The Word Encountered
Living by Appearances
“Unclean, unclean!” (Lev 13:45)
Pimples. Boils. Ugliness. Wrinkles. Fat. Sores. Open wounds. Rashes. Blotches. Blemishes. Disfigurement.
The thought of such afflictions can be particularly unnerving—especially in a culture that lives by appearances and first impressions. Although quite possibly every culture prizes the surface of things, ours seems to have made a science of the old advertising slogan: “Looking good is everything.”
Looking bad is disastrous. It is the fate of the outsider, the face of the other, marginalized and excluded. Surface defects seem inescapable, since our appearances are so evident and immediate.
Our presentation, our appearance, to the outside world is the only way we get out, the only way we can reveal ourselves. And yet our external presentation itself can be a barrier that holds us in as it holds others away.
Perhaps this is the secret to the power of leper stories. “Leper” seems so frightening a term to begin with, we almost never hear it anymore, but for the mentionings in holy scripture.
Be that as it may, it is most likely that the Hebrew sara'at and Greek lepra, which are translated as “leprosy,” do not describe the condition that has become known as Hansen's disease. The affliction referred to in the Bible is, rather, always a condition of visible defect, whether on human skin, on the walls of houses, or on fabrics and leather. It is a disorder of surfaces, a superficial disfigurement, a blemish of facades. And it never seems to go away.
The visibility of it all makes social exclusion easy. Its persistent presence makes contamination a constant threat. “As long as the sore is on him, he shall declare himself unclean, since he is in fact unclean. He shall dwell apart, making his abode outside the camp.”
Surface defects are readily found out. There is no way to hide them, unless one hides oneself. Pretense does not help. Denial is impossible. It is right out there. The only thing to do is accept the condition.
Perhaps this is an advantage that the visibly handicapped have over those whose handicaps are hidden. At least they know they have the problem: It's inescapable. At least they cannot pretend: It's undeniable. At least they know that there is room for healing in their lives. Admission of the truth is the first condition for change.
“If you will to do so, you can cure me.” “I do will it. Be cured.”
A paradox of our faith is that it requires of us a frame of mind we are least comfortable with: an acceptance of our existential disabilities. Not only are we unable to save ourselves. We are profoundly blemished. And all the makeup in the world cannot do the trick.
We may even someday wish to present ourselves to God as spotless milk bottles, clean, whole, pasteurized, and uncontaminated: a sad delusion. For not only is the aspiration impossible; the whole point of Christ's redemptive life is missed.
The gospel invites us to enter the mystery of our own disabilities, hidden or otherwise. We need not fear those moments of being secret “lepers” ourselves, those parts of our being we hide away and lock up: our failures and sins, our vanities and deceptions, our jealousies and fakery. He will reach out to touch us there. It is only our denial that prevents the cure.
The gospel is also an invitation for us to enter into the being of Christ himself. If he is indeed our way, our truth, our life, then we make his person our own. We too can heal. We need not fear the visibly wounded who only remind us of our human frailty. The excluded and marginal, the ostracized and hidden, await our own touch. The very old or very ill need not threaten us if we allow them to name the truth of our shared inability to stand invulnerable before the world.
All of us are old. And all of us are frail. All of us, indeed, are handicapped. It's just that some of us can pretend better than others.
The prayer of the Gospel's leper becomes our own when we finally realize that our afflictions—the interior even more than the visible—are not so much to be hidden and repressed as they are to be transformed. And then, one day, as we approach the table wherefrom Jesus himself becomes our food, becomes our very bodies, the prayers we have been saying for years might suddenly come more alive for us.
“Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed.”
The communion of Eucharist is not only the sacrament whereby our bodies are transformed. It is also his response: “Of course I want to heal you.”
John Kavanaugh, SJ
**From Saint Louis University