In ancient times, leprosy was considered both a punishment for sin and a divine curse. Known as “tzaraath” by the Israelites, the details of the disfigurative conditions to the skin, facial hair, and head are also used to describe clothing made of linen or wool, and stones used to make dwellings in the land of Israel. All of which are illustrated in grave detail in Leviticus chapters 13-14. Fortunately, today we know that leprosy is a bacterial infection transferred by nasal droplets and not (as with a lot of things referred to in Leviticus), in fact, a punishment for sin, and is easily treated and cured.
Leprosy was referred to as the “living death” since victims were treated as if they already died. Funerals were even performed for these “walking dead” so that family members could claim their inheritance and often leave lepers to suffer alone on the streets until they succumbed to their painful symptoms. King Abgar of Edessa (now southeast Turkey) was no exception. Suffering from the severe lesions, pain, and nerve damage of advanced leprosy, Abgar felt hopeless as he lay on his death bed while his kingdom awaited the inevitable and ultimate demise of their king.
Abgar heard of the holy healing powers of Jesus Christ and sent an artist to seek out his only hope left in the world. Believing that an image of Jesus would be enough to cure his disease, the artist found Jesus surrounded by his disciples and a crowd of people but couldn’t get close enough to paint his portrait for the ailing King.
This is where the story goes in two different directions; One story says that King Abgar corresponded with Jesus in advance, telling the Savior of his anguish and wish to be healed, and Jesus’ response of “when I am raised, I will send one of my disciples to you for healing.” The other story states that while the artist sent on the King’s behalf couldn’t get close enough to paint a portrait, Jesus washed his face in a cloth, leaving an impression of his features and sent it to Abgar. But whichever direction the story takes you, the result is the same: Jude (aka Thaddeus) was chosen as the apostle to bring the image of Christ to the leper King (whether before or after Jesus’ death) and upon his gaze, was immediately and permanently healed from leprosy, converted to Christianity, and subsequently encouraged his kingdom to do the same. Many people believe that the cloth described in the story of King Abgar is the famous shroud of Jesus on display in Turin, Italy. This story is also the reason why Jude’s icons depict what’s called a “mandylion,” or an image/impression of Jesus’ face around his neck or on a cloth in his hand.
Another less commonly known story of Jude involves an elderly grain farmer, an ear of corn, and traveling with Peter through Syria. The story goes that Peter and Jude were journeying through Syria when Jude expressed his concern to Peter over the outcome of their trip. As they approached a field with an elderly grain farmer plowing his land, Peter said that if they came to the farmer and asked for food and the farmer fed them, then it was a good omen, but if the farmer claimed to be without food, then it was a bad omen. They went to the farmer who was happy to oblige, but did not have any food with him in the field, so he asked if Peter and Jude would be willing to stay with his rented oxen while he went back home to gather food. They stayed with the oxen and feeling guilty about their plan to display God’s will using an innocent old farmer, Peter decided they should continue plowing the field so the farmer didn’t lose any precious time on their account. Because Peter was advanced in age and considered the head of the mission, Jude stepped in and finished plowing. When the farmer returned, he was flabbergasted to see that not only had Jude tended the rest of his field, but the seeds of grain had fully sprouted, and ears of corn were ready to be picked well in advance of their harvest season at least six months away.
The name “Jude” means giver of joy, and his other known name “Thaddeus” means generous and kind. He is brethren of Jesus, a cousin. His brother was St. James. His mother, also named Mary, was a cousin of Mother Mary and also another woman at Jesus’ feet on the cross. He died a martyr in 65 AD in Beirut with Simon the Zealot by way of axe or club, which is why he is usually depicted with a wooden staff representative of the handle of a weapon. He is often shown with a flame above his head to represent his presence at Pentecost when he received the Holy Spirit with the other apostles.
You can write a letter asking for St. Jude’s intercession and send it to the Our Lady of Guadalupe Church/National Shrine of St. Jude in Chicago, IL where a ministry of people answer each and every letter. There is even a reliquary there believed to contain a fragment of bone from Jude himself. The International Shrine of St. Jude is located at the Our Lady of Guadalupe Church on Rampart Street in downtown New Orleans and is the oldest extant church in the city. I highly recommend a visit to their gift shop and St. Jude’s statue and prayer room next to the altar.
Jude made it his mission to “protect rather than punish” and I believe his life is a perfect example of that. There is a reason he is the patron saint of lost causes and desperate situations; he rose to the occasion. With the power of God, Jude brought healing to a suffering King, the miracle of harvest to an elderly farmer, and ultimate kindness to an ancient era ripe with fear, violence, oppression, and death. I pray that Jude brings all of us peace and hope in our times of struggle and fear. May his kindness and joy be present in all of us as we continue on this life’s journey.