15 February 2009 - Fr Terry Tastard:

 The best-selling author Catherine Cookson was born into great poverty in 1906. Her family circumstances were not regarded as respectable. Even in the poverty of the slums she was looked on with disdain by some neighbours. When Catherine was seven, she heard that a neighbour's daughter was having a birthday party. All the other girls that she knew were invited, so she thought that she was invited too. She went to the house and could see the party in full swing, and jumped up and down outside the window and waved to attract their attention. They ignored her, and finally when they came to the door she was told to go away because her family were not good enough. She was deeply wounded.

Stories like this remind us that the exclusion, shame and distress felt by lepers is not entirely a thing of the past. Our first reading from Leviticus 13 tells us something of what it was like to suffer not just leprosy but any disfiguring skin disease in the ancient world. The exile of such sufferers comes across to us as horribly cruel, but it was an attempt to control contagion. No wonder Jesus was so moved when he met a leper pleading to be healed (Mk 1.40-45). Our translation risks bathos, with Jesus 'feeling sorry for him'. The RSV is closer to the Greek when it tells us that Jesus was 'moved with pity'.

Of course I want to These words of Jesus come ringing off the page to us. Jesus wanted to heal, and said so, swiftly and crisply. Sometimes people say that their illness is the will of God. Sometimes people even try to make sense of it by blaming themselves. I feel that we are on safer ground if we see God as longing to heal a broken world, and Christ as the evidence of this. Why there is so much suffering in the world we can never satisfactorily explain, but we can bring the world to God and ask that his healing power can once more be made known. Healing, we need to remember, takes many forms. Sometimes a cure, often a sense of courage, or patience, or peace of mind.

Jesus touched him The leper must have been astonished. He was supposed to live in isolation so that nobody could be infected. Jesus reaches out and touches him. It is a gesture of love. It brings us back to the question of what it means to be the Church: we are called to be as Christ, his continuing presence in the world. The story asks us some challenging questions about exclusion, and about healing.

Make the offering as evidence of your recovery Escaping from the stigma of serious skin disease meant more than a physical cure in the ancient world. It meant being restored to society. The priestly caste were those who would certify the cure and enable the sufferer to rejoin the community. We remember that deeply hurt child turned away from the party and we realise that suffering takes many forms. Healing is needed in so many ways. There are broken bodies and broken hearts. Perhaps in this life there will never be a cure for everything. But there could be a friend for everyone. There could be a sense of belonging. That is the challenge to us of the gospel today.

Fr Terry Tastard is Parish Priest of Holy Trinity Roman Catholic Church, Brook Green, London W6.

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