Those who read the Bible are apt to know that in ancient times, sickness and other misfortune was popularly seen as punishment for transgressions against the divine. For Jews this would be sinning against God’s law; but pagans too thought that the gods could and would strike mere mortals in response to insults to their honour, to humble the proud, and, yes, to punish moral violations.
We live in a civilization built upon a foundation laid by the Church through the long centuries from late antiquity and through the medieval period, and we have learned not to regard those stricken by disease or felled by accidents as necessarily sinful people experiencing God’s justice. Still, we can’t help thinking from time to time that when suffering descends upon someone we perceive as deserving for their crimes against God and humanity, that some invisible force is at work affecting this justice and delivering the needed ‘comeuppance’. So, that suspicion, even among us modern folk, makes understandable the ancient perspective on disease.
We retain some of that as Christians in our belief that, yes, God does chasten those He loves to bring them to awareness of their absolute need of Him. As St. Paul had to learn from the persistence of the “thorn in his side” that the success of his mission did not depend upon Paul’s bodily vitality, but rather, “my grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor 12.9). Ill health is always humbling as it shatters any illusion of personal power.
We do suffer in our bodies the consequences of sin: a dissolute life affects our physical, mental and spiritual health; it comes of living apart from God’s precepts, and the resulting poor health, mental strain and spiritual dullness most definitely comes from God’s absence in our lives. The chastisement is ironically through the grace that makes us aware of our need of Him, and how only in the extremes of our distress do we recognize that need, and despair of God coming to us when we for so long neglected Him.
The innocent suffering of disease and injury, of course, is the great mystery with which every religion has had to grapple. When Jesus explained that by such suffering God’s grace is known, he was speaking of how our care of the sick and disabled elicits compassion, how the sacrifice of others in offering care and in some instance, risking one’s own health (as we’ve seen in frontline healthcare providers during the pandemic) is a testimony to faith over fear, love over self-concern. Jesus’ own suffering is the example, par excellence, of one who offers himself to alleviate the suffering of the world. In this case, Jesus gives everything for humanity suffering under the threat of death and the peril of sin to bring the healing of the nations through His blood.
When Jesus encounters the leper, we’re not just seeing someone suffering from a horrible wasting disease (assuming it is Hansen’s Disease – the bacterial infection that we commonly refer to as leprosy), but someone who is shunned as ‘unclean’ both in the moral and physical sense of that word. Quarantined to prevent the infection of others, but also isolated as being one under God’s judgment. This was a horrible existence in which the physical suffering is compounded by the lack of fellowship and the sense that the situation is entirely caused by the victim!
So, in healing the leper, Jesus affects a triple restoration: of the person’s body, of the person’s self-esteem, but also of the community—restoring that person to his family and friends, and to society generally.
That’s important to note. Jesus’ healing miracles are not simply in the realm of the physical. They have spiritual and psychological dimensions. We’ve seen Him in other instances affect physical healing by forgiveness of sins (the paralytic who is told to “take up your bed and walk” after his sins are forgiven). His healing is of a single piece in that it addresses the totality of who we are (CCC 1503).
In our age of advance medical science, we don’t see too often the person looking for physical healing by faith; for example, by a pilgrimage to Lourdes (although some 5 million a year visit!). The kinds of affliction that many need desperately cured are those of head and heart, of spirit and mind. Guilt and depression, regret and anxiety, ennui and lack of direction in life, these affect so many. The therapies of the modern world, of psychology and psychiatry, self-esteem workshops and the words of motivational speakers, they can sometimes help, but are often just a band-aid, a soothing salve giving only temporary relief. For many the relapse into psychic pain and spiritual desolation is quick, and the situation then even worse.
What I find in my pastoral experience, especially with those who don’t speak the language of faith yet who come to see me, these afflicted talk of “being out of step”, or “out of sync” with the world, alienated somehow from the universe and sensing that deeply. Of these, some nonetheless hide their unease well from others, even spouses, while others are plainly miserable. All want to get “right” with God, or the universe, or whatever they conceive of as the transcendent power against which they have transgressed in some way. They struggle with the idea of asking Christ to choose them; to choose to heal them.
We’re hearing or reading this gospel in anticipation of Lent’s beginning this week on Ash Wednesday.
Lent is a penitential season—it is time for serious introspection. We all have fallen short of the glory of God; we have sinned to some extent (none of us has achieved perfection). Yet I know a great many Christians today are inclined to not take their ‘little’ sins all that seriously. When so many simply assume we’re all headed to Heaven except for the very worst among us, we make a fundamental error.
It’s not only an error considering what we know from millenia of Christian history and tradition, but it is an error in its inherent sinfulness! We’ve presumed to judge ourselves and rule for acquittal. When we think of Jesus’ warning not “to judge lest you be judged” we forget that just doesn’t apply to our estimation of others, but ourselves, too.
However, what is most significant about our sufferance of our own sins is the storing up of “wrath” that we undertake. Understand that wrath as the ultimate and tragic consequence of ignoring the state of the soul and not addressing the attachments we have to this world; putting it all off as something we can quit at anytime like the smoker who denies his dependence and never gives up his cigarettes—we store up for ourselves trouble and face a day of devastating judgment, much like that smoker who must contemplate the chest x-ray that shows the extent of the cancer.
The progressive ill effects of living with our sins, never addressing them is the growing weakness that arises in our souls, and the discouragement toward holiness and eternal life with God that it instills. To give up on sanctity is to give up on Heaven; to resign yourself to being the “unclean” who cannot sit comfortably through a mass or manage a prayer without pangs of conscience is to judge oneself even further: beyond the self-acquittal is the release, not into the society of saints, but rather into the grey world of the damned. It is to believe that this is all you can ever be!
We’ve now had a horrible year’s worth of deprivation, isolation, depression and angst, and many have experienced this as divine chastisement for personal sins. We feel God’s absence keenly, and know the loss of communion in Christ’s body, within the Church that is His body. We have been quarantined, deprived of fellowship, and many Catholics, in looking at the state of our culture, politics, economy, and so, now live with a suspicion that we have brought this on ourselves.
What Lent is meant to be is a discovery of what you can be; and what we can be together in Christ. It does necessitate a journey into the depths of human depravity—the reading of the Passion, if truly engaged by us, is both heart-rending in our vision of our suffering saviour; but also disgusting in our contemplation of the crowds who shout for the death of truth and love that is incarnate before them.
We join that mob when we deny truth and love in our own life; when we suppress it, deny it, act contrary to these essentials of the holiness that brings us to eternal life. Most horrific is denying ourselves Christ’s healing.
In Lent we turn to life and health in all its dimensions and seek it as one who journeys to a spa to “take the waters”, to purge the toxins, and to exercise limbs and lungs in fresh mountain air and so restore a vitality lost, or maybe just slipping.
I encourage us all to make of this Lent a good Lent; and out of the difficulties of our times draw from it lessons as to what we truly need to be made whole, to be healed. It won’t be the return to “normal” or the return to work, school, or the regular routine that can restore us.
We must approach our Lord and ask Him to choose us; but we must make ourselves ready to be chosen. To look hard at the world that we have made and that is now in ruins, the spiritual filth of so much of it; its rotting effects on our souls and minds; the infection of our spirits by things contrary to God.
Yes, we may be leprous, but we have a Saviour ready to make us “clean”.