He had worn it ever since the day the priest had given it to him. Worn it under his ragged, smelly clothes, next to his heart—a heart that continued to pump the warm, red blood through a body that had already died. He wasn’t sure why he wore it. Maybe because it represented himself: an outcast from humanity, suffering alone and slowly dying. He wondered what he would do when the thin yellowed string rotted. Would he give it up then, or try to find another string to tie the image around his neck?
He slowly released the small, wooden carving and allowed it to fall against his wasted chest. He couldn’t even feel when it hit—well, perhaps he could barely feel the roughness as it brushed across his flesh. His raw flesh.
He spread his hands out before him so that he could see them. His eyes worked but he wasn’t always sure he was glad of that. It meant that he could torture himself with looking at his rotting body, slowly decaying while he still remained alive. At one time he had thought it was ghastly. But now, he had gotten used to it.
He had become accustomed to his hands, oozing and white, his fingers masses of peeling flesh without fingernails. He knew, from looking at the others in the camp, that his hair must now be snowy white and his eyebrows flaky. They had itched terribly, a long time ago, but even that feeling was gone now.
He never saw anyone but the others. And the occasional priest who came into the camp to preach and bring holy objects.
He had heard that Jesus had healed lepers. He had waited and watched the large crucifix in the middle of the camp. When the blood ran fresh, they had told him, he could touch it and be healed. But the blood never ran fresh. He couldn’t blame Jesus. He had bled once. Why would He want to bleed again?
Still he felt a special bond with the man on the cross. That is why he treasured his small wooden crucifix next to his heart. Not because he hoped it would heal him—he had worn it a long time now, and yet he had only grown worse. But he liked to look at it. He could imagine the man, when he was being scourged and the flesh was peeling off His back. He was so mutilated that He almost looked leprous.
He had heard a priest say that Jesus had touched a leprous man. Touched him and healed him! No one had touched him. Not even the priest who had given him the image. The priest had dropped it from a few inched into the rotting palm. Then he had turned away.
He knew that Jesus’ people had hated the lepers. They were considered “unclean”, driven outside the city and not allowed to touch anyone. They were outcasts. They always had been. They always would be.
But Jesus had been an outcast too. He had been cast out of the inn when He was born. He had been cast out of Israel when He was young. He had been driven outside of the city and killed. An outcast. And so He was very much like a leper.
Even God had forsaken Him. Jesus had said so on the cross. The very words, he himself had uttered “My God, My God, why have You forsaken me?”
It wasn’t fair. But it was fact. He had been forsaken, and Jesus had been forsaken. Both of them were outcasts.
That was why he liked the small, wooden crucifix that he wore around his neck. It symbolized the fact that he was forsaken.
“He who would not save His own Son...” he quoted the words to himself.
The leper slung a pot of water down from his shoulder, splashing water over his hands, He was glad to have a well in camp, even if it only held stagnant rainwater. If he had gone near the village to get water, he would have been driven away with stones.
Now several ragged cats came eagerly forward and he tipped the bucket down so that they could drink. Even if they did consume his food and water, they were good company. And a good protection.
He never felt it during the long, dark nights, when he slept fitfully hoping for dawn, the hungry rats would creep out of their holed and tunnels and come to gnaw on his hands and feet and legs. He had one toe that had been eaten completely to the bone.
But the cats had become his friends. When he would waken in the night to the sound of scuffling feet, he would see the green, glowing eyes of the cats and know with satisfaction that any rat that came within arm's length of him was prey to their sharp teeth. And so he could sleep without fear. In return he shared his water and whatever small scraps of food as the cats might fancy.
Sometimes he was so hungry that he wished he, too could catch and devour the vermin.
He wondered if rats had come to gnaw on Jesus as He hung on the cross. He had asked a priest once—the first one who had come to tell the story. The priest had seemed horrified at the thought of such a sacrilege.
The priest had explained how Jesus did not stay on the cross. Jesus had been raised from the dead and had never “undergone decay”. So they said, but he didn’t believe it.
If that was true, why was Jesus still on the cross? No. He decided he would not believe that part of the story. The priests had made that part up because they didn’t want Jesus to remain an outcast. But he did. He wanted Jesus to decay. Just like he was. That’s how he’s come to feel a close bond with Jesus.
He reached a rotting hand under his tunic, as he seated himself, and brought his crucifix out into the light. The string stuck into the skin around his neck, but he pulled it loose.
It was a small image—it fit neatly into his palm. But it was his Jesus. The flesh peeling off of Him, the body torn and mutilated. The beard was ripped out by the roots, and the eyes looked sad and distant. Forsaken.
He liked the way Jesus looked hanging on the cross. He was glad Jesus was still hanging on the cross. He was glad that Jesus was like him. He liked the image of Jesus as an outcast.
He didn’t want God to raise Jesus. He didn’t believe it could happen. If God would raise Jesus, why wouldn’t God raise him from the dead—heal him?
If God would raise him, then maybe he’d believe that Jesus had raised.
But he could see Jesus still on the cross. And he could see his hands and arms and legs still rotting.
It was midday and there was a hum. Just a steady humming sound coming from down in the camp, near the well. He had been hearing it for some time now, but his own thoughts had occupied his mind, drowning out the hum.
He had thought of the lepers of God’s people. Thought of how God had rejected them. God had said that lepers were unclean. God had ordered them out of the camp of His people. They were the outcasts.
