Christ Heals the Leper, Rembrandt 1655, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, Netherlands.
Moved with pity, [Jesus] stretched out his hand, touched him, and said to him, “I do will it. Be made clean.” The leprosy left him immediately, and he was made clean.” Mark 1:41
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Look carefully at the Rembrandt drawing above. Look at Jesus’ hand outstretched to the man with leprosy. There are two hands there! But one looks like it might have been added by someone else, the hand that does not touch the leper. The other, apparently the “original” hand, touches the leper. This suggests to me someone, the one who seems to have “corrected” Rembrandt (and even the Lord!), had as much fear, loathing even, of those afflicted with leprosy as people 1,655 years earlier! It was both dreaded and dreadful. There was no cure. It was contagious. You did not recover from it. It would eventually kill you. And, moreover, it is still with us today, now called Hansen’s disease. In Jesus’ day, and right up to fairly modern times, those afflicted with leprosy were sequestered, and forbidden to mingle with the general population. So Jesus must have astonished all present when not only did he not move away from the man with leprosy, but he actually touched him! That, of course, was nothing compared to the reaction there must have been when, as Scripture says, “The leprosy left him immediately, and he was made clean.” That had never happened before, and not today, usually, though antibiotics will eventually do the trick. But note one thing. Virtually any incurable skin condition might well have been labelled leprosy in the old days. This man might have had one of many skin diseases. And if he had been declared unclean, Leviticus, today’s first reading, is pretty clear on the consequence: ““The one who bears the sore of leprosy shall keep his garments rent and his head bare, and shall muffle his beard; he shall cry out, ‘Unclean, unclean!’ As long as the sore is on him he shall declare himself unclean, since he is in fact unclean. He shall dwell apart, making his abode outside the camp.” Note that the traditional word for “outside the camp” is excommunicated. And so the reaction from those present to what Jesus did must have been unparalleled in their lives. What he did was unimaginable, and yet the man was cured. Equally astonishing was Jesus’ instruction to him: “See that you tell no one anything…” Impossible, of course. Nothing like this had ever happened before; the man was overwhelmed with joy, bursting with joy and telling everyone! As with last week, when Jesus expelled the evil spirit from the possessed man in the synagogue, he had to escape to the “other villages”, and on this occasion, he went “outside in deserted places”. He knew that he would be taken as the Messiah, but not his idea of the Messiah, but the popular, military idea of the savior of Israel, he who would expel the pagan, unclean, Roman occupiers. And he wasn’t.
Jesus, Son of God, had powers which were literally divine, hence the cures, which were extraordinary. The prophets had told the Hebrew people to be on the lookout for such, as they would proclaim the presence of the Messiah. His actions combined the two revelations at his baptism, namely his identity as Son of God, and his vocation, to be the Messiah, the Anointed of God. The culminating miracle, of course, was his conquest of death itself at the Resurrection. So it was through these phenomena and his presence that he won over his followers, many willing to drop everything and follow him, so great was his charisma. So someone who might be tempted to say that any minor little bit of magic would be enough to transfix the ignorant back then would have ignored his magnetic personality. Well, miracles similar to the cure of the leper do occur today. In fact, one, recognized by the Church, was announced in 2018 by Jacques Benoit-Gonin, bishop of Beauvais in France, a city to the north of Paris. Read about it here. It occurred in 2008, when a crippled nun, S. Bernadette Moriau, a sister of the Congregation of the Franciscan Oblates of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, visited Lourdes in the Pyrenees. Her extreme disabilities vanished on returning home, her strong painkillers were banished, and she went on a long walk with her sister-in-law a few days later! It was the 70th Church-recognized miracle at the intercession of Our Lady of Lourdes.
The previous “official” miracle was proclaimed in 2011, itself after years of investigation. Doctors are very cautious about affirming the miraculous, in fact deeming them “cures” rather than miracles, and attributable to causes currently unknown to medical science. So a believer can say happily and truthfully that divine cures do still occur, even if rarely. That echoes Jesus’ cures. And what about his “presence” that attracted everyone so strongly? I went to Lourdes in the summer of 2008 with a couple of friends:
The Infirm before the Grotto of the Apparition of Our Lady, Lourdes 2008, France.
Yes I’m sure many come in the hopes of a miraculous cure, but the overwhelming sense throughout the Sanctuary, or Domaine as it is called, is one of peace, faith and, frankly, love; the presence, the charisma, of the Lord! The sick know it is their place, but the healthy outnumber them greatly, with a spirit of complete acceptance of those less fortunate. It is truly the presence of Christ, loud and clear. And a total-faith Christ; there were announcements when I was there concerning Anglican/Episcopal and Russian Orthodox pilgrimages that summer. And wouldn’t you want that kind of experience throughout the year, throughout the globe? Today’s second reading from Paul’s first letter to the Christians in Corinth is the perfect conclusion to that thought: “Do everything for the glory of God. Avoid giving offense, whether to the Jews or Greeks or the church of God, just as I try to please everyone in every way, not seeking my own benefit but that of the many, that they may be saved.”
Lourdes, Summer 2008.
Next Wednesday is Ash Wednesday, marking the beginning of the great season of Lent, the time when we explore our deepest secrets, our motivations, our commitment to the Lord, our very identity as Christian.
Reflections on next Sunday’s Mass Readings, the first Sunday of Lent, will be posted on Wednesday.
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