Sunday, February 12, 2012

Fr. Matthias Neuman's Homily for the 6th Sunday of Ordinary Time

Readings: Lev 13:1-2,44-46; 1 Cor 10:31-11:1; Mk 1:40-45

One of the things I’ve noticed during my forty-five years of priestly ministry is the large number of people who have been deeply touched by the story of Fr. Damien of Molokaii. His selfless devotion to the lepers of that Hawaiian island lifted many others to acts of devotion to people in deep need. Even if they didn’t go that far, the dedication of Fr. Damien to give himself to care for "hopeless cases" inspired real admiration in people.

Part of Fr. Damien’s mystique lay in the disease of leprosy itself. For three thousand years leprosy was a hideous scourge on human society; it was part of the dark underbelly of the human race. Lepers created an almost irrational fear in other people. To see those leprous faces with prominent features (like the nose, lips, cheeks) grotesquely disfigured and eaten away by the disease left people in deep fear for long periods of time. They avoided lepers like the plague. There have always been some individuals willing to treat lepers—to house them, clothe them and feed them (and we can justifiably count many medieval Benedictine houses in this regard), but most of society shunned lepers with a great fear. Leprosy touched the deepest anxieties inside human hearts and minds. (Since modern medical drugs have controlled leprosy since the middle of the 20th century most of us have no living memory of what a scourge and social excommunication leprosy was.)

For our purpose we just need to know that when Jesus steps forward and touches the leper who has begged him for a cure, he’s bucking what is already close to a thousand year tradition (or taboo) with that powerful fear and shunning emotion already in place. But that’s the style of Jesus’ ministry; he is so completely devoted to the sick and the needy that nothing else matters. That’s a gift which has to be sustained and renewed over and over again. We see that in the close connection between Jesus’ healing ministry and prayer. In today’s gospel there is only a veiled connection between prayer and healing, but in other gospel stories the connection is clearly shown. When Jesus heals, he prays. In a famous episode later on in the Gospel of Mark the disciples try to heal a child afflicted with demonic possession and they cannot do it. They ask Jesus about it. He tells them that this kind can only be driven out by prayer. (Mk 9:29) Prayer strengthens the healer.

That connection between healing and prayer as the strength of the healer continues to the present day. If we are going to be healers, then we desperately need the prayer that provides inner strength. I’m using the word "healing" in the broadest possible sense. Anyone who tries to assist another person in their pain and suffering is involved in "healing"—whether that involves dosing medications, changing dressings or just sitting quietly by the bedside. Any healer needs prayer for himself or herself. That’s true of all of us. The healer needs strength from beyond because what is being faced here is ultimately the fear of nothingness. We may not be immediately aware of that while sitting quietly in a hospital room, but "nothingness" is the great beast that lies just behind the curtain. Against that beast of nothingness stands the Resurrection of Jesus. The Resurrection of Jesus centers our hope on eventual victory, on God’s love prevailing over all else. Prayer reminds us of that Resurrection. The purpose of prayer here is to unite us with Resurrection hope.

I’m sure that we all know someone (maybe it’s ourselves) who is now serving as a healer to someone else. Let’s take a moment to pray for them, to pray that above all else the Resurrection hope of Jesus will always be in their minds and hearts.

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