From the holy Gospel according to Mark [1:40-45]A leper came to Jesus and, kneeling down, begged Jesus and said, “If you wish, you can make me clean.” Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand, touched him, and said to him, “I do will it. Be made clean.” The leprosy left him immediately, and he was made clean. Then, warning him sternly, Jesus dismissed him at once. He said to him, “See that you tell no one anything, but go, show yourself to the priest and offer for your cleansing what Moses prescribed; that will be proof for them.”
The man went away and began to publicize the whole matter. He spread the report abroad so that it was impossible for Jesus to enter a town openly. He remained outside in deserted places, and people kept coming to him from everywhere.
I personally identify with all of the lepers in the Gospels because, I too was a "leper" once -- for three hours, on July 1st, 1976.
At the time, I was a college student with a Summer job in Queens, New York City. One morning while on the Subway and heading to work at 6:30 a.m., I suddenly felt myself getting very ill; feverish, dizzy, and unable to stand up straight.
Not knowing what was happening to me, I got off the subway train at 14th Street to find a men's room. It was all the way down at the other end of the station platform. Just as I was walking into the men's room, I passed out. Falling face forward onto the filthy men's room floor, I landed on my chin, and was knocked unconscious. About an hour later, I came to and was dizzy, feverish, confused, and frightened. Stumbling out of the men's room, I was covered with blood and with the disgusting filth from the floor of the public facilities. At first, I couldn't remember where I was and what had happened, but I could see blood dripping down on my shirt. The only thing I knew was that I must be bleeding heavily from somewhere on my head (from my chin, actually).
Because I was frighteningly weak, it took about 30 minutes just to climb the stairs up to street level. During that time, not one person approached to ask if I needed help. Arriving at the concourse, I stumbled toward the station’s token booth, all the while with people staring and backing away from me. When I finally got to the token booth, the clerk cursed at me and told me to go away. No one would listen as I asked for help.
I stumbled up the next stairway onto the street. Weaving down the sidewalk, people cleared a path around me, pretending I didn't exist. I was asking for someone to get the police, to call an ambulance. They all ignored me. I approached several people, all of whom angrily screamed at me to get away, cursing at me.
Eventually I found a pay phone and, with hands shaking, called home to Brooklyn. My Dad and brother were just leaving for work. They asked where I was. I was so dazed I couldn't even focus my eyes to read the street signs. They told me to try to get a taxi back to Brooklyn. I started to hail taxis; they all ignored me. A police car cruised by and also ignored me.
As I was just beginning to pass out again, a taxi pulled up across the street, discharging a passenger. I tried to jog over to the rear of taxi, but the driver couldn't see me and started to drive away. When I started banging on the trunk he stopped, got out looking angry, staring at me. Before he could say something, I told him I’d had an accident and needed to get to a doctor. I showed him a $20 bill, got into the cab and told him where to take me.
During the entire one hour trip in morning traffic, the cabbie stared at me in the rearview mirror. And at one point, he tossed me a filthy rag and said that I was bleeding on his rubber floor mats and that he wanted them to stay clean, so he told me to clean up the mess.
The nightmare -- my "leprosy" -- ended after three hours, when the taxi pulled up in front of my home. I became a human person again. My family brought me to a hospital emergency room.
Inserted back into my non-leper’s life, for many weeks I pondered the frightening lesson in the ways that sin has made our human nature diseased and narcissistic.
In the incident recorded in Saint Mark’s Gospel (above), Our Lord Jesus' curing of the leper shocked those who witnessed it. Our Lord Jesus did not drive the leper away as would be the norm under the Law of Moses. Instead, Our Lord Jesus reached out and touched him. Our Lord Jesus did not see an unclean leper, nor a disease, but a human soul in desperate need.
That three hour nightmare I endured back in 1976 pummeled me with a distressingly cold truth: The physically leprous in our society may suffer from a medical affliction, but it is we -- the non-lepers -- who can be the sick ones. It is we who can be spiritually diseased from sinfulness and selfishness. We may be suffering from self-inflicted spiritual leprosy.
The biggest disease of the Third Millennium is not Leprosy, nor Ebola, nor A.I.D.S., nor Tuberculosis. Rather, as Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta once said,
“The greatest disease today is ... the feeling of being unwanted, uncared for and deserted by everybody... The greatest evil is the lack of love and charity, the terrible indifference towards one’s neighbor.”
Moved with pity, Our Lord Jesus stretched out His hand to touch the leper and to say to him, "Be made clean!"
Ash Wednesday is tomorrow, another yearly gift from Our Lord to approach Him and be helped to rid
ourselves of our sins and hypocrisies.
May each of us have faith and trust in Christ to approach Him during our Holy Communion when we attend Mass on Ash Wednesday, and say, "Lord Jesus, if you wish, you can make me clean. If you will to do so, you can cure me of my spiritual leprosy."