Sustaining graces in stressful times

Father John A. Kiley
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One couple opted for jig-saw puzzles as a way to pass the abundance of recent time on their hands. Supermarkets quickly sold out of five-pound bags of flour as homemakers tried their skill at bread-baking. One mother had been absolutely forbidden by her out-of-state children to take the chance of flying to one of their homes for Christmas. They compensated by having a catered lobster dinner delivered to her home on Christmas Eve, reminiscent of the family tradition of the “Seven Fish,” popular with some Italian families. One friend whose days were dragging found himself polishing the silver just to pass the time — a housekeeping chore more reminiscent of the early part of the twentieth century than the present twenty-first century. One woman whose neighbors often shared food with her observed that they still left food but would hand the meal to her at the door; entering the house for a chat was taboo. And the most devout among the community, our senior citizens, are unhappily deprived of one their great consolations — attendance at Mass. Watching Mass on a cell phone or computer just compounds a sense of remoteness and detachment. The universal consensus among those who are obeying Rhode Island’s health rules and are managing to fend off the coronavirus infection is the dulling experience of boredom.
A good number of Rhode Island’s citizens have quite sadly died from the COVID-19 virus and many others are still quite ill. Small businesses and school systems have been greatly upset with the arrival of this twenty-first century plague. So the virus is no laughing matter. Yet those who have happily escaped the physical and economic dangers of COVID-19 are none the less enduring the clear, if lesser, effects of monotony, isolation and even loneliness.
Well if twenty-first century Americans have trouble due to the threat of the coronavirus and a pandemic infection, just consider the leper in the time of Christ. Or consider the leper in any century up until about a hundred years ago. Loneliness, isolation, and seclusion along with severe physical pain and incapacity were the lot of every leper — by law and by common sense in those pre-vaccination days. Consider the ominous words from the Book of Leviticus: “The priest shall declare him unclean; his infection is on his head. The garments of one afflicted with a scaly infection shall be rent and the hair disheveled, and the mustache covered. The individual shall cry out, “Unclean, unclean!” As long as the infection is present, the person shall be unclean. Being unclean, that individual shall dwell apart, taking up residence outside the camp.” The leper’s household items were often tossed, meaning that should a cure result there was no home to which to return. Clothes were burned. And often ancients literally possessed only the clothes on their back. Leprosy certainly meant physical and emotional isolation to an exceeding degree. But, for the pious Jew, leprosy also meant spiritual isolation. Lepers could not be welcomed at the synagogue or at the temple. Lepers were effectively excommunicated.
It is very instructive to consider that when Jesus cured lepers in his own day, he often insisted that they go and show themselves to the Jewish priests. St. Mark writes in this Sunday’s Gospel passage, “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 celebrated cure of the ten lepers recorded in the Gospel according to St. Luke contains the same demand, “As he was entering a village, ten lepers met him. They stood at a distance from him and raised their voices, saying, “Jesus, Master! Have pity on us!” And when he saw them, he said, “Go show yourselves to the priests.” As they were going they were cleansed.” The inability to worship God at the Temple, the incapacity to pray in community at the local synagogue, and the exclusion from all high holidays and festivities would convince any Jew that he or she was not only a leper but even more sadly a sinner. It seemed even God had no time for them.
So being restored to worship, returning to the synagogue and rejoicing once again in the pilgrim crowded streets of Jerusalem not only indicated a physical cure, it more importantly meant forgiveness and healing from God. When this present coronavirus pandemic abates, the believing community’s return to Sunday worship at church should also affirm a sense of God’s healing love, welcoming presence, and sustaining graces in our own stressful time.

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