Servant of God John the Gardener (d. 1501)
John was born of poor parents in Portugal. Orphaned early in life, he spent some years begging from door to door. After finding work in Spain as a shepherd, he shared the little he earned with those even more needy than himself. One day two Franciscans encountered him on a journey. Engaging him in conversation, they took a liking to the simple man and invited him to come and work at their friary in Salamanca. He readily accepted and was assigned to the task of assisting the brother with gardening duties. A short time later John himself entered the Franciscan Order and lived a life of prayer and meditation, fasting constantly, spending the nights in prayer, still helping the poor. Because of his work in the garden and the flowers he produced for the altar, he became known as "the gardener." God favored John with the gift of prophecy and the ability to read hearts. Important persons, including princes, came to the humble, ever-obedient friar for advice. He was so loving towards all that he never wanted to take offense at anything. His advice was that to forgive offenses is an act of penance most pleasing to God. He predicted the day of his own death: January 11, 1501.
The Holy Gospel of Jesus Christ according to Saint Mark (1:40-45)
A man with leprosy came to him and begged Jesus on his knees, If you are willing, you can make me clean. Filled with compassion, Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. I am willing, he said. Be clean! Immediately the leprosy left him and he was cured. Jesus sent him away at once with a strong warning: See that you don't tell this to anyone. But go, show yourself to the priest and offer the sacrifices that Moses commanded for your cleansing, as a testimony to them. Instead he went out and began to talk freely, spreading the news. As a result, Jesus could no longer enter a town openly but stayed outside in lonely places. Yet the people still came to him from everywhere.
(Homily by. Fr. E. J. Tyler)
In a sense, the leper’s words to our Lord in today’s Gospel are iconic of all religion: "If you are willing, you can make me clean." There are any number of theories, faith-based and secular-based, which purport to determine the origins of religion. But what is plain is that in religion man has typically turned to the powers above for aid in gaining what he thinks he needs. Man is in a state of need, and he asks for help from the powers which, he believes, control the course of the world. So it is that he applies to the gods, and in particular to those whose powers extend to the area of need in question. Mars was the Roman god of war. It was not much use turning to Mars for matters concerned with love, fertility and beauty - for those needs, one had to have recourse to, say, Venus. Julius Caesar chose Venus for his protectress. The long and the short of it was that religion was always seen as necessary to get the help man needed, but an associated question was, who among the gods was actually willing to help? Many of the gods were busy with their own interests and not very concerned with man. So our leper today expresses a fundamental statement when it comes to religion: "If you are willing, you can make me clean" (Mark 1:40-45). Nothing else in the whole wide world offered any hope for the leper. No doctors could cure him. There was no hope except in the one true God of Israel. The leper had a tremendous blessing before him. It was Jesus Christ in whom God was manifestly present and working, and his words to Jesus express what we might call the weight of much of the religion of man. Our Lord’s reply reveals the consolation of true religion, that all things are in the hands of one only God, and he is able and willing to help. "I am willing, he said. Be clean! Immediately the leprosy left him and he was cured." This single scene validates the religion of petition. Man should strive to know God and apply to him where he is to be found. Then he should ask for what he needs. Our Lord elsewhere in the Gospels urges us to ask and we shall receive, to seek and we shall find.
While our Lord revealed in his person and ministry that God is both able and willing to answer man’s needs - look at the spontaneity and immediacy with which our Lord, once asked, heals the leper - nevertheless it is not a simple matter. Religion, including the religion of petition, is not magic. It is not like pressing a button with the door immediately opening. It is not like knowing a special religious formula, applying it, and having the course of the world change accordingly. Man in his prayer before God is speaking to God, not to a Force that is vaguely subject to other forces, as were the gods of the peoples. God is the infinite Lord of the world and his love is all-seeing. He knows what is truly best, and, paradoxically, a request to take away a certain affliction may not actually be the best. But more to the point, Christ has by his life and death transformed the meaning and possibilities of suffering and death. Let us make a comparison, beginning with our Gospel scene today. Compare the prayer of the leper to Christ with Christ’s own prayer to his heavenly Father in the Garden of Gethsemane, just before the commencement of his Passion. The leper’s prayer was, If you are willing (theles), you can take this affliction away from me. Christ’s prayer to his heavenly Father was, Father, you are willing (boulei), take this cup away from me - nevertheless, not my will (thelema) but yours be done. The Greek words are similar in meaning, and, with good reason, various English translations give the same English word - "willing." The point is that while our Lord immediately granted the leper his request because he was "willing," it was "the will" (thelema) of his heavenly Father that his divine Son suffer indescribably for the redemption of the world. Thus there is a certain sense in which, for a higher purpose, suffering can be allowed and even willed by God. He willed his Son to suffer, and the world was saved by that suffering. It was, though, a suffering that expressed obedience. Obedience was its form, its soul, its living centre. Suffering was the expression of obedience and became a blessing for the world as a result.
A priest arrives secretly in an anti-Christian country to minister to the underground Church, is captured and spends his entire life in a harsh concentration camp, finally dying in lonely obscurity. It has been his mission to suffer and die a forgotten martyr. His suffering was willed by God for a higher purpose. It was the seed of Christians. So it is with many disciples of Christ whose mission in life was to suffer in union with him. It was ordained that the Son of Man must suffer and so enter his glory. Because of Christ, suffering has become the royal road to victory and glory - provided it is borne with Christ in obedience to the will of God. Let us look on suffering - the fuel of religion - with the eyes of Christ, and if it is God’s will, suffer with him.