Father Hanly’s wonderful homily for 6th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B, on The Leper, is important, because, as he reminds us, “one way or another, all of us, in some way, shape or form, are alienated.”
Readings for Mass
First Reading: Leviticus 13:1-2, 44-46
Responsorial Psalm: Psalms 32:1-2, 5, 11
Second Reading: First Corinthians 10:31–11:1
Gospel: Mark 1:40-45
(Beginning of homily missing/inaudible)
… for centuries and centuries right up to modern times and they’ve made great headway, as they have now, in curing leprosy.
It was known as a kind of a judgment upon the leper.
It was such a terrible disease that in biblical times the leper used to have to put a bell around his neck and he would have to shout out that, in warning to people that might come close to him, and he would shout, “I am a leper, stay away! I am a leper, stay away!”
This must have been a terrible life. It was the living dead. It was as if God had abandoned him and people were told not to go near him.
And so it came to be that a leper became symbolic of a deep isolation, a kind of a hopeless situation and an alienation from all the people around you.
In the first reading, we hear that in biblical times Moses said to the people that if someone has contracted leprosy they should be put off to the side and not be allowed to go into the temple. They were not only unclean physically, they were unclean religiously. And then, after they were cured, they were supposed to go first to the temple and thank God for the cure. This seems a bit heartless, but, on another level, it was Moses and the leaders saying we must protect the people because an epidemic of leprosy could destroy everyone. Very harsh days.
But Mark has got other things to say about leprosy. And that’s why this story is so attractive.
Remember we said about Mark: he always has three special ideas whenever he tells a story. They’re like questions.
The first one is: who is this man? He does this in every story, meaning who really is Jesus? And you never find out till the very end of the gospel.
The second one is: what has he done? And then he describes what Jesus does, so that you might understand that the Messiah has come. And what the Messiah does is brings the Kingdom of God with him and the Kingdom of God heals. The Messiah heals.
And then the final question is: what are his disciples to do when they understand that the Kingdom of God is among them and that the Messiah is called to heal.
And so interwoven in this story are the response of Mark to a Christian community who were to, first of all, understand that they themselves, before they came to know that Jesus was indeed the Messiah, they themselves were in a situation, isolated and alone and not really filled with the love of God, which makes us one with ourselves, with a wholeness in our hearts, and also with our brothers and sisters.
The other thing, though, that Mark is saying to us is, and you must go a little bit into the story… Think of it now, as Mark presents the story. The first thing that he says is:
“A leper came to Jesus and kneeling down begged him and said,
“If you wish, you can make me clean.”
This is a very half-hearted faith. He’s not saying: “Heal me!” He’s saying “If you want to, if you really want to, you know, you could really do this, but I don’t see whether you’re going to do it or not, because nobody else will have anything to do with me. I’m all alone and I will die alone.” And this is a terrible indictment.
But he’s heard that Jesus cures, and so he goes up to Jesus, which is a sign of his faith, because he comes up to Jesus and lepers are supposed to stay far away with their little bell ringing and warning Jesus don’t come near. But he goes up and he kneels down and he says: “If you really want to heal me you can.”
And Jesus, what does he do?
“Of course, I want to heal you.” And not only does he reach out to him, he touches him, he embraces him.
Now, we know what this is like, because we’ve all lived through the AIDS situation. At the beginning of the AIDS epidemic, if you ever went to a hospital, as I did, everybody was suited up and nobody was allowed to touch anything in the room or any person.
I remember I was at the deathbed of a man, the first European to die of AIDS in Hong Kong. And I was allowed, and his son was allowed, and no-one else was allowed. And they put garments on us and masks. And the people around us were like in spacesuits. And it was terrible. And we watched, we watched while the man died. And we prayed until his father died.
And then men came in. And they just took the bedding and everything and wrapped him up like he was garbage. And they dragged it out and threw it down to people waiting below and they took it away in a truck. And this poor young man had to see his father treated in this way. And everything in the room was taken and shoved into the same bag and it was all taken to be burned.
Now, it’s excusable, because it was a mystery. Everybody thought that AIDS was going to be such an epidemic that might attack half the people or whatever.
And yet it shows you what our fears can do. Not in the larger sense. This is a very dramatic incident. But in the smaller sense. Because we do the same thing to each other. We really do.
We’re afraid of neighbours. We’re afraid of new people coming into our community. We stay away from them. We make them feel like they’re not wanted, they’re not accepted, because we don’t know them, we don’t know their language, we don’t know perhaps where they come from or their background, we’re threatened by them.
And this is what Mark wants us to understand. He doesn’t want the dramatic incidents.
And Jesus says to the leper, “Of course, I want to heal you.” And immediately he’s healed.
And then Jesus gets a little bit upset, he says, “Now don’t tell anyone. You just go to the temple as Moses said and give thanks to God, because when you’re cured you are to go directly to God who has cured you and thank Him.”
But the man’s just, he’s so happy he can’t stand it. He tells everybody, “A miracle, a miracle, a miracle was done to me. I am cured now!”
And, of course, what happens to Jesus is all the people come. They want to see the curer, the one who makes the miracle, the sideshow. And they forgot about the idea of alienation. They didn’t think that maybe they are to be like Jesus and reach out to all those who feel alienated from the present circumstances of their life among us. They just thought “Oh, a miracle,” you see.