He was sitting with his back against a rock. He knew his clothes were sticking to his back, but he didn’t care. He tugged at the string around his neck and pulled the crucifix from its hiding place. Jesus was an outcast, too. Cast out from God’s presence. Scorned by men. He made good company.
The humming changed to a drone, becoming more insistent. It began to sound like a human voice. Had a visitor come to the camp? Perhaps a travelling priest had come to bring them food, and read them the Holy Scriptures. But not touch them. Never touch them. They were unclean.
Slowly he stood up and ambled down the hill. It was many shuffling steps to the well, and he took his pot with him, so as not to make the trip twice.
A young man was seated on the edge of the well, reading to the ragged lepers grouped around him. What was it the priest was reading? He paused to listen. Only something about John--a man named John who lived in the wilderness and ate insects. He was not interested in john.
Cautiously he picked his way around the others, making his way to the well. He had come the long, dusty way down to the well; he might as well fill his pot before making his way home again.
He noticed that the priest was reading about John baptizing, as he dipped his pot into the well. But he didn’t care about John. John had never touched a leper—he had never baptized an outcast.
“The next day John saw Jesus coming to him...”
He paused as he heard the name of Jesus. What would John do to Jesus? Would he baptize an outcast?
“...And John said, ‘Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.’”
There was a clatter and a slosh as the bucket full of water slipped from his hands and fell onto the edge of the rock well, shattering. He was aware of all the eyes looking at him. Uncomfortably aware.
The priest looked up. “Are you all right, old man?”
He didn’t notice the words. He didn’t notice that the young priest had called him an old man—the young priest who had probably lived longer than he had, but who could only see his oozing face and snowy hair.
“Read it again,” he croaked, his hands still frozen as if he held a jar.
The priest opened the book again and found his place. “The next day John saw Jesus coming to him,” he nodded as the priest glanced up to make sure that was the requested passage. “And John said ‘Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.’”
“Now read about the lepers!” His hands were shaking with eagerness, and he didn’t notice the sticky trickle making its way down his cheek.
The priest looked at him quizzically. “The—lepers?”
“The law for cleansing lepers!” He had heard it before. He had always asked to hear about the lepers—the outcasts.
The priest gave him a curious look and turned toward the front of the book. Slowly he began reading the law for the cleansing of a healed leper.
He waited impatiently for the priest to move on. Wouldn’t the words he wanted to hear come next?
“’And if he is poor, and his means are insufficient, then he is to take one male lamb as a guilt offering...he shall slaughter the lamb for the guilt offering...this is the law for him in whom there is an infection of leprosy, whose means are limited, for his cleansing.’”
“Now read that other again,” His voice was still hoarse as he moved closer to the young priest.
The priest thumbed through the pages and quietly read, “‘behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!’”
Without thinking, he laid his hand eagerly on the young priest’s arm. The priest recoiled.
“Jesus touched me,” he croaked, removing his hand and bowing his head in shame.
“You are right, friend,” the gentle voice returned. “Forgive me. Where now?” And the priest’s hand squeezed his shoulder.
“Read when Jesus healed the leper.”
And he listened.
“’And behold, a leper came to Him, and bowed down to Him, saying, “Lord, if you are willing, You can make me clean.” And He stretched out His hand and touched Him saying, “I am willing, be cleansed.” And immediately the leprosy was cleansed.’”
He got up slowly. “Thank you,” he mumbled and hobbled away. Away to his own space of ground were he could think, and where he could look at his crucifix.
It seemed he had been sleeping forever when he saw a figure coming toward him, and he heard a voice day “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.”
“He who believes in Me, even though he dies, He shall live forever, and I will raise him up on the last day.”
He remembered how he had hoped to be raised to life—hoped to be healed.
“Lord,” he said, “If You are willing, You can make me clean!”
“I am willing,” Jesus reached out, he wrapped his arm around him, then slowly let go. “Be clean.” A trickle of blood flowed from His pierced hands, and down the leper’s fingers.
He awoke. A trickle of blood was running down his fingers. His hand had clutched his knife in his sleep, and he had not felt when it cut through his flesh.
It was daylight now. The other lepers were stirring.
He tore a strip from his clothing and bound it around his finger. Then he plodded down the hill to the well to bathe it.
As he dipped his sticky finger into the water of the well, he looked up at the large crucifix that had not bled to heal him, like the priest had said it might.
He could see the marks of the wounds carved in the flesh of Jesus. The blood had flown once to cleanse him. Jesus had become an outcast to make him clean—to take him in. He didn’t need to stay on the cross, suffering shame and slow death anymore.
Lovingly he fingered the crucifix around his neck. He withdrew it from under his shirt and took out his knife. Thoughtfully he set to work.
“What are you doing?” It was the young priest who had seen him sitting on the edge of the well, his shaggy white head bent over his work.
Carefully he brushed the wooden shavings from his lap and held the image up so he could survey it.
“What have you done?” The priest gasped in horror, reaching for the small, now-empty cross.
But he clutched it to his heart, away from the priest’s grasping hand. Calmly he shook his head as he retied the string around his neck.
The priest seemed bewildered. “What have you done to the holy image?” He demanded, taking a step backward.
The leper turned to face him with large, mournful eyes, wiped his knife on a fold of his clothing and put it away. Then he pointed to the large crucifix hanging nearby and shook his head.