Fr Columba McCann OSB
‘Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean!’ I imagine that many of us have said something similar in our prayers, asking for health, either for ourselves or for our loved ones. Sometimes God answers through natural healing, or through medical intervention, or sometimes in ways that still defy our understanding.
Sometimes it appears as if God hasn’t listened at all. At least we don’t get what we want. It could be that God’s plan of therapy for us or for others is much bigger and more ambitious. It could be that the work God is doing with us is so big that the reality of physical sickness or its absence pale into the shade. But that can be very hard for us to see or accept.
All the people healed by Jesus in the gospel accounts eventually died. It means that his healings were ultimately about something more than simple biological recovery. St John’s gospel in fact refers to them as signs. But signs of what? What are they pointing to? One example of this was when they brought a paralysed man to Jesus. Jesus responded with compassion, not because of his paralysis, but because of something bigger. His first words to him were, ’Your sins are forgiven.’ It was only when people began to grumble about Jesus forgiving sins that he also told the man to get up and walk. The healing of paralysis confirmed his message of forgiveness. The physical healing was a sign of a much deeper healing, healing a problem that, deep down, was more distressing than physical paralysis for all its difficult challenges.
On another occasion, when Jesus was criticised for mixing with sinners, he compared himself to a doctor. It’s the sick who need the doctor! That’s good news for us. What about today’s reading? The man had some kind of skin problem. Leprosy was a catch-all word referring to a whole wide range of skin diseases. A major outcome of this was isolation, in case of contagion. Remember Covid 19 lockdown! Part of Jesus’s healing project is to bring us out of isolation. That’s why he gathers us here in one place. Being with one another here is part of our deep healing. Even if we find that, at times, we find ourselves getting irritated by what we see when we gather together. It’s part of his formula.
A woman once went to a funeral. When it came to the sign of peace she shook hands with a stranger beside her, and he began to cry. In a whisper she asked the man if we were a close friend of the deceased. ‘No,’ he said, ‘but this is the first time that anyone has physically touched me in many, many years.’ The Lord gathers us and brings us out of isolation. He brings us here to speak to our hearts, and so we
can respond in kind. Being a leper back then didn’t just bring social isolation. It also brought a condition of ritual impurity: you weren’t allowed to take part in religious events. To make matters worse, many people believed that being a leper was a punishment from God, a sign that you were a great sinner.
Most of us, if we are honest, would admit that, really, there is much at work inside us that gets in the way of living in partnership with God, gets in the way of our being fully alive. We need healing. So our attitude towards Jesus could well imitate that of the leper, who knelt before Jesus: if you are willing, you can heal me. Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed. And
Jesus will reply: of course I want to heal you! This is my body given for you; this is the covenant in my blood for the forgiveness of your sins.
Jesus could have healed the leper just with a word. Instead, he did the one thing that he knew would really speak to the leper: he reached out and touched him. He knows too that we are not disembodied spirits, so he reaches out to us not only with his word but with something that goes into our hands, our mouths, our bodies. This is my body given for you. Be healed!