February 14, 2021 – Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Readings: Leviticus 13:1-2, 44-46 / 1 Corinthians 10:31-11:1 / Mark 1:40-45
The following homily will be delivered at St. Pius X Parish in Indianapolis today:
The disease of leprosy is front and center in both our Old Testament reading and our gospel today. In Leviticus, we heard: If the man is leprous and unclean, the priest shall declare him unclean…He shall dwell apart and shall cry out, “Unclean, unclean!”
Mark’s gospel detailed an encounter between Jesus and a leper: A leper came to Jesus and kneeling down begged him and said, “If you wish, you can make me clean.” Moved with pity, he stretched out his hand, touched him, and said to him, “I do will it. Be made clean.”
I was at a Mass at an out-of-town conference a few years back and the priest began his homily by saying, “When we start hearing leper stories, we know Lent is coming soon.”
While that statement is a bit simplistic, there is an element of truth to it. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say, “When we start hearing healing stories, we know Lent is coming soon.”
In last Sunday’s gospel, Simon Peter’s mother-in-law was cured of a fever and many townspeople who were afflicted with various diseases were also healed. The Sunday before that, Jesus healed a man possessed by an unclean spirit. In addition, if you follow the daily readings, you may have noticed there were acts of healing by Jesus highlighted six times over the past two weeks.
“When we start hearing healing stories, we know Lent is coming soon.”
The question is, what is the connection? Why is the focus on healing before and during Lent?
Unlike our Old Testament brothers and sisters, we don’t wear sackcloth and beat our breasts as we sit in ashes, but we do tend to adopt a somber attitude during Lent. We hear, “Repent!” and are reminded of our sinfulness so many times that it is difficult to look toward Easter with joyful anticipation.
However, I think if we embrace the healing, we can do just that.
The healing of the leper is a beautiful gospel story. We are all lepers in one way or another, so the fact that Jesus pitied the leper and healed him offers hope to all of us.
We may have trouble picturing ourselves as lepers because we don’t have the visible sores and scars associated with the physical symptoms of the disease.
Perhaps hearing about some of the psychological symptoms of leprosy will help:
There is a debilitating stigma that comes with the disease. If I am a leper, my mind constantly torments me: No one can possibility understand how I feel. I am alone. I can’t bear to look in the mirror; it is too disgusting, too ugly. My self-esteem is nonexistent. I may even decide that, in some way, I deserve this.
My disease is likely to get progressively worse as I am too ashamed to seek help. I am afraid to be seen in this condition.
As I said, we are all lepers in one way or another. The response to our own sinfulness can be just as debilitating and inflict very similar psychological heartache.
For most of us, the secretive nature of our sinfulness isolates us. We convince ourselves that we are alone in our sinfulness – no one else could possibly understand because no one else could possibly be as sinful as us. We are ashamed; our sinfulness highlights the fact that we are weak, out of control, undisciplined, immature, or self-centered. We hate what we see looking back at us from the mirror. We may not be required to call out, “Unclean! Unclean!” as people approach us, but we feel unclean. We may even feel unsalvageable.
Our shame will not allow us to confide in others, even in the people that love us. What if they reject us? It is too risky; it leaves us vulnerable.
All this considered, it is no surprise that we often view Lent as a less than joyful time in the liturgical year. So much of our attention is focused on our sinfulness and the need for repentance. Guilt and shame are intensified. There is an inherent harshness to the season.
However, I would suggest that we consider this perspective: Lent is not about our personal torment, but rather serves as a reminder of the healing that is available to all of us. There is joy in the knowledge that we don’t need to wallow in our sinfulness and shame. As he did for the leper, Jesus desires to reach out and touch us – to make us clean once again. We ARE salvageable!
That is why the Sacrament of Reconciliation is more readily available during the Lenten season, and why we are offered repeated reminders about taking advantage of the opportunity to go to confession.
Reconciliation, along with Anointing of the Sick, are classified as Sacraments of Healing by the Church. A priest offering these sacraments acts in persona Christi, a Latin phrase meaning in the person of Christ.
Because of this, when we go to the confession, we receive the very same healing that Simon Peter’s mother-in-law, today’s leper, and countless others received directly from Jesus.
Undeniably, Lent can and does call us to look more closely at our sinfulness. However, recalling the merciful healing power of Jesus plants seeds of hope; it assures us that we are worthy of forgiveness and it is readily available.
It is this process of cleansing that opens our hearts to the joy of Easter, when we will emerge from the tomb hand-in-hand with Jesus, the sores and scars of leprosy gone, clean once more.
Remember the joy expressed by the leper in today’s gospel. Once healed, we are told: The man went away and began to publicize the whole matter. He spread the report abroad so that it was impossible for Jesus to enter a town openly.
Doesn’t that present a beautiful image of what could be? What if our own healing brought us so much joy that we could not contain ourselves? We would have an uncontrollable NEED to tell others, and in doing so, draw countless others to Jesus. That is, after all, our call as disciples – to open our hearts to an encounter with Jesus Christ, and to invite others to do the same.
We are all lepers in one way or another.
In the moment of silence that follows my words, I would ask that you reflect on these questions: What form does your leprosy take; what sinfulness causes you to feel unclean? Can you love yourself enough to seek forgiveness? Will you allow yourself to embrace the joy that comes with healing?