ourselves receive a share in the healing touch of Jesus.are given a fuller life that transcends all the ills and passing sorrows and pains of a world made sick through sin and the blindness of heart that it causes. May we always prove grateful for his healing gifts and in our turn be instruments of his compassion and mercy to one another and to all persons, especially those whom Providence places in our path as we return to the Father.
Abbot John Eudes Bamberger</P>
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