And that’s why Jesus was so angry. He came to heal. He didn’t come to do miracles and fascinate everybody and lead a parade in some victorious march. He came because he knew, one way or another, all of us, in some way, shape or form, are alienated. And it’s true.
And this is the second. The first was, “Who is this who does these things?” And we find out that it is God’s son. And what does he come to do? He comes to reach out and to heal us.
The third thing, that we are supposed to do then, if we are really disciples, is not to rejoice that a miracle has been done, or if we have been confirmed in our faith, or isn’t it wonderful, which that’s what miracle means, miracula. “Oh, it’s really wonderful,” you see. The presence of God is here.
If you believe in God, the presence of God has always been here. The trouble with the presence of God is He somehow finds it difficult to get involved not only in us praying and say, “Oh, it’s wonderful to have you,” but to do what the Messiah came to do, which is to reach out to other people and bring the love and compassion of God to them.
Jesus had this wonderful understanding and feeling for people, all people who were suffering.
And this is what Oscar Wilde, remember Oscar Wilde, the British, the Englishman, the Irishman really, who wrote the lovely poetry and the plays, and was put in jail and suffered a great deal. And this is what Oscar Wilde says about Jesus:
“Jesus understood the leprosy of the leper, the darkness of the blind, the fierce misery of those who live for pleasure, the strange poverty of the rich, and the thirst that can make people drink from muddy water.”
Jesus stretches our capacity for compassion. He challenges our idea of what is true love. Each of us has a great capacity for love, the pity is that it often goes unused. We have in our power to reach out to those who are suffering the pain of rejection, each day all around us. We could enkindle new hope, we could bring back the zest for living in someone else, and if we do we mirror dimly the infinite compassion of God.
I’d like to tell you, maybe, as a final to this, a personal incident that takes it out of the sky and makes it very real.
When I was a young student in primary school, I remember I was in the sixth grade in a primary school and we lived out in the country because the War had threatened and my parents felt that we should move out to the country for making it a little bit safer for the children.
And it was terrible times, it was difficult, the Depression was still on and that. But, anyway, we moved out and finally my father couldn’t afford the… we moved out to a place called Brentwood and then Hicksville.
And these were little towns, and they were quiet little towns and nothing really happened except life. And we grew up for a few years in this kind of an environment. And I had gone to Saint Ignatius School and made a lot of friends, and everything was going fine, as it should go.
And, all of a sudden, we found that my father could no longer afford the train fare, because his job was still as a clerk on Wall Street and there was nothing going on Wall Street yet.
Anyhow, we moved back into Brooklyn, into a working class, a very tough working class, neighbourhood. On one side we had black people who were moving up from the south and were even poorer than we were. And on the other side we had Jewish people who had come from Russia and from Germany to escape what was happening in Germany. And then in the middle was this little Irish/Italian section.
Well, it was terrible for me, because they had a different way in Brooklyn of how you approach people. But one of the ways was that you’re harsh and you don’t accept newcomers, and you’re defensive. And more than that, I was also, I had lost all my friends and everything. So I began my usual, whenever I get into that situation what I do is I pout. You know? You know how kids pout? You think it’s not serious but sometimes it’s very serious. They’re not going to just looking out the window.
And my mother kept saying, “Well, what’s wrong with him? What’s wrong with him?” you know. And my father kind of knew, I think. So he took me out. And every time he came home from work he’d take me for a walk in the neighbourhood.
Now what happened in the neighbourhood was wonderful because we went from the Irish section, to the Italian section, to the Jewish section, to the black section, and to even the Armenian section, if you would believe it. There were about twenty-five different small neighbourhoods with all the people in the world there.
And each time we would walk around, he’d explain it. He’d say, now these people come from such-and-such a place, and, to top off his little lesson, he would buy whatever was featured.
If we went to Chinatown, he would buy chicken chow mein and we’d have that. And then if we went to the Russian section, we would have some kind of rich Russian pastry. And if we went to another section, we would have whatever that section had. And in the meantime he’d explain.
And all of a sudden, I began to feel like I was at home. And I recognise that my father had made this journey before me, because he too was an immigrant. And he came to a very harsh world and managed to somehow to cope and make it his home and give his love to it. And I, it dawned on me that this is what he’s trying to teach me.
And finally, I too, because of the walks and because of him explaining things, he was driving back the fears that I had and I made new friends and gradually Brooklyn became even more important in my life than Hicksville ever could have.
I tell you this story because there are people all around you who are alienated, afraid, they’re not acceptable, maybe. Maybe it’s their own fault. We make judgments about them. And they’re walking. They all need someone like my father.
And I think this is what Mark is saying. He’s saying, yes, Jesus reaches into the depths of the hearts of people who feel that they’re totally alone and isolated and have nowhere to turn. But what he does is, bringing us out and giving us a new way of looking at things, and giving us his peace and giving us his joy, he doesn’t expect us to sit there and become like the others were. He expects us to understand that this is the way God Himself reaches out to others. Because if we do not reach out to the others, who in God’s name will?
So the message that Mark is saying is: yes, the Messiah has come; yes the Messiah cures; yes, the Messiah breaks down all barriers; and yes, you, in your neighbourhood, in your family, in your world, you are the messiah.
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This homily was delivered on 15th February 2009.
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