“Of course I want to! Be cured.” (Mk 1:40-45)
Holistic Well-being: Effect of Encounter with Jesus
Here is a one-line summary of my reflection: The result of an authentic encounter with Jesus is a holistic wellbeing!
An experimental study on the effects of contemplative prayer; an ancient method of prayer: the Jesus Prayer. One of the findings that emerged from the interviews and journal entries is that the practice of the Jesus Prayer is associated with transformation at three levels: at the level of the individual self in terms of greater self-awareness and humility; at the level of interpersonal relationships expressed particularly in forgiveness; and in relationship with God marked by a sense of hope. All this happened without any explicit preaching on any of these themes, but just by repeating the name of Jesus in a contemplative manner.
Yes, I am convinced that a deep encounter with Jesus brings about a holistic wellbeing at the personal, social and spiritual levels.
The gospel text of today describes the encounter between Jesus and a person with ‘leprosy’. Though there are still some societies where people with leprosy are stigmatized, generally we have a better understanding of the disease today: that it is caused by a bacteria; the development of the disease is associated with malnutrition; it is curable; and once treated it is not contagious. During the time of Jesus – as it may be the case in some societies up to our own times – any condition that involved oozing out of body fluids was anomalous, mysterious and unhygienic. Hence, many taboos were developed around these conditions. This was true of normal menstruation as well as skin-conditions. The Book of Leviticus makes a clear distinction between just a scab on the skin and a condition that forms ulcers (Lev 13:2-30). The ulcerous condition creates secretions and hence the individual with these conditions has to be isolated not only for hygienic reasons but because they are ritualistically impure! Therefore, what is referred to as ‘leprosy,’ in the gospel text of today and in the first reading, was not just a physical condition, but had its social and spiritual implications. Therefore, the cure of the man with leprosy by Jesus was also not just a physical healing, but it involved the re-establishment of the social and spiritual status of the man. The action and instructions of Jesus demonstrate how Jesus deals with this man as a whole person: at the personal, social and spiritual levels.
Intrapersonal wellbeing: ”Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him” (Mk 1:41)
The gospel text of today begins with these words, “A leper came to Jesus and pleaded on his knees…” (Mk 1:40). By coming to Jesus, the man with ‘the virulent skin-disease’ (as the New Jerusalem Bible rightly has it) has broken the Law. In the Lukan story of the ten men with a skin-disease, “they stood some way off” (Lk 17:12). As we heard in the first reading of today, “the man must live apart; he must live outside the camp” (Lev 13:46). Jesus not only allows the man to come nearby, but also stretches out his hand and touches the man (Mk 1:41). By touching the man with the skin-condition, Jesus has broken the Law. The Book of Leviticus further prescribes that anyone who touches anything made unclean by a dead body, or who has a seminal discharge… remains unclean until evening… (Lev 22:4). Yet, Jesus feels the need to touch him physically so as to offer the man his dignity as a human person. The man now enjoys intrapersonal wellbeing – his personal dignity is re-established.
Human touch is one of the first ways of communication that we ever learnt as babies. A touch, from an exuberant high five to a warm hand on the shoulder, can communicate human emotion more accurately than any uttered word. For instance, studies have shown that students who received a supportive touch on the back or arm from a teacher were nearly twice as likely to volunteer in class as those who did not receive the touch. A touch could mean reassurance, care, and encouragement. Jesus is not sparing in the use of touch as a way of communicating. There is an abundance of instances, particularly in the Gospel of Mark, where Jesus reaches out and touches people, or allows people to touch him (Mk 1:31, 1:41; 3:10, 5:27-34; 5:41; 6:56; 7:33; 8:22-23; 10:13-16). His compassionate touch offers people their dignity!
Interpersonal wellbeing: ”Go and show yourself to the priest…” (Mk 1:44b)
Having cured the man, Jesus now orders him to go and show himself to the priest as prescribed by the Law (Lev 14). Is Jesus trying to make up here for his disobedience of the Law in the first instance? Being consistent with his behavior and teaching elsewhere in the Gospels, what matters to Jesus is the life and dignity of the human person. In this case, by showing himself to the priests the man will be allowed to go back to his family and people. Thus his social wellbeing will be re-established.
It seems imperative that a kind act to anyone has to respect their social and cultural context. Otherwise, it runs the risk of alienating them even further. An important lesson for those of us who are missionaries and volunteers in cross-cultural situations, or involved in advocacy work: our very well-intentioned good work with ridiculing comments about the local culture might turn out to be not wholesome, after all!
