SIXTH SUNDAY B 2/12/2012
The mountaineering classic book Touching the Void: The True Story of One Man's Miraculous Survival (2004), tells how Joe Simpson and his climbing partner, Simon Yates, had just reached the top of a 21,000-foot
peak in the Andes when disaster struck. Simpson plunged off the vertical face of an ice ledge, breaking his leg. In the hours
that followed, darkness fell and a blizzard raged as Yates tried to lower his friend to safety. Finally, as per a prior agreement
between them, Yates cut the rope, moments before he would have been pulled to his own death.
The next three days were an impossibly grueling ordeal for both men. Yates, certain that Simpson was
dead, returned to base camp consumed with grief and guilt over abandoning him. Miraculously, Simpson had survived the fall,
but crippled, starving, and severely frostbitten was trapped in a deep crevasse. Hanging in mid-air, he realized he had two
choices, both seemingly useless. He could try to hoist himself by the rope to the opening far above, or he could let himself
down to the bottom of the crevasse, for he saw a sliver of light at the bottom. Slowly, painfully, he let himself down, hoping
that the sliver of light might indicate an opening to the outside. Pushed by a desperate urge to live and rejoin his friend,
he followed the sliver of light to safety. For the next three days, the crippled and starving Simpson crawled to the base
camp, reaching it mere hours before Yates had planned to abandon it.
I tell this story because we are so used to healing narratives in the Gospels that we forget the tremendous
desire that animated lepers and virtually "forced" them to go to Jesus. The story of Joe Simpson's ordeal--his terror at being
suspended in darkness not knowing where he was and his passionate desire to return to his partner and to civilization--reminds
us that this leper did
not simply "have a skin problem." A dermatologist would never have been able to give him what he desire.
The first reading, detailing how a skin disease can change someone's life, lets us see its restriction
on humanity. The Gospel does not criticize these measures in the Mosaic Law. After all, a community has to protect itself
from contagion and then, as today, isolation is often the best safeguard against infection and plague. But the isolation certainly
was total and extremely hard on individuals and their families. So the disease was not primarily about skin. It was about
surviving, being a person, being a member of a community. (I should probably say that the man's skin condition was probably
not Hansen's Disease, which is what we today call leprosy.)
Notice that the leper does not seek forgiveness, but cleansing. The issue is not sin but exclusion
from the community. It is also about prejudice. There was something about the man's skin that made other people shun him.
We today, familiar with prejudice connected with skin condition, can't help also seeing Jesus overcoming such prejudice and
inviting us to do the same.
Let us imagine ourselves right now as that leper. What can this poor isolated creature teach us about
ourselves and our relationship with God? St. Ignatius of Loyola, who had a very strong imagination, advised people to insert
themselves into the Gospel scenes. Do it like a movie. Project yourself into the action. He even advised seeing yourself as
a poor maidservant or onlooker. Get in there.
I think the first thing the leper would teach us is to come before Christ confident in his victory
over sickness and death. We shouldn't come before him only in reverence or lowliness. These, after all, are attitudes describing
ourselves. Rather, look at Christ the warrior who has
won a victory. We can ask him to share with us the fruits of his victory. For the leper, that meaning
cleansing away the leprosy. For us, it might mean empowering us, enabling us to overcome an attitude that has hobbled us and
made it impossible to respect and serve others. But, at any rate, treat Christ as someone who has won a victory and can hardly
wait to share the effects of that victory with us.
What else would the leper teach us? He would teach us to long for the ability to belong in a true
sense to the community--contributing to it and drawing life from it. He would teach us also to wipe out prejudice, that attitude
that shuts people not because of who they are as persons, but what they may represent to us. To be rid of what the leper knew
first hand. Just because he was forced to repeat "Unclean!" people kept away, never bothering to know who he really was.
And finally the leper would teach us to long for the wholeness of life that Christ came to give. So
that we can conclude with this prayer:
We come before you, O God, confident in Christ's victory over sickness and death. Heal us again from
sin, which divides us, and from prejudice, which isolates us. Bring us to wholeness of life through the pardon you grant your
Acknowledgement to book description on jacket and ICEL prayer.