Many years ago I entered the hospital room of an elderly lady who greeted me with the words, “you shouldn’t have gone to all that trouble for me. I’m so ashamed. I was always been a clean person.” It took me a moment to realize that she was embarrassed because I had to put on a mask, gown and gloves before entering her room. She had tested positive for an antibiotic resistant “superbug.” that she had picked up in the hospital through no fault of her own; but she believed that carrying these germs somehow made her less worthy of care. I think that was the moment when I really began to understand the significance of Jesus’ action in today’s gospel.
Illness is horrible on many levels: the pain; the uncertainty or fear; the confrontation with mortality; the weakness or exhaustion; the inability to do the things you used to do … But the most devastating aspect of illness comes through a loss of connection whether that be a loss of connection with self, with others, with nature or with God. Human beings are remarkably resilient. We can bear the unbearable when we know we matter, when we know we are loved, when we know we are not alone. But without love and connection, without a way to connect or contribute, without a sense of self worth, even minor ailments can overwhelm us. The woman whose room I entered had lost her sense of self. Aging and illness had gradually isolated her from others and the hospital precautions sign pushed her to the breaking point. She believed that she could no longer hope to connect with others because of her “uncleanness.” She struggled to find meaning in her life because she saw herself as a “nuisance” rather than as a gift. She was dying from the inside out.
The leper in today’s Gospel had also lost himself because of his illness. As a leper he was no longer allowed to participate in or contribute to society. Instead he had to let others know that he was nothing but a dangerous obstacle in their path, some “thing” best avoided. When Jesus heals him, he sends him to the priest so that he may be reconnected to the community. It is not the physical cleansing that is the incredible gift, instead, it is the restored sense of belonging. That is why the man cannot keep silent. He needs to tell his story because finally he has a story that others care about, a story that makes him truly alive.
Today is World Day of the Sick. It is a day when all of us are called to remember that the miracle that Jesus offered to the leper is one that we too can offer to those who are sick. We can walk with them through the illness, stay connected even when it is not easy, and listen to the story even when it frightens us. Jesus’ healing miracles are the sign that a person is not defined by his or her illness. We are called to see beyond the illness to love and learn from the other even in the midst of illness. Pam Driedger