Friday, November 20, 2015

For Thanksgiving

“Jesus Healing a Leper”
[Detail from the “Walters Manuscript”]
Coptic. 1684.
Copyright © Edward Riojas

If you’re like me, chances are you’ll head to church either this coming Wednesday night or the following morning to celebrate the National Day of Thanksgiving. And if your church is like mine and follows the prescribed Scripture readings of the Historic Lectionary, then you will probably hear the Gospel account of Christ healing the ten lepers.

At first blush, the Gospel reading is a bit weird for Thanksgiving, but when we settle our minds into a state of attentiveness and connect the dots, we once again remember how that one leper – the foreigner – came back to give thanks, while the rest of the thankless ingrates headed off in their new skins.

After church, we will go home and begin relishing a day off from work or perhaps a four-day weekend, and we will again be thankful. Before dinner, we will give thanks. Then everyone will eat too much. Afterwards, the guys will plop on the couch with more refreshments and watch their favorite football team lose again. A few will be thankful. Meanwhile, the gals will make plans to go purchase more crap that no one really needs. [“Thank you. It’s what I always wanted.”] If you haven’t yet gotten a hint that something is just a little ugly, start thinking about Black Friday. Yeah, I know, “Thanks a lot.”
“Sermon on the Mount” Cosimo Rosselli.
1481. (Sistine Chapel, The Vatican)

I was a little surprised when I went looking for artistic renditions of Jesus and the ten lepers. There is a glut of really tame images out there. Most of them show healed, healthy folk, sometimes with the token guy at Jesus’ feet. Everyone is squeaky clean, and the lepers have somehow gotten rid of their rags. Everyone is just a tad too happy.

Images that do show the ten lepers seem to follow a pattern set by Orthodox iconography. The afflicted are covered by red spots. Other than the spots, the figures look perfectly healthy. Chicken pox comes to mind.

I finally resorted to my own portfolio for leper images that were a bit more realistic. Executed in black and white, these pen and ink drawings hint at the disfigurement and helplessness that comes with being leprosy‘s victim.
[Two variations from the “Ecclesiastical Art”
Lectionary series] Edward Riojas.
(Collection of the artist)

I wondered why there is not more realistic depictions of the afflicted. Perhaps we are more taken by the power of Christ to heal than we are taken by His mercy. We like to see results. [“Give us a sign, Lord!”] We want to see the heavy-duty cure instead of a malady that causes disgust among men and necessitates the Mercy of our Lord.

But even what I tastefully executed does not do leprosy justice. Here’s some helpful advice: Don’t go surfing online for photos of the real deal this Thanksgiving when family members are passing around the mashed potatoes – someone will end up wearing the mashed potatoes. Leprosy is a hideous disease that runs a vicious attack at the body. Nerve impulses become short-wired so that victims don’t feel pain. At all. Vision and respiration become affected. Body tissues run amok in directions creation never intended. After a while, the victim’s body becomes ugly – with a capital “U.”

It’s no wonder Levitical Law prohibited lepers from worshiping and intermingling with the rest of society. If the priest said, “Get out,” then you left. It didn’t matter where, as long as it was out in the boonies. And you didn’t forget to ring a bell and yell at the top of your pained lungs so everyone knew where you were and where they shouldn’t be. Lepers gravitated toward each other because, even then, misery loved company. So it was that ten of them met Jesus.

They had been kicked out of the kingdom because they were infected. They were ugly. They didn’t realize they should feel the pain of their malady. They were nearly blind. Their condition only worsened as they hobbled through life, and they tried to cover up their own hideousness with filthy rags. They lived a life as outsiders in a hostile world. They announced their presence with bells, and cried, “Lord, have mercy!” from afar.

Some of this should start to sound uncomfortably familiar. Maybe, like me, you are starting to itch.

Our spiritual plight, apart from Christ, is far more leprous than its physical counterpart could ever get. Christ didn’t overturn the lives of ten guys with a bad cough or ten guys who could get better if they simply took more vitamins or exercised regularly or used more caution in life. The lepers were the walking dead. Without Christ, so are we.

It’s interesting that the account of the ten lepers is not a parable, but a reality in the life of Christ. Christ didn’t just spin a good yarn or paint a fine picture to make an important point. The ugly reality of the occurrence points to the uglier realities in our lives. It points to the inestimable Mercy of our Lord and our only Hope for the cure of our disease of sin. Knowing this is good reason to take pause in the respite of a day off or a long weekend, turn around, fall at the feet of Christ, and give thanks to the Provider of every good and perfect gift, including the unmerited gift of salvation.

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