Throughout history, where you saw leprosy, you were also likely to see God. That’s because God is love, and anyone with enough love to serve the needs of those afflicted with this body-disfiguring disease embodied God’s presence among them. That love was returned, too, as Bishop Fulton Sheen told an audience of Kansas State University students in a 1970 speech. In his description of agape love (love without motive), Bishop Sheen described an important lesson in love he received from an inhabitant of a leper colony at which he was distributing crucifixes. Sheen continued:
He held up his stump of an arm and there was a rosary around it. He held out his right hand, and it was the most foul … mass of corruption I ever saw! I held the crucifix above it and dropped it. It was swallowed up by the disease. Among the five hundred lepers in that camp, I became the five hundred and first, for I’d taken this symbol of divine love and refused to be identified with a man who was a thousand times better on the inside than I was. With the awful thought of what I had done, I dug my finger into his hand, pulled out the cross and pressed it to his hand—as I did for the other five hundred lepers.
In that moment of shared sorrow, love showed itself in the fusion of flesh and spirit. So did God.
Half-a-century later, leprosy is almost out-of-sight in this web-obsessed world. So is God.
The fact leprosy is almost gone isn’t the point. There’s no shortage of ugly diseases competing for human attention. But leprosy is a biblical disease, and the remaining presence of leper colonies in Asia and Africa continues to tell an important and true story. An article about modern-day leprosy from a few years ago reported that despite medical advancements, prejudice against lepers is still deep-rooted—making isolation among fellow lepers preferable to exposure among people for whom leprosy is as much a stranger as selfless love.
Yet if we believe that such love is God, we must make sure its presence in this world doesn’t become as rare as leprosy. After all, this world is filled with false gods whose corruption is hidden under a distractingly beautiful exterior.
Corrupted or not, our earthly bodies were designed to be the temporary home of an immortal spirit. And though our world’s false gods jealously distract the human spirit using their charms, Sunday’s gospel reading (Jn 2:13-25) shows they were no match for the jealousy of the Holy Spirit inhabiting Jesus. He made a whip out of cords, went among the moneychangers who invaded the temple building, spilled their coins and overturned their tables on them.
“What sign can you show us for doing this?” they asked. Jesus answered, “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.”
Of course now we know he was speaking about the temple of his body. But modern humans tend toward blindness when it comes to seeing God’s real presence amidst our corruption. Our nearsighted eyes are easily drawn to the flailing of those false gods competing for space in the upper room of our temple. Sound foolish? It is, but as Paul tells us in Sunday’s second reading, we can always aspire to a more sublime foolishness (1 Cor 1:22-25):
For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.
Even by the standards of today’s human wisdom, lepers and the unborn can remain as obscure to us as the ten commandments (Ex 20:1-17)—especially the ones commanding us to love the spirit of God inhabiting the least among us. That will remain the case as long as those commandments stay as hidden as the relics housed in the ark of the First Covenant. As Bishop Sheen realized with that leper’s crucifix, we need to be the ark of the New Covenant. Those commandments of love need to be planted directly into the corrupted flesh of our hearts. That way, they’ll take root and invade our consciousness, displacing the false gods living there.