The infectious Ebola disease has made headlines recently as a scare for many throughout the world and as a tragedy for many on the African continent.
At least 8,386 people have died from the outbreak of Ebola in West Africa, according to the World Health Organization. Isolation of the victims of this disease from other members of their families and their communities was the immediate precaution taken by medical professionals to curtail the advance of this illness. Health care workers were pictured on news programs attired like creatures from outer space in an effort to prevent the spread of this lethal disease to themselves and to others.
Ebola meant not only near-certain death to the physical body of those infected, but also immediate death to the family life, community life and social life that the patients had preciously enjoyed. Sometimes, Ebola meant neglect and abandonment.
At best, Ebola meant quarantine and isolation. But inevitably, both for those fortunate enough to be cured as well as for those for whom there was no hope, Ebola meant separation and seclusion as surely as its meant suffering and distress.
If the modern world was alarmed with a justifiable reaction to the threat of Ebola, then perhaps the reaction of the ancient world to the menace of leprosy can be better understood. Current medical sophistication notwithstanding, the Ebola crisis was a frightening event. Just imagine the reaction of the ancient world to the myriad infectious skin diseases that the ancients generally labelled as leprosy. Everything from shingles to Hanson’s disease was termed leprosy. Any outbreak on the skin could lead to estrangement from family, separation from livelihood, and, worst of all for the pious Jew, exclusion from synagogue and temple.
Even today religious practice in the Middle East for Orthodox Jews and Muslims is much more a part of their daily life than is religious observance here in the Western world. Westerners are considered pious if they at least go to Sunday services.
Many Middle Easterners will be found at prayer several times a day. Much of the disgust of the Eastern world with the Western world results from this elimination of religion from daily life. So, where religion is intimately bound up with daily life, exclusion from religion is particularly painful. In the ancient world, leprosy or what passed for leprosy invariably led to such an awkward excommunication. Leprosy meant separation, isolation and loneliness, made all the more painful by exclusion from the traditional times of prayer.
In this coming Sunday’s Gospel passage from St. Mark, it is most interesting to note that Jesus not only makes the leper happy by curing him of his skin disease, but Jesus also delights the leper by sending him back to the priest to emphasize that the former leper has been restored to the community’s religious life as well. “…go, show yourself to the priest and offer for your cleansing what Moses prescribed; that will be proof for them.” For Jesus and no doubt for the leper himself, the ritual restoration of the man’s prayer life was just as important as the physical rejuvenation of the man’s health.
There are surprisingly only five mentions of leprosy in the whole Bible. Miriam the sister of Moses, Naaman the Syrian commander, and Uzziah the Jewish King are alone remembered as lepers in the Old Testament. The New Testament records only the leper from Capernaum highlighted in this Sunday’s Gospel passage and the celebrated instance of the ten lepers being cleansed, for which only one expressed gratitude. Yet, the profound symbolism of exclusion from community life and restoration to public life is compelling.
Sin of course is the ultimate leprosy. Sin not only corrupts the soul, it also disrupts the community.
Sin misleads the mind and perverts the will. But sin also fractures relationships, upsets society and divides nations. Sin alienates the believer from himself, from his loved ones, from his neighbors, and from his God. Jesus indeed offers interior healing and conversion. But he also offers an earnest restoration into the community life of the Church.