On my desk I have a little wooden statue of a hand that is holding an egg. The hand is holding the egg high, raised up into the air by the fingers, rather than just resting in the palm. Right now the statue is kind of tucked away but I used to have it sitting very prominently on my desk right in front of people, and inevitably almost everyone would pick it up to look at it and ask what about it. Unbeknownst to them that was my plan; I put it there as a conversation piece and it worked very well. So while they turned the statue around in their hands I would tell them how Bp. Lennon personally bought that statue for all the priests in the diocese as a thank you for the work we did on the major diocesan capital campaign back in 2012, and that it was an African symbol of leadership. If the hand holds the egg too tightly it cracks and breaks, but if it holds it too loosely it falls to the ground, and cracks and breaks. There is a balance to leadership. These particular statues were actually hand carved by lepers in Africa as a way to support themselves financially. Usually after adding little detail the person looking at my statue would suddenly stop turning it around in their hands and place it quickly back on my desk, sometimes with a hesitant question of, “oh, hand carved by lepers… but it’s like… safe to touch… right?”
Last week I talked to you about the role of being an intercessor, and I briefly commented about how much empathy it takes to do that well. We can practice that empathy a little bit here today. Most of us have a vague idea about what leprosy is other than you don’t want to be near it, much like the people setting my statue back down. The simple version is that it’s a very contagious disease that causes skin lesions and nerve damage, eventually causing permanent disability. It’s an ancient disease, known long before the time of the Old Testament and thousands of years before Christ. Ancient people didn’t know how it spread but they knew it spread from one person to the next, and today we know it caused by bacteria that is spread by water droplets as people exhale or cough or sneeze, and that it can take five years for symptoms to show after being infected. In the ancient world there was no cure, and it’s only been in the past fifty years that we can cure it, but only if it’s caught early enough with a combination of several drugs. The only solution for the ancient world was isolation. Live outside the village, tear your garments so people can identify you, shout out “unclean” so they know to stay away.
We have all been more isolated this past year because of covid. We’ve avoided seeing family and friends, we’ve avoided normal activities of life that involve other people if possible, and when we are around people we stand farther apart, we wear our masks, and we don’t stay too long. Some of us have had loved ones that are sick but we can’t visit, and some even have had to go through that isolation in hospitals while wondering if they would survive. So take that experience of the isolation we have known one way or the other this year and think about what it must have been like for the leper who came to Jesus in the gospel. The leper can’t call family or friends on a phone and he can’t say to himself that a vaccine is coming and things will change. The leper is isolated, without hope, in pain as he slowly loses feeling in his limbs.
The gospel says that Jesus was “moved with pity”. Jesus had empathy for this leper. He saw this man kneeling down and begging him saying, “if you wish, you can make me clean.” Jesus could understand the isolation this man lived, the despair that literally brings him to his knees. And Jesus touched him. How often do you think that leper was ever touched? A man who had to shout out unclean and who had lesions on his skin? Imagine the emotion that man must have felt when Jesus touched him and said, “be made clean”.
Empathy allows us to share the experience of another person and know their life in a more profound way. It is what we expect from Jesus, that he will understand our lives and our sufferings and our joys. But it is also what Jesus expects from us, that we will interact with every person we meet with empathy, trying to understand them.
In Lent we traditionally take up a Lenten discipline that is connected to prayer, fasting, or almsgiving. If you feel like empathy is something you need to develop a little bit more, I recommend to you that any of those three can help. This Lent you could pray and spend time talking with Jesus about his suffering and trying to understand his love for you, and along with him thinking about the people you encountered that day. Fasting can also lead to empathy. This year the U.N. expects that 400,000 children in Yemen will die from starvation. 4000,000 children… because of war and pandemic. A Lent with some fasting and thinking about the children who live with hunger but have no escape from it would certainly make it more real to us than a number and a news headline. And of course almsgiving. We could simply give to charity but if we stop and listen, and try to understand what the need is and who we are giving our money to and why, that again can develop our sense of empathy.
Christ was moved with pity. We too must make sure that our hearts can be moved. So if the Holy Spirit is telling you to work on the empathy, well then let’s work on the empathy.
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Homilies are meant to be heard, not read… and part of the Eucharistic liturgy, not words that stand alone. Please remember that no homily is written with this blog in mind.