10 February 2012

'People from all around would come to him'. Sunday Reflections, 6th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B

Readings (New American Bible: Philippines, USA)
Gospel Mark 1:40-45 (Jerusalem Bible: Australia, England & Wales, India [optional], Ireland, New Zealand, Pakistan, Scotland, South Africa)

A leper came to Jesus and pleaded on his knees: 'If you want to' he said 'you can cure me.' Feeling sorry for him, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him. 'Of course I want to!' he said. 'Be cured!' And the leprosy left him at once and he was cured. Jesus immediately sent him away and sternly ordered him, 'Mind you say nothing to anyone, but go and show yourself to the priest, and make the offering for your healing prescribed by Moses as evidence of your recovery.' The man went away, but then started talking about it freely and telling the story everywhere, so that Jesus could no longer go openly into any town, but had to stay outside in places where nobody lived. Even so, people from all around would come to him.

An Soiscéal Marcas 1:40-45 (Gaeilge, Irish)

San am sin tháinig lobhar chuig Íosa ag achainí air agus é ar a dhá ghlúin: “Más áil leat é,” ar seisean, “is féidir duit mé a ghlanadh.” Ghlac Íosa trua dó, shín amach a lámh agus bhain leis: “Is áil,” ar seisean leis, “glantar thú!” D’fhág an lobhra é láithreach agus glanadh é. Labhair Íosa go corraiceach leis agus chuir chun siúil é gan mhoill ag rá leis: “Ná habair focal le haon duine, féach, ach imigh leat agus taispeáin don sagart thú féin agus déan, de chionn do ghlanta, an ofráil a d’ordaigh Maois mar fhianaise dóibh.” Ní túisce a d’fhág an duine an láthair, áfach, ná bhí guth ard aige ag leathadh an scéil, ionas nach bhféadfadh Íosa dul isteach go hoscailte i gcathair feasta, ach fanacht lasmuigh sna háiteanna uaigneacha agus bhítí ag triall air as gach aird.

St Damien of Molokai 3 January 1840 – 15 April 1889

I remember Noel McMahon’s first day at school more than 60 years ago when he was four and I around six. Noel lived across from us on our street of terraced houses in Dublin and was starting school in St Gabriel’s, the parish kindergarten and primary school that was three or four minutes’ walk away and where his uncle, Gerry O'Mahony, who had been at school with my father, was teaching. I’m not sure why his mother didn’t go with him. Maybe it was Noel's second day at school - memory isn't always sharp more than 60 years after an event! - and perhaps she couldn’t cope with his lack of enthusiasm for academic pursuits, a lack he shared with many another child. Mr Miller, who lived four doors up from us, came to the rescue. He was retired, and bald. He shook his fist at young Noel and told him to be on his way. The youngster, terrified, did go on his way, but in the Shakesperean manner, ‘creeping like snail, unwillingly, to school’. Each time he looked back before he reached the corner at the top of the street he could see Mr Miller’s raised fist.

Mr Miller’s action was what we call here in the Philippines ‘drama-drama’. He was the kindliest of men and was trying to help Mrs McMahon in her predicament. Mr McMahon was already at work. And I don’t think the whole business had any traumatic affect on Noel.

Reading today’s gospel brought that incident to mind. Most of the translations in English use the word ‘stern’ or ‘sternly’ about the way Jesus spoke to the man after he had healed him of his leprosy, while ordering him not to tell anyone except the priest what had happened. Monsignor Ronald Knox’s translation reads, ‘He spoke to him threateningly, and sent him away there and then’. The Irish translation Labhair Íosa go corraiceach leis’  means ‘Jesus spoke to him roughly’

There’s no getting around it. Jesus spoke harshly to the man he had just healed. But was he really being harsh? Did he really expect that the man, full of gratitude, wouldn’t tell others what had happened? Did he really think that nobody would ask the man how he was cured?

I’m inclined to think that Jesus was behaving like my neighbour Mr Miller all those years ago, that his harsh words were ‘drama-drama’. But I am also inclined to think that, at the human level, Jesus dreaded the consequences of his action and that he was trying to protect himself. He could no longer go openly into any town, but had to stay outside in places where nobody lived. Even so, people from all around would come to him. Every time Jesus healed someone he gave of himself. He never stopped this giving of self. His ultimate giving of self was on the cross when, as St Mark tells us, he cried out, My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

I didn’t go to the same school as Noel but to Stanhope Street, the local convent school, also in the parish, run by the Irish Sisters of Charity. Sr Stanislaus, the principal of the boys’ kindergarten, often spoke to us about two priests who had totally given themselves to those they served. One was an Irish Jesuit, Fr Willie Doyle SJ, killed near Ieper/Ypres, Belgium, in 1917 in the Great War. Father Doyle died about 100 kms west of Tremolo, Belgium, where the other priest was born in 1840, Fr Damien de Veuster SsCc, now St Damien of Molokai.

After his death, Mother Marianne Cope to the right.

Father Damien, baptised ‘Josef’ and known as ‘Jef’ to his family, was assigned to Hawaii. At the time a remote part of the island of Molokai was used as a colony for those with leprosy, since the authorities were trying to prevent the spread of the disease. They had no priest. The bishop didn’t want to order any priest to go there as this would be seen as a death sentence. However, four volunteered and the plan was that they would follow a rotation system. Father Damien was the first to go, in 1873, and later decided to stay there. His presence made a huge difference, at every level. He wrote to his brother, also a priest, . . . I make myself a leper with the lepers to gain all to Jesus Christ. In December 1884 Father Damien discovered that he had leprosy and died less than five years later.

We know a lot more about leprosy, or Hansen’s Disease, today than in the time of Father Damien. He very deliberately chose to serve a community cut off from the wider community, knowing that he could very easily acquire their illness. Jesus had stretched out his hand to the leper, something that probably nobody else would have done and that would have made him ritually ‘unclean’. His disciple, Father Damien, went even further. He chose to live with lepers, to treat them, to help them build decent houses, to celebrate Mass with them, to hear their confessions, to prepare them for a happy death, to help dig graves for them.
There have always been individuals in every part of the world who have chosen to follow Jesus to the fullest extent possible in serving others, especially those on the margins. This is a characteristic of the Christian life. And there are people on the margins in every society.

Send us a priest who will call us by name, who will be a father to us.

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