Thursday, January 11, 2018

A Different Desert

A leper came to him and kneeling down begged him and said,
"If you wish, you can make me clean."
Moved with pity, he stretched out his hand,
touched the leper, and said to him,
"I do will it. Be made clean."
The leprosy left him immediately, and he was made clean. ( Mk 1:40-41)
Gospel for January 11, 2018, Thursday of the First Week of Ordinary Time

The desert of his temptation was not the last desert Jesus met.  Shortly into the public ministry to which he had recommitted himself in defiance of the Tempter, Jesus found himself faced with a leper pleading for healing.  Here was a wasteland created not by sun and sand but by hideous disease.  Here was a man who had once lived a normal life.  Perhaps he had a wife and children. Perhaps he was respected by his neighbors.  Perhaps he had grown wheat to supply the village with bread.  Perhaps he had cultivated olive trees to supply oil to soothe sunbaked skin, or to give lamplight on a dark night, or to season a simple diet of barley bread.   Leprosy had cut off every "perhaps" that might have defined his life.

Like the desert of rock and sand and scrub through which Jesus had passed into the busy streets and marketplaces of Galilee, this man’s life had become empty, sterile, purposeless.   He had lost family, work, community, even his name.  The evangelist calls him simply, “a leper” -- a face, a marred body, a threat to those around him, but no longer Joshua or Simeon or Judah, cherished son, spouse, friend.  Just “a leper.”  He could exchange kind words, a loving touch, simple companionship with no one now, because he had become a danger to everyone.  He  could feed no one, except perhaps fellow lepers with whom he shared the bread family members sometimes left for the leper colony.  He could produce nothing for anyone.  He could do nothing but survive, and that not for long.

But the Word, now made flesh as Jesus of Nazareth, had known the primal chaos, tohu-wabohu in Hebrew.  Translator and commentator Robert Alter says the phrase means “emptiness” or “futility,” and, “in some contexts, is associated with the trackless vacancy of the desert” (The Five Books of Moses).  And, at God’s command, the Word had as it were, dived beneath the dark surface of this primal sea to the nameless, purposeless, isolated possibilities it contained, and he had drawn them forth to become sun, moon and stars, and all that is.  At Jesus’ baptism, just a few verses before this meeting with the leper, he had been identified by dove and Voice as the beginning of the new creation that would restore and transform into a new reality the ruined creation wrought by the first human beings.  

So Jesus looks at the wasted, barren, ruined body before him and sees the human being buried within it.  And, with words few but powerful, he draws that human being forth,  draws the man, the son, the brother, the spouse, the father, the neighbor out to take his place in the ordinary world from which he had been banished. As God had said, “Let there be light,” and there was light, Jesus says “Be made clean.”  And the leper is made clean.

That leper is long gone now, but Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, continues to make of us all and of our lives and our world the new creation that will flourish long after the old one has disappeared.  Again and again, he says to us in our sinfulness, our failures, our broken families and communities, our lost purposes, what he said to the leper:  “Come out of those ruins.  Live!”

Amen, amen, so be it!

Copyright 2018, Abbey of St. Walburga


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