Sunday, February 15, 2015

Healing the Evil of Isolation (Sunday 6B)

When youngsters throw up nowadays, we say they’ve caught the norovirus. When I was a kid, we just called it the flu. But we did our share of throwing up.

I remember what my mother used to do. She’d hold my head as I knelt at the toilet bowl. Not saying anything, just holding my head.

You might think it’s in poor taste to talk about throwing up in a homily. But if the Lord can talk about leprosy—the most repugnant disease of his time—I can get away with it.

The reason this memory came to mind today is the importance I attached to having someone who loved me sharing my childhood misery. Forty years later when I had minor surgery at St. Paul’s, my mother was there when I came out of the anesthetic; it was just a coincidence that she was in town—I wasn’t such a wuss that I asked my mother to fly out from Toronto—but I recall thinking not too many middle-aged men had their mommy driving them home from the hospital.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus heals someone who had no-one.

It’s easy to focus on the physical side of the miracle. And I might have done so this morning if I hadn’t looked carefully at where this story appears in Mark’s Gospel. It comes near the very beginning, in chapter one.

St. Mark had so many stories to choose from as he told his Gospel. Those who eventually organized it in written form had to make all kinds of choices when they ordered the narrative. Yet the healing of a solitary leper is important enough to be placed at the start of the greatest story ever told.

Why is this?

It can’t be because the good news of Jesus Christ was going to be mostly about sick people getting well. If that’s true, Christianity is false. Christians get sick about as often as other people; every Christian dies sooner or later; some die before their time.

Surely this and every other healing miracle points beyond itself to something beyond the physical—something even more important than good health and even earthly life itself.

The first thing Jesus does for the man is talk to him! Other folk would have run the other way—the cry of “Unclean! Unclean!” was fair warning. But Jesus stands his ground as the leper kneels before him.

The second thing Jesus does, when he grants the leper’s prayer, is restore the man to society. As the first reading shows, a leper was isolated from family and friends—from the experience of community and social life. There was no one to hold his hand, much less his head, no family members to offer support.

Few modern Christians have the call or the charism to work miracles of healing, although it’s not unknown. But all of us can resist the urge to run from those who frighten us; all of us can allow the angry, the unreasonable, the demanding, and the needy to approach us with their needs.

Father Joseph Krempa, whom I often quote, points out that there are spiritual wounds greater than the marks of leprosy described in today’s first reading. “Hate, anger, bitterness, arrogance, envy and fear are real sores in the soul that we carry around. They can isolate us from others as surely as the leper’s skin condition isolated him from people around him years ago.” [Captured Fire, Cycle B, 91]

We need to allow Jesus to heal these sores in our souls, particularly through honest self-examination and the sacrament of penance.

At the same time, we are called to restore others to life in community. Some of us have elderly neighbours who have shut themselves off from social contact. Others can help to end the isolation that many people experience in hospitals and care homes.

We can bring Jesus and his healing work into the lives of those whom society no longer welcomes and values. We cannot heal them physically, but we can help them find healing in their souls.

There are two reasons why I find the theme of today’s liturgy so pressing.

The first is that Father Xavier’s long absence has put me back on the front lines in caring for the sick and housebound of our parish. While he has been away I have spent more time visiting the sick, saying Mass at the care homes, and making calls at Lions Gate Hospital.

In the first place, I have seen firsthand the generosity and the effectiveness of the ministry of our parishioners who visit the sick and who serve them as Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion. The healing hand of Christ reaches out weekly from this altar to many people, thanks to their dedicated service.

In the second place, I have seen that Jesus is just as much a healer now as he was during his earthly ministry. Only some concern for their privacy stops me from telling you stories of the sick and dying I have anointed this past month—men and women whose physical health is failing but whose spiritual health could make some saints jealous.

To tell one story, I asked a parishioner who is very close to death whether she was ready to meet the Lord. With a smile she replied, “As ready as I’ll ever be!”

Finally, the recent court decision in favour of assisted suicide and euthanasia makes the theme of today’s liturgy more pressing than ever. The healing ministry of Jesus that the Gospels describe and the Church continues is an antidote to the isolation and fear that can tempt lonely and suffering people to end their lives.

We cannot stop speaking of the evils the Supreme Court may have unleashed—as last St. Paul’s words reminded us last week, woe to us if we do. This week’s bulletin contains a fine booklet on euthanasia produced by the Canadian Catholic Organization for Life and Family. I don’t hesitate to say that it’s your Christian duty to read it.

In his poem, “The Death of the Hired Man,” Robert Frost says “home” is “the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” It’s also, in his lovely phrase, “something you somehow haven’t to deserve.”

Christ’s love is “home.” It’s a place where no-one who needs it is turned away. His healing is something we don’t deserve but which we can freely claim.

Let us bring that healing to others even as we accept it ever more deeply in our own wounded hearts.

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