A Movie Story: Molokai - We Lepers
Fr. Raymond Lafontaine February 11, 2018
One of the great men of the 20th century was a Belgian priest named Father Damien. Damien was a missionary priest who ministered in the South Seas, eventually being sent to the Hawaiian Islands, which were not yet part of the U.S.. Although we may immediately associate Hawaii with luxury resorts and frolicking on the beach, what brought Damien to Hawaii was not sun and surf, but the plight of the many lepers who were exiled from their families and communities to the tiny, rocky, and inhospitable island of Molokai. Profoundly moved by their suffering, Fr. Damien moved towards them; deeply touched by their isolation, Fr. Damien reached out and touched them; he worked and lived with them for many years. He helped them build up a community, to become a family, to be attentive to one another, to believe in themselves, to trust in the God who believed in them.
Then, one fateful day, Fr. Damien climbed into the pulpit, looked out at all these people who had become his friends, his family, and began his sermon with these fateful words, “We lepers …”. Father Damien was someone who, having himself experienced the call and the touch of Christ, was moved to extend his healing touch to the people of Molokai, and who in the process, discovered a genuine solidarity with these suffering people. He bore witness to what our Pope Francis has called “the revolution of tenderness.” He learned to see their beauty, beyond the disfigurement of their disease; he saw the goodness of heart which could not be crushed by the exile and isolation which society imposed on them. And just as Jesus had chosen to share fully in our human condition, including illness, suffering, and death, Damien embraced his suffering in solidarity with these people who had become his family, his own flesh and blood.
A Modern Story: Jessica
You may ask: what has leprosy to do with us, here in the modern world? Not long ago, I read the following headline in the Gazette: No room at daycare for girl with HIV. It told the story of two year-old Jessica, who was expelled from her daycare centre when the family revealed she was HIV-positive.
This happened even though there are no documented cases of HIV being transmitted through casual contact in a domestic setting. The administrator of AIDS-research at McGill pointed out the irony: "If anyone's at risk in a daycare centre, it's the child that's infected since they're so susceptible to viruses." She goes on to say, "I think that some people would rather that these children be put in a separate place, sort of like a leper colony." Meanwhile, Jessica doesn't understand why she can't go back and play with her friends. She feels rejected.
The politics of exclusion, unfortunately, are in some ways just as alive today as they were two thousand years ago. We don’t hear so much right now in Montreal about people with HIV, but there are others we marginalize – the mentally ill, the addicted, migrants and refugees, people whose cultural or religious practices differ from our own. As the recent controversy over the Canada summer jobs program has revealed, some seek to marginalize those whose beliefs about the right to life at every stage of life – including the very beginning and the very end – are different from those of the current Prime Minister. Luckily, there is another way – the way of Fr. Damien, the way of Jesus of Nazareth. It is a way of acceptance, of inclusive outreach.
So let us look more closely at this Gospel text of the encounter between Jesus and this man who was stricken with the disfiguring condition known as leprosy. Let us ponder what it reveals to us about who Jesus is, and about who we are as followers of Jesus.
“Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched the man with leprosy, and said to him, “I do choose. Be made clean!”
The Life of Jesus: Touching and Being Touched
We are told that Jesus was “moved with pity” as this man came before him, humbly, on his knees, and said simply: “If you choose, you can make me clean.” Experts in New Testament Greek tell us that the word Mark uses to describe Jesus’ response, which our translation renders as “moved with pity”, literally means “his bowels were stirred with compassion”. It would sound strange to our ears – we are more likely to that our heart goes out to someone, rather than our intestines! But Mark’s Gospel is very earthy. Jesus is, in the more modern turn of phrase, “in touch with his gut feeling”; although we tend to localize these experiences in the head or the heart, we are reminded here that feelings of compassion come from a place deep within: be it love or hate, anger or delight, fears or tears. We are incarnate beings.
Time and again in the Gospels, we see Jesus “stirred with compassion” in this way. Compassion for the hungry, for the sick who had followed him to a lonely place, for those who were tired and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Compassion for two blind men on the road to Jericho, for an epileptic boy, for a widow who had lost her only son, for a pagan woman desperate for her daughter’s healing. When confronted with human sin and suffering, Jesus does not remain impassive, straight-faced, perfectly placid. He is fully engaged, moved with pity, touched by compassion.
And so, Jesus TOUCHES. When touched by the needs of others, Jesus reaches out and touches. When moved with pity, Jesus moves toward the person in need. At the risk of incurring ritual impurity, the judgment of the Pharisees, the accusation of being himself a sinner and an outcast, Jesus reaches out and touches those whose plight touches him. The hand of a dead 12-year old girl, a hemorraghing woman, Peter’s feverish mother-in-law; the eyes of the blind, the ears of the deaf, the tongue of the dumb, even the right ear of one of those who came to arrest him.
It was not only the sick who experienced Jesus’ healing touch: think of Jesus stretching out his hand to Peter sinking in the water, blessing the children who gathered round him, washing the feet of his disciples at the Last Supper. Think of his intimate conversations with Nicodemus, with the Samaritan Woman at the well, with Mary Magdalene after the Resurrection. Ponder those who knew Jesus as friends and companions: Mary and Joseph, his extended family, his friends Martha and Mary and Lazarus, the Twelve, John the beloved disciple. In all these places, Jesus is touched; and so,he touches.
The Sacraments: being touched, and touching.
