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The gift of touch

February 13, 2015
Deacon Faiva Po’oi

We are fascinated with our skin. We’ll do anything to enhance its appearance. We use makeup to cover its imperfections. We obsess over its wrinkles, scars, or blemishes. The human skin is the surface of our contact with the world. Did you know that human skin has more than three miles of blood vessels coiled up within it? And more remarkable than that, the skin of each of us also contains over thirty-six miles of nerves and nerve endings. Those nerves carry signals for pain, heat, cold, pressure, and touch.

Imagine what it would be like if your nerve endings did not work? What if your entire nerve system shut down? You would feel no heat, no cold, no pain, no pressure, no touch. You would feel nothing at all. Imagine how terrible that would be!

Such was the plight of the leper in the days of Jesus. Leprosy was an illness that infected the nervous system, effectively shutting it down. As a result, the person afflicted with leprosy was unable to feel the pain of a stumped toe or a cut finger. In time, the leper’s deformed features made him look grotesque. In addition to this physical suffering, the lepers of Jesus’ time also experienced great emotional and spiritual suffering. Fearing the spread of the disease, “healthy” people would not associate with lepers. They believed that lepers had been cursed by God and treated them as outcasts. No one felt more cut-off from society, and from God, than lepers.

As the leper in our Gospel story approached Jesus, these were likely the thoughts with which he was grappling. He believed himself to be one cursed by God. This is what the religious leaders had taught him! And yet the leper said to Jesus: “If you will, you can make me clean.” It was not the Lord’s ability to heal him that he questioned but rather Jesus’ willingness to show him mercy and love. The leper believed that God could heal him. He just was not so sure that he would. The story tells us that Jesus looked on the man with compassion, and subsequently stretched out his hand, touched and healed him.

Throughout the Gospel of Mark, we will see Jesus extending his hands and embracing those who come to him. In time, people approached him just to touch his garments or to be touched by him. Even healthy children were brought to Jesus for his embrace. It is as though Jesus wanted to portray God as one who loves to touch his creation. Isn’t this the way Michelangelo painted God on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel – as a God reaching out to give life by the gift of touch?

A year ago, a photo came on the internet of Pope Francis embracing and kissing a 52 year old man who was afflicted with very disfiguring tumors all over his body, including his head. Pope Francis shows great compassion as he prays over this man. His actions call to mind another Francis–St. Francis of Assisi – who about 800 years ago encountered a leper on the road. St. Francis’ compassion was stronger than his dread of leprosy. He kissed the man. Afterward, the man was gone. It was then that Francis realized that he had embraced Christ.

Who is the leper in our society, our community, and our family? Do we regard the poor, the homeless, and the marginalized as lepers? Do we avoid making contact with them?

May the Holy Eucharist enable us to recognize the lepers in our families, our communities and our society and to accept them as brothers and sisters. And may the Holy Eucharist enable us to be for each of them, the extended, the healing hands of Jesus.

Deacon Po’oi serves at St. Timothy Parish, San Mateo.

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