Embracing the Leper

“Jesus understood the leprosy of the leper, the darkness of the blind, the fierce misery of those who live for pleasure, the strange poverty of the rich, the thirst that can lead people to drink from muddy waters. He penetrated the outward shell of things and understood that whatever happens to another happens to oneself, and whatever happens to oneself happens to another.”
-Oscar Wilde

I’m trying to do this Advent thing…and so I’m looking at my life, looking for whatever is amiss that needs to be corrected. Four weeks may not be enough time. Last night I was drawn to the Gospel of Mark and the story of Jesus healing the leper. Since filming at a leprosarium in Manaus, Brazil, reading anything about lepers triggers deep emotions within me. St. Francis of Assisi had a great fear of lepers. He was so repulsed by them that he went to great lengths to avoid contact with them. Of course, God turned that very distain into a means of transformation for Francis. When Francis surrendered to his fear and embraced a leper, it marked a turning point in the saint’s life. I wrote about this crucial episode in The Sun and Moon Over Assisi but never fully appreciated the courage it took to embrace a leper. When I encountered lepers in the Amazon region of Brazil, I was shocked to learn the leprosy still existed. Leprosy can be found in more than a half-dozen nations. In the Amazon alone, more than 45,000 lepers struggle to survive. To spend time in a leprosarium is extremely unsettling. Initially, it is difficult to even look at a leper. And the smell from someone with active leprosy defies explanation.

In Jesus’ time and culture, lepers where considered “unclean.” And the term “leprosy” was not merely restricted to what we know as Hanson’s Disease. Back then, leprosy included any serious skin eruptions. Lepers were outcasts. And because they were “unclean,” they were not permitted to enter the temple. Moreover, according to Jewish custom if you touch someone “unclean” you became “unclean” and therefore you could not enter the temple. This is important because in the story Jesus heals the leper by touching him. Jesus certainly could have healed the leper without touching him. The Gospels contain evidence of such healings without a physical touch from Jesus. In touching the leper, Jesus deliberately defiled himself according to Jewish custom. In touching the leper Jesus is symbolically telling us that God is willing to get down in the gutter, down in the ditch, where we are. We do not have to be clean to go to God. God comes to us in our uncleanliness. When we look at ourselves during Advent and see something that needs to be cleaned up, we simply need to ask Jesus to touch us and heal us.

“The Church asks us to understand that Christ, who came once in the flesh, is prepared to come again. When we remove all obstacles to his presence he will come, at any hour and moment, to dwell spiritually in our hearts, bringing with him the riches of his grace.”
-Saint Charles Borromeo

The above reflection on leprosy was written during the first week of Advent in 2004. Six years later, I am still struggling to put an end to all that is within me that is not Christ. I need to keep an Advent prayer written by Karl Rahner, SJ on my lips: “O God who is to come, grant me the grace to live now, in the hour of your Advent, in such a way that I may merit to live in you forever, in the blissful hour of your eternity.”

When we embark on an inward journey
we eventually arrive at a place
of keen awareness of our own
powerlessness and hopelessness,
and, like Christ,
must yield to the mercy of God.

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1 Response to “Embracing the Leper”


  1. 1 Mel July 17, 2013 at 2:01 pm

    I was just diagnosed with Leprosy or Hansen’s Disease. I am not unclean nor am I from a 3rd world country. It is believed that I contracted it while undergoing chemo therapy and breathing in dirt from the soil in my garden. Armadillos carry the Leprosy bacteria and can transmit it to humans through their waste which is then in the soil. While I pray for mercy from God, I do not believe he “gave” me or “allowed me” to contract leprosy as punishment for my sins or for any other reason. To truly “embrace the Leper” you need to know more about them. They are here in the USA and being healed every day. It’s 100% curable with multi drug therapy and 95% of the population has a natural immunity to it. Because my immune system was compromised and I was ill, I fell into the 5% of people susceptible to Hansen’s Disease. I will forever refuse to believe that this is a punishment from God. Even in todays day and age I have been advised NOT to tell anyone I have leprosy. I was also told that “If I were a TRUE Christian, I would not have gotten leprosy.” To me that is just ridiculous.


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