Supra-personal (Spiritual) wellbeing: ”… and make the offering for your healing” (Mk 1:44c)
In the Book of Numbers, when Aaron and Miriam had criticized their brother Moses over his marriage with a Cushite woman, Yahweh’s anger was kindled, and Miriam was struck with a virulent-skin disease (Num 12:1-10). So, skin-disease, in fact, sickness as such, was seen as a punishment from God for human sin. Jesus categorically denies this causal connection between sin and sickness, as we see, for instance, in the story of the blind man in John 9. And here in Mark, Jesus asks the man to make the offering for his healing to assure him that he is not cursed by God. The man’s relationship with God is re-established. Jesus’ healing of the man mediates spiritual wellbeing.
Having had a deep encounter with Jesus, having experienced this three-fold healing, and having been made whole again, how could the man be silent about it? He had to break the order of Jesus. “He started talking about it freely and telling the story everywhere…” (Mk 1:45).
The Holy Eucharist that we celebrate, has these three wellbeing; personal, social and spiritual. We come to Jesus in all our human weakness and humility knowing that He can make us whole, to give us the strength to go out and touch the lives of others who are suffering, thus making them and us to realize that we are all born in the image and likeness of God. Above all that He wants to make us clean, physically, socially and spiritually.
May, I and you, being touched by Jesus so often and having experienced His wholesome healing, be a blessing to all whom we touch in our lives, so that they truly become to each of us our very own sister and brother.
CONFIDENCE AND HUMILITY: THE LEPER’S PRAYER
The Leper in today’s gospel teaches us also two important aspects in approaching Jesus: Confidence and Humility
St Mark tells us that the leper “came to Jesus,” close enough to kneel in front of him. Why would he do that when everyone knew that the law required him to keep his distance? Something about Jesus must have inspired confidence. The leper must have sensed that Jesus would not be repulsed by his disgusting disease. And the leper was right.
Jesus smiled at him, as we can tell from his choice of words (“I do will it.”), touched him, and healed him – something no one else could do or would do.
In today’s world, we can all use this help with our prayer life, and the leper in today’s Gospel passage gives it to us. He reminds us of two key elements in a healthy life of prayer:
confidence and humility.
The first thing to note is that this leper has no doubt that Christ can cure him. He says to the Lord, “If you wish, you can make me clean.” It’s hard for us to have so much confidence. Our secular culture is constantly sidelining God. This tends to make us think that we can solve all our problems ourselves, through science, technology, or hard work. But if we think that, then we don’t really have faith in God; if God is irrelevant, he’s not much of a God, after all. But the leper didn’t live in a secular culture; he lived in a religious culture, one that recognized the reality of sin and evil, and the need of God’s grace to overcome them. And so he came out of his isolated and self-destructive bubble of self-sufficiency and exercised his faith.
The second thing to note is that the leper also recognizes that he has no right to demand a cure. He doesn’t act like a spoilt child and say, “Cure me!” he says, “If you wish…” It’s as if he were saying, “You know what’s best; if curing me will give you glory, please do so, but if not, I will still believe and trust in you.”
Only the humble heartcan tap into the roaring stream of mercy that flows from Christ’s Sacred Heart, mercy which not only cured the leprosy, but touched the leper, something no one else had done since the disease began.
If our prayer weaves together confidence and humility, God will be able to do wonders in us as well. Is that how we think of Jesus? Do we have that kind of confidence in Jesus?
Jesus has chosen to stay as close to us as he was to that leper, by giving us the Eucharist
In every Catholic Church, Jesus is truly present in the Tabernacle, body, blood, soul, and divinity, as the little red sanctuary lamp reminds us. When we drive or pass by a Catholic Church, Jesus is calling to our hearts just as he called out to the heart of this leper. He won’t force his way into our hearts, but he is always inviting us into his heart. He is inviting us to come up close to him, kneel down in front of him, and pour out all our miseries, hardships, confusions and needs, praying the same beautiful prayer that this leper prayed: “Lord, if you wish, you can make me clean, you can give me strength, you can give me light.”
And when we do that, do you think he will be less generous with us than he was with this poor leper? I don’t think so. But if you doubt me, try it out yourself this week. You won’t be disappointed.
Fr. Franco Pereira, S.D.B.