Jesus Stretched Out His Hand
Sixth Sunday of the Year. Fr David Goodill finds inspiration in the life of St Damien de Moloka’i.
Most of us live somewhere in-between. The in-between can be a place of hope, where we are held in the promises of Jesus Christ, or a place of despair, where we neither belong nor are strangers. There is the despair of night where we are plunged into darkness, but there is also the despair that hovers somewhere just out of sight, forming the frame which encloses our lives.
‘A leper came to Jesus and pleaded on his knees: “If you want to” he said “you can cure me.”‘ The leper has been living in that place in-between. He cannot return to his home, but neither is he a stranger to his people. Yet he lives in hope, his hope in Jesus Christ, and it is this hope which will lead to his cure. Jesus, moved with compassion, reaches out and touches him.
How we long to be like Jesus here, to reach out to those who suffer; yet we hover. Few of us are so hardened that we turn our backs completely, yet beyond momentary awakenings our feelings lie numbed.
At the moment I’m living in Leuven, Belgium, and one of the great joys of being here is the presence of the tomb of Saint Damien. It was St Damien who in the nineteenth century volunteered to serve the leper colony on the island of Moloka’i, and who after fifteen years of service to this community was himself to die from leprosy.
Early in his ministry, before he had contracted the disease, he wrote to his brother in Europe: ‘I make myself a leper with the lepers to gain all to Jesus Christ.’ His fame spread in his own time, and, crossing national and denominational boundaries, money was raised for his mission by American Protestants and the Church of England.
This compassionate and humble man, who served an excluded and forgotten people on a small and isolated island, achieved worldwide fame. More importantly than fame he touched the lives, and continues to live in the hearts, of millions of people throughout the world. St Damien discovered that he had leprosy when, plunging his foot accidently into scaling water, he felt nothing. This man, who physically was losing his sense of touch, was able to awaken compassion in the hearts of millions.
We live in the in-between, neither hot nor cold: uncommitted and unapproachable. He committed himself to Jesus Christ, and within his heart a love burned which was not his alone, but a gift shared with others. His commitment to following Christ took him beyond his home, beyond society and eventually beyond the limits of his own body. There is nothing wrong in building up our own homes, in working to share in the goods of society, or in taking due care of our own health and physical well-being. As Christians we are called to pay due attention to all these things. In themselves all these things are good, but there is something greater, something which calls us beyond the comforts that border our lives.
When the leper approaches Jesus a choice is made. Jesus chooses to touch the man, and in reaching out he knows that he will no longer be able to return to his home, to his place in the community, for although he tells the man to say nothing about the healing to anyone, from that time we are told that: ‘Jesus could no longer go openly into any town, but had to stay outside in places where nobody lived.’ His exile will be completed on the cross, his bodily wounds the reminders of our lack of humanity, our failure to respond to the cries of those who suffer.
Not many of us have the freedom to be a Saint Damien. Our commitments and responsibilities to family, Church and society shape the forms in which we live our lives as followers of Jesus Christ. Yet there is a deeper inner freedom which Jesus Christ offers to each one of us, a freedom which is seen in the lives of his saints. The in-between we have created, the place where we are neither at home nor a stranger, the place where our feelings are numbed, is our own personal prison cell. It is sometimes that place of dark despair, but often it is carpeted with the latest in flat screen technology on the wall.
As we follow Saint Damien on his journey we are challenged to reach out from our cell, but find ourselves unable or unwilling to take those steps which he took. Those steps are the steps of Jesus Christ, and our only hope is to turn to him, to kneel before him and with the leper to say: ‘If you want to, you can cure me.’ It is through his compassion that we learn to love; we may not know how to feel anymore, but his love wakens our love, healing us and moving in a joy which we are called the share with others.