Healing from Alienation
The concept of “order” is an essential component in any community. The more the number of participants in a given population, the greater the need to establish some protocols for interpersonal and communal interaction. It just happens naturally in any community. It gives us a point of reference when dealing with one another. Some things just make sense. Take for instance, our experience of church. We dress appropriately, balancing comfort and self-respect. We are not on a fashion show runway, nor at a spa. We are not at the mall, nor a sporting event, nor a political rally. We come primarily to worship in community. Everything else is secondary, including our individual personal religious needs. We try to arrive before mass begins and leave only after mass ends, not when we choose when mass begins or ends. We avoid disruptions and distractions as a courtesy to those around us. We don’t cough too loud on purpose, or yell, or behave so to attract unwanted attention. Instead, we willingly participate in the common activity that is the primary objective why we are here in the first place. We sit, stand, and kneel when everyone else does. And if any among us is not sure when to do what, we pay close attention, so we don’t draw attention. We sing when everyone sings. We respond to the prayers with the appropriate responses at a pace and volume that again does not draw attention. We make an effort to contribute positively to the over-all experience of those gathered together with us. Certain things come naturally and make sense. When we sit down to listen to sacred scripture, we focus on the person speaking. When we come to the consecration of the Body and Blood of Christ, we focus on the action at the altar. We don’t get up and walk around. We don’t engage in personal conversation. We don’t take phone calls. Occasionally, someone has to call our attention to things that we don’t think of on our own. So when there are people standing in the back, for instance, one of the ushers might ask you to slide down to make room for them in the pew.
But when the unexpected happens, like when someone has a medical emergency, or we experience a natural disaster, or a child throws a tantrum, we are guided by much deeper convictions and principles—above all, Christian charity, reason, respect for each person’s dignity, compassion. It is in these moments that we discover our deepest flaws as well as our greatest strengths. Our actions will prove that we are who we say we are.
The reading from Leviticus addresses “leprosy,” a condition that included a lot more than modern medicine would encompass in our day. Any unusual sore or skin discoloration indicated something dreadful. It is important to understand that in that time and place in the bible, the rights of the community took precedence over those of the individual. Public safety was paramount, as well as what they believed was and what was not acceptable to God. The term “unclean” was not a moral judgment at first. It determined who may or may not be part of community worship. So religious leaders had the final say regarding who may be admitted, and when they are readmitted who previously were not. Unfortunately, ignorance of science and the volatility of popular opinion caused a greater harm—rejection by the community, and presumably, by God.
Jesus shows that he does not desire primarily to heal our illnesses and diseases. On many occasions, when people came to him for physical healing, his first response was to extend to them forgiveness for their sins. The healing of any physical illness or disease was powerful evidence that a much deeper spiritual healing had taken place. Leprosy was clearly the single most dreaded illness in Jesus’ time. Not only did it cause visible disfigurement, it also triggered a response from others—rejection, alienation, isolation. When a person is rejected by their loved ones and their community for something they did not actively choose like illness or some undesirable physical trait, they can just as easily believe God rejects them, too. When we are not welcome to activities and places that celebrate solidarity and mutual cooperation, we experience alienation and isolation that breaks down self-esteem and damages the human spirit.
So when the man with leprosy called out to Jesus for healing, he may not have been asking for healing for his spirit. He may have been aware that his physical illness was connected to the alienation and rejection he experienced. So his desire to be rid of his illness was a desire to belong and be received back into the community where he knew he would once again experience a healthy self-image, compassion, respect, and personal fulfillment. Jesus understood this, too. By acknowledging the man’s presence, addressing him personally with compassion, and deliberately reaching out to touch him, Jesus showed he did not reject the man for his illness. Since Jesus is himself the ultimate expression of the Father’s love, we can see how God would do as Jesus did. God does not allow our illnesses and our external physical qualities to determine his love and care for us. The reason Jesus did not go out of his way to heal every leper in Israel, the reason he did not go out of his way to restore every blind, deaf, mute, or physically impaired person then, nor does he today through the church, is that his primary mission was to heal our spirits and extend to us forgiveness for our sins. The healing of the body was never his top priority. If physical healing happened, it was only to signify that a much deeper spiritual healing had taken place.
As we approach the season of Lent which begins with Ash Wednesday this week, the church invites us to acknowledge our need for spiritual healing. God does not reject us. Instead, God desires that we be restored to wholeness, that we come to know his deep compassion and great tenderness for us. Even if other people, those we thought loved us or the community we thought we were part of, consider us outlaws or rejects, our God does not. Rather, Jesus acknowledges our presence, he speaks to us personally with compassion, and he deliberately reaches out to bring us healing. So the church is entrusted with the same mission as Jesus—to acknowledge the presence of those whom God calls to reconciliation and wholeness, to speak to each of us personally of his deep compassion, and to touch our hearts and minds with his healing love.
In his first letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul tells us to “avoid giving offense, try to please everyone in every way, not seeking [your] own benefit but that of the many, that they may be saved.” It is an appeal to compassion and mercy, as has been the mark of Pope Francis’ ministry. Harshness and inflexibility do not invite to healing those who have known rejection, alienation, and isolation. Jesus came first to heal our spirits. If we ourselves have experienced such healing, why would we not want others to experience it, too? Send them to Jesus. Point out the way. He will not disappoint.
Rolo B Castillo © 2015