“Then he felt quite ashamed, and hid his head under his wing; for he did not know what to do, he was so happy, and yet not at all proud. He had been persecuted and despised for his ugliness, and now he heard them say he was the most beautiful of all the birds.” – Han Christian Andersen, The Ugly Duckling
When I was a child I used to love to hide in one of the corners of my house and read my favorite stories. Perhaps it was my way of escaping the world, which sometimes seemed too difficult and weighed down – a world where I never felt understood. A little like the ugly duckling, I found myself always on the lookout for my own way to fit in. It’s not unusual for us to sometimes feel excluded or inadequate in life.
The ugly duckling cannot bear the gaze of those who consider him inadequate and different. In cases like these, it seems as if there’s nothing we can do but distance ourselves and hide away where no one can see us. It goes on like this until you find someone that recognizes you for what you are and helps you discover the beauty that you carry inside. Everyone had made the ugly duckling believe that he was indeed ugly, yet within him a beautiful swan was hiding.
There are periods in life, sometimes long ones, in which we feel overcome by feelings of exclusion. We don’t feel understood and we decide to retract ourselves or simply leave. Sometimes it’s others who force us to leave because they feel annoyed, almost threatened, by our presence.
This is a little like the story of the leper in today’s Gospel. Those around him had made him think of himself as a sick man, incapable of being with others. They forced him away so as not to be contaminated by his illness. This man is ugly and he disfigures the beauty of the others’ lives because suffering annoys those living in the myth of permanent well-being. It is annoying because it reminds us that we too are ill and sooner or later we will have to give back our lives. It isn’t always clear whether we have been sent away or if we have chosen to leave. In this game of rejection and isolation is always played against a background of ambiguity.
As we begin to make our escape it feels as if our whole lives are falling to pieces much like the body of the leper. We feel as though we are slowly dying, with no hope of coming back to life. The leper felt this way. He is a hopeless man because he carries death with him wherever he goes. In the Jewish mentality, every point of contact with death prevented you from worshiping in community because it made you impure. You had to purify yourself before you could return to the community. But for the leper this was impossible because he could not purify his contact with death. Rather, contact with him was contact with death for others and so he was condemned to permanent exclusion.
When you feel as though you are dying, when you feel abandoned and rejected, you no longer trust anyone. You convince yourself that you are not lovable. Worse, you think that it is your fault that no one cares about you. The leper from this Gospel passage is also a man that does not feel he can be loved. He doubts that Jesus would want to pay any attention to him. He doesn’t want to be any more of an annoyance than he already is but he believes: if you wish,… you can make me clean.
Only God can heal a leper because it signifies giving life to one condemned to die. This man believes that God can no longer be a part of his life. It is only in the gaze of someone who loves us that we can be brought back to life. Only in the eyes of someone that recognizes who we truly are can we see our own beauty. Jesus stops and wishes that this man be well again: I do will it. Be made clean!
When we step into the suffering of others, we cannot hope to leave again unscathed. The lepers went to isolated places and hid there. They must go.
Men today still avoid places of sickness and pain so as not to disturb their illusion of eternal well-being. They stay away from anything and anyone that would remind them of human frailty. Jesus however seeks out these places where men are dying, where men hide out of fear or shame. Jesus is not afraid to be contaminated: he draws near, reaches out, and touches illness and is not disgusted or afraid. He comes so close to our leprosy that he too is considered a leper.
When the people find out that Jesus has healed a leper, that he touched one, they ask him not to enter into the city. Even Jesus becomes an ugly duckling that must be rejected. Jesus is considered contaminated; he is considered a leper. But because he cannot go back into the city, he is forced to stay out in the abandoned places, where the sick and excluded dwell. And so, all of those who had been rejected and isolated discover that the one man that can heal them dwells among them.
Questions for personal reflection:
- How do you react when you do not feel welcome?
- Are you capable of being with someone who is suffering or that feels excluded?
A reading from the holy Gospel according to Mark (1:40-45)
A leper came to Jesus and kneeling down begged him and said, “If you wish, you can make me clean.” Moved with pity, he stretched out his hand, touched him, and said to him, “I do will it. Be made clean.” The leprosy left him immediately, and he was made clean. Then, warning him sternly, he dismissed him at once.
He said to him, “See that you tell no one anything, but go, show yourself to the priest and offer for your cleansing what Moses prescribed; that will be proof for them.”
The man went away and began to publicize the whole matter. He spread the report abroad so that it was impossible for Jesus to enter a town openly. He remained outside in deserted places, and people kept coming to him from everywhere.
The Gospel of the Lord