by Rebecca Curtin
Two of the readings for this Sunday are about or feature leprosy. I first learned what leprosy was in CCD class, and I remember it distinctly. I was about eight or nine and my classmates and I were coloring in a series of black and white outlined drawings telling the story of Father Damien, who is coincidentally scheduled to be canonized this year. As we colored in the pointy palm fronds of the Hawaiian island of Moloka’i our teacher told us how Father Damien while in Hawaii had been called to help people who were quarantined for leprosy, a very contagious disease, she said, where the skin of the infected essentially begins to fall off. I think our response to her not-exactly-accurate definition of the disease was something like, “ewww,” and we continued to color. We marked the lepers with little red spots to set them apart.
In this Sunday’s first reading from Leviticus the Lord instructs Moses and Aaron in how they and the larger community should treat someone who has contracted leprosy, who has become “unclean”. The Lord declares that the unclean person be set apart from the community, that he should “dwell apart, making his abode outside the camp.” This practice of setting lepers apart in secluded communities continued in various forms at least through the nineteenth century.
In the Gospel Reading we witness Jesus’ ministry to a leper who approaches him. His ministry to and healing of this leper begins what is Jesus’ own separation from the community, not because he did the unlikely (and “unclean”) thing by touching the leper, but because his popularity from this miracle makes it impossible for him to retain any anonymity. Jesus becomes like the leper referred to in Leviticus, from that point on always remaining “outside in deserted places” his new fame as a healer, like leprosy, a mark of otherness.
These readings took me back to the work of Father Damien who while ministering to the lepers on Moloka’i contracted the illness. In being an imitator of Christ through his ministry to those stricken with leprosy, Father Damien actually became a leper himself. He mirrored Christ’s care for those sick and cast out, and in doing so took onto his own body their physical burden. Charity, in this case transformed the minister into those he ministered too, creating a spiritual and bodily connection between healer and healed. This type of spiritual ministry is interesting in that often we tend to think of good works as mutually beneficial. Sure, charity may involve a sacrifice of time or money or material goods, but less frequently does it also involve a sacrifice of life or body. To relieve the suffering of another must we also, in some way, feel that suffering ourselves? To make sure that someone is not set apart we do not simply need to try to incorporate them back into our community, we must also become a part of theirs.
Rebecca Curtin lives and writes in Somerville, MA and still really enjoys coloring, though mostly not religious subjects. She currently works for the Department of English at Harvard University.