A leper approached Jesus. “If you wish”, he said, “you can make me clean”. This is not a request, but a statement. It’s an act of faith, yes, but also a challenge: daring; we could even say cheeky.
This man, who according to St. Mark virtually hurls himself at Jesus, is not only suffering from a particularly horrible and infectious disease. According to the law of Moses, he is ritually unclean. So he symbolically represents in himself the consequences of sin. He must then by God’s law be separated from the people, for they are consecrated to God, and he is unfit to join them in worship.
“If you wish”. St. Mark goes on to tell us the regrettable consequences for Jesus of this miracle. After it he could no longer go openly into any town. So Jesus had very good reasons for not wanting to do as he was asked here; for not trusting this man to be obedient. But alone among the evangelists, Mark tells us why he acted as he did. Jesus, he says, was moved by compassion.
And out of that compassion came this most wonderful gesture: utterly astonishing in the circumstances; for us, an endlessly consoling source of meditation. Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him. We can imagine the stunned silence, or the sudden intake of breath, of the onlookers. Jesus had just done what you mustn’t do. He has deliberately touched a leper.
“It is my will”, he said. “Be clean”. And immediately the leprosy left him and he was clean. Once again, Jesus had confirmed that he could heal at a word, at a touch. He’d also accepted the deeper challenge offered him by the leper. Almost against his will, he’d allowed himself to be seen as the one who bears within himself the holiness of God. Unlike any other man there had ever been, Jesus was not himself made unclean by this touch. Instead, by it he conferred cleanness, that is, holiness, rightness with God.
I confess I always wince when I hear our Jerusalem Bible translation of Jesus’ words. The 1960's committee of translators make him say. “Of course I want to!” The effect of that, it seems to me, is to trivialise, or sentimentalise this whole episode. It also falsifies a great part of its significance.
For there is no “of course” about it. Jesus did not come into the world in order to rid it of leprosy. There are still lepers today, no less than in Jesus’ own time, and there are still people who suffer from countless other diseases and afflictions of every sort. St. Mark also strongly insists that Jesus did not want the reputation of a wonder worker, who would fix everyone’s problems and solve their difficulties. His mission was much bigger than that. The blessings he came to give were much greater; of infinitely wider scope.
So with the leper of today’s Gospel, we rightly approach Jesus in faith and hope, asking for his help, in big things and small, knowing he has the power to help us. But always with the leper we add: if it is your will. And we accept that sometimes, or quite often, it is not his will that we gain what we ask for.
So what is God’s will for us? Our faith tells us that the single motive force behind God’s will is his love: infinite, divine love: for God is love. Thy will be done, we pray; and if God’s will is done in us, then indeed that can only be for our good. God’s ultimate will for us is that we be found in Christ Jesus our Lord; that we share his divine Sonship; that we inherit God’s own eternal, Trinitarian life. And the route to that blessing is our share in Christ’s death and resurrection.
Sometimes then, it’s God’s will that in order to gain that blessing, for now we experience some share in Christ’s suffering. And common experience suggests that normally we don’t encounter God’s love in its fullness unless we first have the experience of being desperately needy, helpless, wounded. And so there is a real sense in which it is sometimes good for us not to be healed.
“Moved with compassion, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him.” The compassion of God for wounded, diseased, fallen, sinful humanity is expressed in the incarnation, and in the miracles, passion and death of Jesus. Through the humanity of Jesus, God has reached out his hand and touched us; all of us, in principle. Through the human heart of Jesus especially, that heart which was pierced by a lance, we have immediate access to God’s infinite and eternal love.
The outstretched hand of Jesus continues to touch us in our daily lives. Above all, and most directly, we meet that touch in the sacraments of the Church: in sacramental absolution, and in holy communion. But we meet it in other ways too: in our prayer; in our holy reading; in the Saints; in other people. Sometimes we find ourselves being used as instruments of that divine touch for others.
160 years ago today the touch of God was expressed by an apparition of his holy Mother. On the 11 February 1858 the 14 year old Bernadette first saw our Lady in the grotto at Lourdes. On that occasion the Lady, or as Bernadette spoke of her, the girl, said nothing at all. What was utterly unforgettable about her was that she was so beautiful. She smiled at Bernadette, and invited her by gesture to pray. Only in the sixteenth apparition did the young lady respond to Bernadette’s repeated request for her name: I am the Immaculate Conception.
And from that day to this the crowds have flocked to Lourdes. Many healings of the sick, unexplained by medical science, have taken place there. But also: many sick people go to Lourdes who are not cured. Still they go, because Lourdes is a holy place. People are converted there; they find prayer flows easily; they experience the blessing of God and of Mary there somehow more directly. Lourdes points people firmly in the direction of heaven, and they come away consoled and refreshed.
“If you will, said the leper, you can make me clean”. God does will. Touch and cleanse my heart, then, Lord, and make it like your heart. Touch and cleanse my mind, that it may be conformed to your mind. Touch and cleanse my whole life: that I may be ever more open to receive your love, and to give it back, now and for ever. Amen