The Gospel of Sunday past recalls the encounter between Jesus and a man suffering from leprosy (cf. Mark 1: 40-45). That disease, at the time of Jesus, was considered highly contagious, spread through touch. The leper was quarantined in accord with the practice described in the passage from Leviticus: they were sent away from the community, cut off from all that mattered to them (cf. Leviticus 13: 1-2, 45-46). Even more, they had to advertise their illness through torn clothing, dishevelled hair and the cry of “Unclean.” In addition to the sickness and banishment, they had to endure public shame.
So when Jesus heals the leper, he cures more than the illness. In giving the man health, he brings him back into community, takes away his shame, and enables him to rejoice that he has been not only noticed but also loved. It is no wonder that the man could not contain himself and went about telling everyone about this, even though Jesus had told him not to.
It is important to focus on how Jesus healed the leper. When the sick man asked to be cured, Jesus did so precisely by reaching out and touching him. Any who saw this would have been shocked, aghast, because touch is the means of contagion. In fact, contagion is precisely what happened, but it occurred in reverse. Disease did not spread from the man to Jesus. Healing and life spread from Jesus to the man. And it happened through touch.
In Jesus Christ, God himself has touched all of humanity. He continues to touch us through what is now the mystical body of Christ, namely, the Church. Our call, as disciples of the Lord, as members of his body, is to be ministers of the healing and life-giving touch of God. As such, our mission is to be agents of contagion - the contagion of good, of mercy, of inclusion, of love. Whenever we sit with the sick or stand with the oppressed, whenever we comfort the dying or care for the poor, whenever we give assurance to a frightened child or enable a family to find healing, whenever we welcome the refugee or work for peace, then we serve to halt the spread of those terrible diseases of hatred, oppression, and injustice, and diffuse instead love, peace and justice, striving with the help of God’s grace to make the good that which alone should be highly contagious among all of God’s people.
This raises important questions for our self-examination through Lent, which begins Wednesday. From what disease do I need to be healed in order to be a more effective agent of good in our world? Are selfishness and self-concern blinding me to the needs of others? Do bitterness and anger alienate me from my family? Do pride and arrogance cause me to exclude God and his will from my daily considerations? This Lent let us pray together that Jesus will touch us and heal any infirmity that shuts God out and consequently closes us in on ourselves and away from others. May he make of us effective agents of his mercy so that what spreads by contagion is the good news of his saving love and our shared responsibility for one another.