February 13, 2000 -- 6th Sunday "B"
Lv 13,1...46; 1Co 10,31-11,1; MK 1,40-45
H O M I L Y
Both the first and the third readings of today speak of something that generated terror in the ancient world: leprosy. Leprosy was a kind generic word that covered a whole range of diseases, specially skin diseases, and most of all contagious and incurable diseases. As a reaction to that horror men felt in themselves, they ostracized and separated the victims of those types of illness, often with religious laws, not only to protect themselves physically from the contagion, but also, obviously, to protect themselves, psychologically, from looking into themselves.
One of the great novels of our century, which won a Nobel prize of literature to its author, is The Plague by Camus, publish shortly after WWII. It is a French novel, but has been translated in English, and I am sure many of you have read it. It is the story of a town in Algeria where the population is suddenly struck by an epidemic of bubonic plague; a plague that a various time in history, before the discovery of vaccines, has decimated large segments of the population of the world. The town is put in quarantine, and the whole book is the description of the attitude of a certain number of characters, as they are confronted with that unexpected physical evil. I think that anyone who wants to reflect seriously about modern contagious illness like AIDS, for example, should read that book.
Camus is not Christian, although in his youth he wrote a doctoral thesis on St. Augustine. He is not an atheist however. He considers himself as post‑Christian. And because of his very honest questioning of the Christianity as he knew it in its reaction to evil, he rediscovers and conveys truths and attitudes that are in fact at times profoundly Christian.
The book is a modern myth about the destiny of man, about what Hopkins called "the death dance in our blood". For Camus, this "death dance," this hidden propensity to pestilence, is something more than mere mortality. It is the willful negation of life... the human instinct to dominate and to destroy ‑‑ to seek one's own happiness by destroying the happiness of others, to build one's security on power and, by extension, to justify evil use of that power in terms of "history", of "common good", or "national security", or, worst, of "the justice of God".
There are two main characters in the novel. A priest and a doctor. The physician, doctor Rieux, is the first one to discover the signs of the Plague; and it takes him time before he can convince all the others of what is obvious. All the years that the Plague last in the city, he will devote himself entirely, to taking care of the sick, organizing sanitation, burying the dead, inventing a vaccine, and finally bringing the epidemic to an end. And all of that is considered by him and by Camus, not as something virtuous or heroic in any way. It is just what he had to do in the situation where he was. You don't praise a teacher for teaching that two and two makes four, he says. If someone is in need and you can do something for him; you just have to do it. There is nothing special in that, even if you risk your life, even if you die. After all, says Camus, there always comes a time in life where those who say that two and two makes four are put to death.
The history of the priest is interesting. At the beginning, he has all the answers. The city has been hit by the Plague because this is what people deserve. God is disappointed with the modern world in general and with them in particular. But in his mercy God is giving the city another chance. The Plague lights the path to future salvation. He can see God in action unfailingly transforming evil into good. Doing so, he "justifies" the plague and tries to make people love their sufferings. To what the good practical doctor, who is not much of a practicing Catholic says, with a lot of Christian compassion: "Christians sometimes talk like that without really thinking it" and he adds that devastating compliment: "They are better than they seem, though". And he adds that the good Father speaks like this because he has learn only from his theology books. "That's why he can talk with such assurance of the truth with a capital T. Every country priest... who has heard a man gasping for breath on his deathbed thinks as I do, says the good doctor. He'd try to relive human suffering before trying to point out its excellence."
In fact, the priest, after seeing a child die in atrocious pain, will come to some of that compassion in the end.
Now, if we come back quickly to our Gospel, I don't think I need to make a long commentary. It's obvious that the attitude of the priest at the beginning of the novel, with all his explanations about sin and punishment by God, was the attitude of the Scribes and Pharisees, and in general of the official religion of Israel. The attitude of the doctor in the novel is the attitude of Christ, who never, in the whole Gospel, gives a word of explanation about leprosy or any other illness. He simply touches the leper with his own hand and heals him.
And I suppose the question each one of us has to answer in his own heart is: On what side are we?