The healing of the leper in today’s Gospel is not just an account of one of Jesus’ many healing miracles, but it reveals something profound about the human condition and about who Jesus is, why he came, and how he saves us. The leper approaches Jesus and says, “If you wish, you can make me clean.” This action and petition of the leper are, in and of themselves, shocking and reveal the deep need of this man. As we hear in the first reading from Leviticus, the leper was expected by the law to isolate himself from the rest of society. He was deemed “unclean” on account his condition. This did not mean that the person had a disease that was contagious; rather, because of his condition, he was ritually impure and was not allowed to enter the temple and to participate in the public, ritual worship of God. Contact with an “unclean” person would make a person likewise “unclean”. Therefore, the leper had to maintain social distance and cry out “Unclean, unclean!” to warn others if they got too close. What the leper asks for, though, is not that Jesus heal him but that he make him clean. Separation from God and the community generates a deeper suffering than the ravages of the physical disease. His deep desire is for communion with God and with neighbor, and he recognizes in Jesus where this reconciliation is possible and who can make this communion happen. In the law, the priests could only declare someone clean or unclean after a physical inspection. But only God could make someone clean. He recognizes in Jesus the presence of God, approaching him in a position of prayer and humility, as if one were worshipping in the temple, the place where God dwells. Jesus is the “new temple” – the dwelling place of God on earth. He has come to reconcile us to one another and to the Father. Not knowing whether the person was infectious or not, the law of Leviticus was designed also to protect the community from the spreading of the disease, but it did nothing to help the afflicted person. Jesus has come to heal each person from the deep suffering of sin and division and bring us into communion with God and neighbor and into true worship of God. We cannot be saved by a law but only by a personal encounter with Jesus. How does Jesus do this? “Moved with pity, he stretched out his hand, touched him, and said to him, ‘I do will it. Be made clean.’” What does this gesture of Jesus tell us? God is not angry with us when we sin. He doesn’t abandon us or distance himself from us when we sin. Rather, he is “moved with pity” or compassion for us in our sinful condition and moves toward us. He has entered our condition and touches us – physically in order to heal us and to make us “clean”. This is his will. He is not put off or scandalized or afraid of our sin. Obviously, Jesus could have healed the leper without touching him (he healed many other people from a distance), but he stretches out his hand and touches him. He knows that this is what the man needs for healing – he was suffering from a lack of human contact, but it also reveals that God saves us through human contact. God became man so that we could have real “flesh and blood” contact with him. We cannot be saved apart from this real, physical communion in which we encounter God “in the flesh”. When the 2nd wave of the pandemic hit around Christmas and the state imposed new restrictions on gatherings, it was suggested that houses of worship, instead of gathering, move to “alternative forms of worship.” As Catholics, we have no “alternative form of worship.” We can only worship, “through Him, with Him, and in Him”. We can worship only in communion with Jesus – where he is present – body, blood, soul, and divinity – in the celebration of the Eucharist – gathering as the Body of Christ and receiving the Body of Christ. In the celebration of all the sacraments, the grace of God is mediated through a physical element (bread, wine, oil, water, etc.) and the personal presence of the minister. I cannot celebrate the sacrament of reconciliation over the phone or through an email. One has to be physically present with the priest to go to confession and to receive absolution. I cannot administer the sacrament of the sick unless I can physically “lay hands” on the person and anoint them with the blessed oil. On a natural level, we know how important human touch is for a person’s health – not only emotional but physical. A newborn baby will not only not thrive – be developmentally stunted – but will eventually die – without human contact, even if its other bodily needs are taken care of. We need to be embraced – physically – in our weakness in order to live. God gives us new life using this same method – through human touch. It is the method of the Incarnation.
A friend from my last parish who came into the Church through the RCIA wrote to me recently to share the news that her daughter, a grown adult, is becoming Catholic. She said she can thank Covid, in part, for her daughter’s conversion. Her daughter, a public school teacher, was home a lot during the school closure. She had a desire to reconnect with her Lutheran faith, but the Lutheran church was closed. She was still seeking, and my friend suggested she listen to and watch some of Bishop Barron’s homilies. She started to watch his daily Mass on-line. Before her school went virtual, she had time to read and to study and to ask questions and found some friends – people from work – who are Catholic who invited her to Mass. The Catholic church is open for worship. She’s entered the RCIA at her local parish.
We know how devastating the physical effects of the virus can be, but we cannot overlook the often hidden and much deeper suffering caused by physical isolation and the prohibition of physical contact. I know that this is especially difficult in the elderly population and those in nursing homes that cannot be seen in person by their loved ones. Has the pandemic made our deep need for communion – real contact with God and with neighbor – more clear to us? May we recognize this need in ourselves and other – this need for healing and reconciliation – and not be afraid to approach Jesus and ask to be made clean.