In some medieval churches in England you can find a hole cut into the stone wall of the church. It will be about a foot high and four to six inches wide. It will be at an oblique angle, to allow a person outside the church to look directly at the altar. Here he or she could see the priest celebrating Mass, and look on as he elevated the host. These little windows are called leper’s squints. They allowed a leper to stay outside the church, and yet to share in the Mass. How cruel that isolation must have seemed.
For thousands of years, life for lepers was miserable. Not only did they have to cope with the physical suffering brought by their disease, but they also had to cope with banishment from the community. Of course, in a pre-scientific age, this was how the community coped. It limited the spread of infectious disease by isolating those with it. We have heard about this in our first reading from Leviticus. Even in the 16th century, some 2000 years after those words were written, there was still the same isolation for lepers.
As our gospel today makes clear, Jesus felt keenly the suffering brought by that disease. The poor man knees before him and when, haltingly, he asks Jesus if he wants to cure him, Jesus replies at once: ‘Of course I want to!’ And does so immediately. But notice two things. First of all, the leper should not have been there at all. You can imagine the outrage of people watching this scene. ‘Why’ they would have said to themselves, ‘if this leper had any decency then he would isolate himself and keep away from us, like he is supposed to do.’ Second, notice that Jesus touches him. He shows no fear. He touches the leper as part of healing him. Jesus is not going to collude with discrimination and social isolation.
I know a nurse, now retired, who came from a privileged background. Her name was Sister Pauline. She was a Christian woman, who had a calling to minister to the homeless of London. She was a highly experienced nurse who rose through the ranks to highly paid and influential hospital appointments. But she felt called to help the homeless and, turning aside from high position, she sought and found a job working as a nurse in a day centre for the homeless in London. She told me once of a man brought to her who had a rotting ear. His ear had been infected, flies had laid eggs there and he had maggots in his ear. She picked them out one by one. She was indignant because someone who came to the door of her treatment room complained at the stench. ‘But you know’ she told me ‘the smell came from the man’s clothes, not from his ear, because when I had picked all the maggots out, it was the cleanest wound you had ever seen.’ She explained that the maggots had eaten away all the rotting flesh. By this time I was reaching for the sick bag, but I was full of admiration at her Christian calling and her undemonstrative care for the poor and vulnerable from whom others would turn away.