“I do will it. Be made clean.”
When I was in seminary, I did my hospital chaplaincy in my fourth summer at Good Samaritan Hospital in Downers Grove. Every once in a while I would come to a room that was marked with a prominent sign stating that the room was quarantined and outlining a whole list of restrictions to any visitor who would enter. Those restrictions usually required a mask and sterile gloves, and often a sterile gown as well. The problem with all that is that it’s a real obstacle to any kind of effective ministry to the sick. So we were taught to ask at the nurse’s station whether the protection was for the patient’s benefit or for ours. If it was for the patient’s benefit, we would of course wear everything that was required; but if it was for our benefit we would have to assess how risky the situation was. Often it wasn’t a problem for the brief time we would be visiting, and we would do without some of the protection.
Jesus today finds himself in much the same ministry situation. A leper comes to him and kneels before him. If we have been listening to the first reading today, we know that that kind of behavior was forbidden. They didn’t have masks and gloves and gowns in those days, so the prescribed behavior was that the leper was to live apart from the community to avoid infecting anyone else. But the leper doesn’t do that. Instead, he comes to Jesus, and kneels at his feet, stating the obvious: “If you wish, you can make me clean.” And of course Jesus agrees with those wonderful words: “I do will it. Be made clean.” But what’s worth noting here is that Jesus too ignores all those prescriptions in our first reading, and actually touches the leper, something that would have been completely unheard of. Jesus too recognized that all those quarantine warnings were a real obstacle to any kind of effective ministry to the sick.
The issue is touch. The Church realizes that God acts through the healing touch of doctors, care givers, family and ministers in the life of those who are hurting. Every sacrament has what is called an “imposition of hands,” recognizing that the Holy Spirit makes the sacrament happen as the minister imposes hands in prayer. That’s the whole reason for all those hand pictures in room 162. In the rite of the Anointing of the Sick in particular, hands are imposed on the sick person’s head. If there are family members or friends present, I usually invite them to impose hands too. And then the priest imposes his hands by anointing the person with oil on their forehead and their hands. All of this comes from the example of Jesus who actually touched those who were sick and raised them up. There is healing in the power of touch.
But there is difficulty with touch, too, isn’t there? Sometimes touch is misused, and sometimes touch is unwelcome. There may be good reasons for those feelings, and we need to respect them. Even the Church’s own Liturgy allows for adaptations of the imposition of hands in various circumstances. For example, I almost never actually touch a penitent’s head in confession because there’s just two of us there, and I don’t want anything to even appear improper. But still I have to recognize that the lack of touch is a real obstacle to effective ministry to those in need. Because touch used in a healthy, prayerful and ministerial way is a sign of the presence of Jesus, in whose place I am standing, and an invocation of the Holy Spirit. The Church simply recognizes that what our experience teaches us: in general, touch heals, touch empowers and touch guides.
If we’re having problems with touch and there doesn’t seem to be a good reason for it, maybe we have to look deeper. Certainly if we have been abused or mistreated in some way, a reticence to be touched is understandable, but still is something we need to have healed. But if we can’t bear to enter a hospital to visit a sick relative, let alone touch them, then we may have to look into ourselves and deal with our fear of sickness or death. If we find it difficult to forgive others let alone embrace them in reconciliation, then we may have to look into ourselves and deal with the unconfessed sin in our own lives that keeps us from any kind of reconciliation. If we cannot bear to put a quarter in the box being held out to us by a homeless person on the street, then we may have to look into our lives and deal with our own poverty; deal with what we ourselves lack in some spiritual sense. Human nature longs for touch from the womb – mothers know this – and so if we now have difficulty being touched, whether that touch is an actual touch or a spiritual one, then there is something off, something wrong, some fear or sin that needs to be dealt with, some emptiness that needs to be filled up, and we’ll never be holy, never be whole until we do it.
We ourselves may have come to this Eucharist today in need of touch, in need of being made whole. In the quiet moments of today’s Liturgy, it would be good for us to look into our hearts and identify what kind of touch we need, or what it is we need to deal with so that we can receive that touch in the Spirit in which it is offered. That’s where we need to start, because we disciples are called to touch our world. We will never be able to do that if we have not accepted Christ’s healing touch in our lives. Only when we have can we go out and visit the sick, holding their hands and praying with them for God’s healing and mercy. Only then can we embrace those who have wronged us and be reconciled with them. Only then can we enter the homes of the poor, as our St. Vincent dePaul Society will be doing, and give them the hand up that they need. Only then can we reach out to someone who is hurting, as our Stephen Ministry will be doing, and guide them back to grace. Only then can we take the hand of a child and teach them about God’s love.
The world yearns for healing, yearns for the touch of Christ. And Jesus will not leave things according to the Levitical Law of our first reading. Jesus instead opts to break the rules and reach out to all of us needy ones, touching our lives with grace. And he wants us to do that too. He wants us to be fountains of his love and grace, healing the sick, releasing those imprisoned by whatever holds them back, and kissing the leper clean. To all of us broken ones, he says loud and clear today, embracing us as he always does, “I do will it. Be made clean! I do will it. Be made clean! I do will it. Be made clean!”
We usually take some quiet time after the homily. But today, I would like to invite us all to respond to the Word of God in a different way. Please stand with me now, take out the half sheets with “The Summons” on it, and sing together verses 1, 3 and 5.
John L. Bell, Tune: KELVINGROVE 7 6 7 6 777 6
Will you come and follow me if I but call your name?
Will you go where you don’t know and never be the same?
Will you let my love be shown, will you let my name be known,
Will you let my life be shown in you and you in me?
Will you let the blinded see if I but call your name?
Will you set the pris’ners free and never be the same?
Will you kiss the leper clean, and do such as this unseen,
And admit to what I mean in you and you in me?
Lord, your summons echoes true when you but call my name.
Let me turn and follow you and never be the same.
In your company I’ll go, where your love and footsteps show.
Thus I’ll move and live and grow in you and you in me.