My first encounter with Jesus didn’t happen in a beautiful cathedral or on some high mountaintop. He didn’t miraculously come to me at my First Communion, as I had hoped. Instead, I first knew the saving power of Jesus Christ as a 10-year-old girl, sitting on the plaid sofa in my father’s den while the rest of the house was sleeping. The patio door open and the scent of jasmine filling the air on a warm evening, there we were: my father, me, and the unforgettable Charlton Heston as Judah Ben-Hur.
Often called the greatest achievement in cinematic history. Ben-Hur is the epic tale of a Jewish prince betrayed into slavery, and driven by the need to settle the score with his oppressors. Throughout the story, Ben-Hur is tormented by the need to reclaim his own dignity, and that of his mother and sister, first imprisoned but later resigned to a more tragic fate when they contracted leprosy and were cast out to the Valley of Lepers. Winner of 11 Oscars, including Best Picture, the movie contains many iconic scenes, including a chariot race that had me on the edge of my seat. But the scene that remains emblazoned on my soul was the miraculous healing of Ben-Hur’s mother and sister during the cleansing rain following Jesus’ crucifixion, while his precious blood ran in wider and wider streams of water. To the eyes of a child, this Jesus was a miracle-maker who cared enough to do something about suffering and loss.
Both the Old Testament and Gospel readings this week recall the leper’s exclusion from the community of faith. Those who are “unclean” are unworthy of fellowship; in fact, they are relegated to the periphery where they are not even noticed. Nobody wants to look at them, and they do not wish to be seen.
While we have gained a better understanding of leprosy, the stigma of being “unclean” remains. Who are the lepers today? Who remains on the outskirts, marginalized by society? Even more important, who have we, as church, excluded? One way to answer this question is to look at those in our community of faith and ask, “Who’s not here?”
The Gospel requires us to “see” the people Jesus sees, looking at them through eyes of compassion, the eyes of Christ. We have to continually ask ourselves, “Who’s not here?” and then go in search of the lost and forgotten. Mark tells us that Jesus took pity and healed the man who wished to be made clean. That same Jesus promises both healing and restoration to community to anyone who believes in him. He is the healer. We owe it to our brothers and sisters to bring them to Jesus, even when they do not feel worthy or do not wish to be “seen.” The love of Christ moves us to action, seeking out the lonely and forgotten, allowing them to encounter Jesus Christ through our mercy and compassion. In stretching out our hands, we extend the healing hand of Christ.
— Mary Hallman is the diocesan director of the Office of Evangelization and a parishioner of St. Charles-St. Ann’s Parish in Syracuse.