Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Who Is Your Leper?

We live in a society frightened to death of confronting the difficult and painful aspects of life. For example, rather than dealing with an unplanned pregnancy, we have sanctioned abortion as a way of dealing with that unpleasantry. As far as health is concerned, we somehow seem to think that there is some magic formula out there just waiting to be discovered that will enable us to live in this life forever. One week a food or beverage that is supposed to be healthy turns out to be nearly toxic. The next week? It is the miracle drug that will cure all ills and see us safely into the distant future.

So what does all this have to do with leprosy? Plenty! One word describes it all, fear.

Over eight centuries ago, a young man from an obscure Italian town in central Italy was riding his horse on a country road. He was the son of a wealthy merchant who could have anything and everything should he choose. He yearned to be a great knight one day, seeking glory and valor along the way. He seemed fearless and was very popular. But he had one great fear, lepers.

In those days, leprosy, a disease that is viral in nature and eats away at the flesh, was feared more than anything else and the unfortunate victims of this horrible ailment were treated as outcasts. Their rotting flesh emitted a foul odor. They were mostly dressed in rags and had to go about with a device that warned people that they were in the vicinity. They were banned from cities, often living outside the municipality gates, begging from door-to-door for their daily food.

In the noon day sun, the young man was lost in his own dream world as his horse trudged along the road. Suddenly, he was shaken from his slumber by a sound that was all too familiar to him, the clap-clap of the leper's warning device. He panicked. He could bear almost anything but a leper. They repulsed him so much that he nearly gagged at the thought of his encountering one of them.

He quickly opened his eyes and spied a lone figure on the road ahead moving in his direction. The clapper sounded once again as was required by law. The young man had nowhere to go for this stretch of the road was flanked on either side by deep ravines. Realizing that he had no choice but to meet the leper on the road, the young man nervously dismounted his horse, approached the leper, and instead of rushing him off the side of the road, embraced him and kissed him on the lips. It took great courage to do this since the smell of rotting flesh must have been overwhelming.

In this one gesture, this young man boldly and lovingly faced his leper. The stunned leper looked into the young man's face, stepped aside and continued on his way. The young rider remounted his horse and continued on his way, shocked at his own behavior. He drew the horse to a stop and turned around to gaze at the leper one more time while contemplating the nature of his action. To his amazement, the leper had disappeared. There was no sign of him.

The young horseman in this story was Francesco Bernadone, more familiarly known as St. Francis of Assisi. After much prayer and deep thought, Francis came to the conclusion that the leper was none other than Jesus Himself.

This story has a message for each one of us. It prompts us to think about our own lives. It leads to the following question. Who is your leper? What is your leper? In other words, what, in your life, do you fear the most and how do you approach this fear?

Francis determined to set aside his repulsion and not only approach his leper, but embrace him with a kiss. This was a death-defying act for Francis for leprosy was a deadly disease in the thirteenth century. From this moment on, Francis developed a deep abiding love for lepers, often working with them in their filthy surroundings. He may have even contracted the disease himself before his death in 1226. Through his kiss of the leper, Francis found a new, intimate way to Christ. Through this act he discovered that Christ can be found in anyone.

So, who (or what) is your leper? Who repels you and for what reason? What situations repulse you? And what do you do about your repulsion? Do you have the faith to truly reach out to your leper and embrace him or her? We live in fear rather than confidence. We do not have confidence because we do not have faith deep enough. We can only gain this courage if we face our lepers and embrace them with the confidence that we will find Jesus in the moment! It may take work that lasts many months or even years to come to grips with embracing our leper, but in order to live in peace, we must live toward this end.