Readings: (click reading reference for full text)
- Leviticus 13:1-2, 44-46
- Psalm 32:1-2, 5, 11
- 1 Corinthians 10:31-11:1
- Mark 1:40-45
The story of the leper is one of faith in Jesus. ‘if you want to you can cure me’, he pleads on his bended knees. Jesus, we are told, felt sorry for him. He stretched out his hand and he touched him. He touched him! He touched the untouchable. ‘Of course I want to’, he said ‘Be cured’. He sends him off to fulfill the duties prescribed by the law of the time and asks him too keep quiet about it but the man feels so elated he spreads the news everywhere to the point where Jesus becomes, like the leper, obliged to stay in remote places.
Hansen’s bacillus is the proper name for leprosy. It was regarded as death before death, as social and religious death. It was seen as the judgement of God, a sign that the afflicted had somehow offended God. The afflicted, whether it was with true leprosy or with some skin disease or some affliction which left the person stricken or pitiable, lived outside the gates or outside the walls of the cities and towns of the time. It set up a cycle of assumed sin, of shame and of guilt. Ailments of the skin and care of the skin are still important to us psychologically.
Religious orders were set up in early Christendom to care for these people after the example of Christ who felt sorry for them and who reached out and touched them. Sometimes they were called after St Mary Magdalene, who was outcast because of her sinful ways and reputation. They were called after Lazarus too, ‘Lazar-houses’. This is the Lazarus who sat at the gate of the rich man, covered in sores and pleading for crumbs from the rich man’s table. Lazarus means God is my help.
Early stories in Ireland tell of St Patrick and St Brigid curing lepers. The disease and related diseases were prevalent especially in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Sometimes they were referred to as martyrs. Hospitals to care for them were set up, usually at a distance from the centres of population. They had to wear special clothing and carry bells to signify their presence. Today the names of these places survive in place names like ‘maudelins’, a corruption of Magdalenes. Placenames like Stephenstown may signify the existence of a leper colony dedicated to Stephen, patron of martyrs. Places like Leopardstown were really leperstown, a colony of lepers, and ‘spital’ as in Spiddal or Ballinspittle signified a hospital for those so afflicted. Some lepers caught leprosy while on the crusades. Others went abroad to holy places like Compostela in Spain to the shrine of the apostle James to seek a cure. Others went to the Holy Land, and always took back palm, giving rise to the name for pilgrims to the Holy Land as ‘palmers’. Hence we have Palmerstowm.
In his meeting with Christ the leper who is considered as impure meets the fount of purity. The living dead meets the author and the restorer of life. Christ raises him from living death to new creation, foreshadowing his own defilement, his outcast fate, and demonstrating the work of the Messiah in action. The leper receives healing and readmission and promptly proclaims what God has done for him in Christ. He is touched by God’s healing hand, purified and restored, and brought to faith and thanksgiving.
O Jesus, stretch forth your wounded hands in blessing over your people to heal and to restore and to draw them to yourself and to one another in love.