leper and christ

Year B Ordinary 6

“The way we die is a mirror to the way we live,” is what an elderly Japanese man named Takumi recently said in a New York Times interview. The article is titled, “A Generation In Japan Faces a Lonely Death.” There are currently 4,000 lonely deaths per week in Japan. People with no children and no family. The way we die is a mirror to the way we live, and these lonely deaths are evidence of lonely lives. The problem is widespread, for instance, a poll of young adults reveals that 86% (!) of them struggle with loneliness.

Our Scripture readings this morning focus on talk of ritual cleanliness under the Mosaic law. To be unclean means to be temporarily removed from the community, or at least from full participation in it. Some forms of uncleanness were worse than others, but a particularly insidious one was leprosy, which at that time was a communicable disease for which there was no cure. A person who was unclean cannot enter the Temple to worship; a leper was not even allowed to enter the city gates. Leprosy is a painful, degenerative illness, but the physical suffering pales in comparison to the social isolation that it causes.

It was the loneliness that was dreadful for a leper.

Family and community connections are as important for our happiness and health as anything else, so how is it that we have become isolated from each other to the point that 86% of young adults are lonely?

The writer Anthony Esolen was in St. Louis a few years ago and gave a talk at the Credo dinner. In it, he referenced Homer’s Odyssey. You may remember that at one point, the poem describes a Cyclops named Polyphemus. Polyphemus was what the Greeks would have called an idiot. The word doesn’t mean someone who is unintelligent, rather, it means one who is interested only in himself. An idiot is self-absorbed, rejects the wider human community, and lives apart from friendships or neighbors. Polyphemus lives in a cave and he fails to cultivate his land. He doesn’t read or have any culture. He doesn’t care about music or art. He doesn’t have any political philosophy. Homer, in the way he writes, makes clear that he’s repelled by the Cyclops. In rejecting family, friends, and the community, the Cyclops has become a lonely, undeveloped creature. Further, he has lost his connection with what we think of as the more noble aspects of life such as religion, beauty, friendship, and truth.

This, in a way, is an analogue to leprosy in the time of Jesus. We’re like a bunch of one-eyed monsters stumbling around, crawling up the walls with boredom, over-consuming to compensate, and capping it all off with a healthy dose of television. These are patterns of behavior that are unhealthy for us. There’s a lot of political and historical baggage that explains what has happened to our culture, and the symptoms show up in our collapsing birth rates, social isolation, rampant individualism, and ultimately, in our loneliness.

This was a question that St. Edith Stein wondered about for much of her life: Are we prisoners in our own mental jail cells, are we truly alone in this world, or can we somehow make lasting connections with each other? She believes we can, and here is what she says, “When night comes, and you look back over the day and see how fragmentary everything has been, and how much you planned that has gone undone, and all the reasons you have to be embarrassed and ashamed: just take everything exactly as it is, put it in God’s hands and leave it with Him.”

In other words, Jesus will never leave you alone. He is waiting for you even at the end of your worst day.

The leper arrives alone begging for healing. He is touched by Jesus, human contact for the first time in probably decades, and departs a healed man back into the community. The love of Christ has a force, a momentum of its own that draws people out of isolation and into meaningful connection.

This love of Christ is most particularly poured out into the communion of saints. The Church a place where the human soul unfolds. Father Romano Guardini, in his book The Spirit of the Liturgy, discusses the relationship of individualism and the corporate Body of Christ in a way that I find really helpful. He writes,

“The liturgy is not celebrated by the individual, but by the body of the faithful. This is not composed merely of the persons who may be present in the church…it reaches out beyond the bounds of space…it reaches beyond the bounds of time.” The Church isn’t Epiphany parish, or the Archdiocese of St. Louis, or even the world-wide Church. It is a Church of all times and all places. The vast army of saints worships with us. The connection is never severed, not by distance, not by time, not by death.

Guardini goes on to say that the Body of Christ is not, “merely the sum total of all individual catholics.” It something far greater, because, “His life is ours…We are His Body.” We are part of this unity, and it is much more expansive than the sum of the parts.

And now we’re starting to dig into the root cause of why so many are lonely. This participation in the Body of Christ, it requires sacrifice. If we want to break out of our loneliness, we must be willing to sacrifice, to lay aside ego and self-sufficiency, to stand next in the company of people who may be strangers and be perfectly vulnerable, to mingle our prayers and intentions and hurts on the altar together. It’s a widening of outlook, and it can be very difficult,, because it’s so much easier to think about what I want.

This about the way the Mass developed, though, and why it is the way it is. In the mass, we pray in a language and a style that may not always be comprehensible, and some of the symbolic actions are mysterious. This kind of corporate prayer, however, is one of the results of renouncing spiritual isolation. It is an elevated language of the entire Body of Christ and we are drawn into a completely unique culture that has one foot on earth and one foot in heaven. Here’s the paradox, though, when our souls are introduced to a more spacious spiritual landscape and brought into the fullness of the Body of Christ, we become more ourselves. Our individuality is enhanced. In life, we might say this is when it becomes possible to be alone but not feel lonely.

St. Mark says, “He remained outside in deserted places, and people kept coming to him from everywhere.” This is what Jesus does. He is the gravity at the center of our cosmos, the meaning to our existence, the heart of the Church. If the world on its own becomes sad and lonely, if it’s like a desert devoid of spiritual nourishment, he is the wellspring.

The way we live is a mirror to the way we die. Our Lord died so that he might become the Savior of every single person who ever lived, to draw us to his himself. He extends his love to the clean and unclean alike, and he never, ever, abandons us.

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