Today, as we celebrate the World Day of the Sick, the liturgy sets before us the daunting condition of leprosy and reveals Jesus’ compassion for a man afflicted with it. As we ponder these readings, we begin to see more deeply that the Lord comes as the answer to every sickness and need. His mission is to bring man to wholeness, to restore every one of us to fullness of life.
The first reading reminds us of the demands of the old law regarding persons afflicted with leprosy. A leper had to show himself to the priest, who would determine whether he was “clean” or “unclean.” This was not a matter of healing, nor of mercy. The object was to maintain the purity of the community. Whoever was unclean had to be excluded. Lepers were particularly abhorrent. They were physically, socially and ritually unclean and were required to declare themselves as such.
In today’s Gospel, we notice right away that the situation has changed. There is a leper, as unclean as ever, but when he shows himself to the priest – that is, to Jesus – he does not cry out, “Unclean, unclean!” He senses that he will not be excluded by Jesus but healed. Before Jesus he can make a different cry, full of faith and hope: “If you wish, you can make me clean.”
The leper recognizes in Jesus the power to make him clean, but he is not demanding, arrogant, or controlling. He approaches the Lord in humility, kneeling down and begging. He surrenders himself, placing himself totally at the disposition of Jesus: “If you wish…” Seeing the leper carry his terrible illness with such humility and trust, Jesus is “moved with pity” for him. While he wanted to heal the leper from the start, the man’s prayer of humble submission, imbued with unwavering faith, revealed an inner disposition of readiness to benefit from the Lord’s healing touch. Jesus expresses his will and touches the man, and he is immediately healed, “made clean.” This is exactly what happens to us when we come with contrite hearts to Jesus in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Through the ministry of the priest, he expresses his willingness to forgive and he touches us with the healing power of his grace.
We learn from the example of this leper the proper disposition with which we are to approach the Lord. Most of us, when we find ourselves heavily burdened by sickness or suffering, start off wrongly. We may kneel down, if that is our habitual prayer posture, but then we begin to bombard Jesus with countless words of petition – indeed, demanding the relief we want. We act as if we are in front of a vending machine; if we want to receive more, we must simply drop in more coins. Sometimes we pray childishly, selfishly seeking satisfaction, moved solely by our need to be comforted, consoled, relieved from pain, sometimes almost yelling angrily at God, giving in to an attitude of hopelessness which makes our pain even more unbearable. Prayer is not about demanding from God what we want but rather seeking the good that he wills for us, as he sees best. We learn this from the leper, who, even before he has received any favor from Jesus, is humble and selfless, courageous and determined, and quietly ready for anything which Jesus may demand from him.
We can also learn a lesson from Christ Jesus about how to relate to the sick, that is, with great compassion. This is part of the reason for the World Day of the Sick, instituted by St. John Paul II in 1992 and first celebrated at Lourdes, France on February 11, 1993. This is a day of hope and renewal for all who are suffering any kind of illness, physical or psychological. It is a day for us to deepen our sense of responsibility for the care of the sick. Each person, regardless of their condition, is a precious gift from God. We join the mission of the Church to value, protect and serve our brothers and sisters who are sick.
Loving service of the sick is included in our missionary responsibility, as described by St. Paul in today’s second reading. He urges us to “do everything for the glory of God,” thereby mirroring the life of Christ himself. As we imitate Paul who imitates Christ, we strive for an exemplary life of selfless love and compassion for all, for in loving them, we love the Lord. In loving them, we do as he does.
Like the leper, do I humbly approach the Lord for healing? When do I make demands upon God? Am I willing to serve and pray for the sick?
Excerpt from The Anawim Way, Volume 14, no. 2. More information about The Anawim Way may be found here.