The other weekend, Annie and I went to see the new Star Wars movie. It’s the last of the series of movies that have been grouped into three trilogies, and this final trilogy follows the main character, Rey, in her discovery of her force powers, her calling as a Jedi, and how she saves the galaxy from evil—more or less. But a huge part of this otherwise massively heroic plotline is Rey’s search for her parents.
Now, I’ll skip over the specifics in case anyone hasn’t seen it yet and doesn’t want any spoilers, but the discovery of her identity—her lineage, her parents, who she is—has a major impact on her. Being able to name who she is, being able to define that identity, also helps shape who she’ll become, what her destiny will look like, how her actions are shaped. Identity, being able to name who we are, matters. And it matters more than just what you call yourself.
Five hundred years ago, when Martin Luther nailed the ninety-five theses to the church door in Wittenberg, there was a reason he picked October 31 to do so. In Luther’s day, the next morning would have seen the church absolutely packed with notable people coming in for All Saints Day mass. See, while today the big Christian days are Christmas and Easter, in Luther’s day it was Easter and All Saints Day. The world revolved around the annual celebration of the saints of the church.
Now, All Saints Day is still celebrated widely around the world with lots of various traditions attached to it. In Mexico it comes during the season of Dia de Muertos, and in French-speaking countries it’s celebrated as Toussaint. But the big thing that countries that celebrate All Saints Day have in common is that they are all largely Catholic countries. Protestants like us, we tend to shy away from talking about saints, because for a long time, that was seen as “too Catholic” to do.
While I was researching materials about this Sunday’s readings, I ended up going down a rabbit hole of what leprosy is. See, it gets mentioned several times in the Bible, notably in this week’s readings from Luke and from 2 Kings, but also in several other books of the Bible. I looked it up, and leprosy, which is called Hansen’s disease in medical terminology, is a bacterial disease that deadens nerve endings and deforms your fingers and toes by eating away the cartilage. Throughout history and across cultures, leprosy has been treated essentially the same way: by outcasting and isolating people with it.
Up until the late nineteenth century, there was even a leper colony in Hawaii established by the American government where otherwise healthy people were sent to live in isolation together. People in developing nations with the disease are regularly shunned and avoided. And in the Bible, the prescription from the book of Leviticus for the disease—and pretty much any skin disease resembling it—was ritual isolation, wearing your hair long and messy and your clothes tattered and ragged, and shouting “unclean” anywhere you went so people knew to avoid you.
All of this is made even more tragic by the fact that leprosy isn’t contagious 98% of the time. But these are the kind of people who encountered Jesus on the road to Jerusalem and asked him to have mercy on them.