Have we encountered in our own lives this healing touch? Do we believe in a God who loves us so intimately and personally, who desires to reach out and touch us in the same way that Jesus did when he walked this earth? In a world where there is so much woundedness and isolation, do we feel Christ’s healing, forgiving, supporting touch, his hand caressing our cheek, his blessing upon our forehead, his arms holding us in a strong yet gentle embrace. Can we hear Jesus say to us, as he says so often in the Gospels: “Your sins are forgiven. Your eyes, your ears, your hearts are opened. Stand up and walk. Be made clean. Go in peace.”
This touch of Christ is what we as Catholics celebrate in our seven sacraments, concrete ways in which Christ reaches out and touches us in our journey through life. A child is touched with the water of baptism, and God’s life flows through him; the bishop lays hands on the head of a teenager, anoints her with chrism, and the gifts of the Spirit are outpoured, strengthening her faith and witness. A priest speaks the words of forgiveness, and a sinner is set free to stand up and walk again. A sick person is anointed, and strengthened – either for the journey back to health, or for the final journey home to the Creator.
The bishop lays hands upon a young man’s head, and a new priest rises empowered to celebrate and mediate God’s incredible love. A man and a woman join hands, exchange rings as a symbol of their eternal unity, their pledge to be the touch of God to one another. Finally, Sunday after Sunday, we receive in our hands a small piece of bread, we touch to our lips a sip of wine, and our fragile flesh is filled with the promise of God’s abiding presence: body and blood, soul and divinity. So we too become bread broken for others, our lives poured out for the life of the world.
One potential danger of surrounding the sacraments with elaborate rituals, investing them with sacred meaning, is that we have made ourselves remote from them. Perhaps, like all the detailed prescriptions we hear about in the first reading for what needs to be done by the priests in cases of leprosy, we focus on getting all the external actions right, but forget the deeper reality – the touch of Christ, the presence of Christ – to which they point. If our sacramental life as Catholics is about touching and being touched by Christ, can this become more real for us? And how do we make this more real for those in our world who so much need to experience the healing, forgiving, sustaining touch of Christ?
Our Lives: Being Touched, and Touching
We all live in different circumstances, and there is no easy recipe to follow. What is clear in today’s Gospel is that we need to allow ourselves to be genuinely touched: mind, heart, and gut. The danger is that many of us become content with writing out an occasional cheque, but mostly living our lives as if the sin-sick and suffering were not living right here in our country, in our neighbourhoods, at our doorsteps, sometimes in our very own homes. We sidestep the poor, but we don’t really meet them. One thing I really admired in the life of our beloved “Pops”, Fr. Emmett Johns, was the simple and direct way he had with the young street kids he met in the van, or at the Bunker, of “Dans la rue.” He welcomed them without judgment, accepted them without question, loved them without conditions. And as we heard at his funeral Mass last week, that outreach empowered so many of these young people – runaways, drug addicts, prostitutes, wounded in so any ways – to believe in themselves, to desire a better life, to work hard to fulfil God’s promise and belief in them.
The Gospel calls us to compassion, to sympathy. One Latin word, one Greek, with a similar meaning: to suffer with someone, to be present to another’s pain. To be Christian is to be compassionate. And that is difficult. Why? Because, as Jean Vanier has taught us, to confront the suffering and limitations of others is to come face to face with our own.
Thus, it is very tempting to isolate ourselves from human suffering, to want to protect ourselves and those we love from it. But in refusing compassion, in failing to reach out and touch, we hurt not only others, but ourselves.
Earlier in the homily, we spoke of this little girl named Jessica. I don’t think that the parents who wanted Jessica out of the daycare were fundamentally evil or bad people. They cared for their children, and sought to protect them. But their fear prevented them from seeing Jessica, and her family. Jessica has HIV. She may or may not eventually develop full-blown AIDS. But Jessica deserves to be accepted, to live as fully as possible whatever years she has left. She doesn't need people looking at her, and crying out "unclean, unclean." For that matter, neither does anyone living with AIDS, or cancer, or any disease or handicap whatsoever. Nor do refugees, the poor, the broken, those who struggle with gender or sexual identity, or any other group marginalized, whether by state, society, or religion. So often, we feel threatened; we want to protect ourselves. We fail to reach out, and we lose out on a precious opportunity to meet Christ, to be Christ for another.
The day after Jessica’s story appeared in the Gazette, the headline read: "Family opens home to HIV-positive girl." This couple, already with a 3-year old girl and a 4-year old boy of their own, is quoted as saying: "We feel outraged and sad over the awful treatment of this little girl, which is obviously motivated by ignorance. Jessica deserves a little happiness while she's alive." The article did not mention whether or not this couple was motivated by their faith. But it was a sign of hope, and a call to conversion. Like Fr Damien, like Christ himself, this couple was touched by the suffering of Jessica, so they reached out and touched; they welcomed her with open arms.
In the second reading today, Paul tells us that "whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God" and that we must be “imitators of Christ.” So let us reach out and touch; let us bring healing where there is hurt, reconciliation where there is division, acceptance where there is rejection, peace where here is strife. As we touch the presence of Christ in the Word, in the Eucharist, and in one another, may we be strengthened to be that touch for others.
To the lost, Christ shows His face. To the unloved, He gives His embrace. To those who cry out in pain or disgrace, Christ makes with his friends a touching place.