Just reading that first reading from Leviticus, here in the year 2021 it has a different feel than ever before. We heard spelled out for us a mandate from scripture of how people were quarantined because of an illness. That if people were found to have contracted this disease they were not just deemed “unclean” they had to announce that publicly to others in order to protect them from this infection.
Thanks so much for stopping by to read this, my homily for the 6th SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – February 14, 2021, for sharing it on your social media posts and your feedback and comments! For the audio version you can get them at SOUNDCLOUD click HERE or from ITUNES as a podcast HERE. Thanks again… I hope you and yours experience all of God’s blessings today and always! In Christ – Father Jim
After nearly a year where our life has been upended by a virus, with so many unprecedented experiences and fearful headlines and imagery – where so many of us, or people we know had experienced being quarantined because of exposure to COVID or having it ourselves, it’s hard to read that scripture the same way. In the past, it seemed like a relic of ancient history and yet now it seemed very relatable. Back in October, me and our missionaries at the Newman Center because of exposure to someone with the virus had to not only quarantine – but then had to share that news – just so people could get tested themselves and to explain why all of our Masses and activities were suddenly shifted to completely online. What was jarring was you could see it even on a zoom call, people looked at you differently even from the safety of their remote screens. While thankfully, not everyone caught the virus, and those who did recover much faster than I did with my somewhat regularly occurring sinus-infection – the entire experience really was heart-wrenching. We understood the precautions – and the need to be vigilant – but it was hard not to feel the loneliness and isolation, even with our modern conveniences of being able to communicate through cameras and live streams. It’s hard to even imagine how much worse it was for our ancestors, contracting leprosy which was far deadlier without any such tools – and feeling completely abandoned. Even worse, these men and women were convinced that this was the result of some moral failure, some sin that they committed and that was why they were sick.
Which is what makes this Gospel passage all the more powerful. A leper breaks out of his colony of fellow infirmed people. He has heard about Jesus. He has faith, he believes that if he can just get to Jesus, he will find healing. Even more telling, we hear how leprosy hasn’t just caused physical illness, but it has afflicted his heart and soul – notice what he says you can make me clean. It’s not just to be made well, it’s not just healing of a disease that is needed. He’s accepted that he’s an outcast, removed and isolated – He’s accepted that label – unclean into his innermost being.
Everything Jesus does has a purpose. In the Gospel of John, we learn how Jesus has the ability to heal people at great distances away – like when a royal official travels 20 miles to beg for the healing of his son, and Jesus tells him he can return and that he has been healed. Jesus is able to heal without even his having to say a word and seemingly unaware that it was happening – as we hear in Matthew, Mark, and Luke’s Gospels as the woman suffering from hemorrhages for 12 years demonstrated: Jesus, is surrounded by crowds all pressing in on him… she simply grabs his cloak believing that will result in the healing she’s longed for years – and it happens.
So now with today’s Gospel scene, we start to appreciate how the drama is already raising for this Jewish audience. This leper comes out of nowhere – which already would have freaked them out. St. Mark notes that Jesus doesn’t speak to him from a distance… he stretches out his hand (without gloves or a mask or hand sanitizer) and touched him. Jesus knows the importance of this physical contact, what that meant on a spiritual and emotional level to someone who had been in complete isolation for so long. But technically not only would risk Jesus’ physical health but now according to Jewish law, He was unclean. Before any of those concerns could take hold for the witnesses to this scene, Mark tells us, immediately he was made clean. No one experienced a cure from leprosy like that. Well, few if any even experienced a cure, never immediately.
This will cause a stir, which is why Jesus tells him not to tell anyone what happened – which he quickly disobeys. Jesus tells him not to share that because there are some who would only look to Jesus to cure their leprosy – but weren’t really interested in anything else that Jesus had to offer. Which is understandable. When someone is sick, they want to be made better. They want to return to their life before. But Jesus isn’t looking to be simply a miracle worker to help people return to the comfort of their existence before the illness. He desires so much more for us…
This particular leper came not because he knew a guy who knew a guy who could fix him up. What brings a leper to a Jewish carpenter turned preacher? Faith, Hope, Love in Jesus. He kneels before him and bears his soul and wants to be made clean. This was more than just leprosy – this was about a change of life for him. I don’t think the leper deliberately meant to be disobedient to Jesus’ warnings not to tell people what happened. When you’ve experienced something life-changing, it’s hard to keep that to yourself. He was changed body, mind, soul, by this encounter. Maybe he went back to his fellow lepers unafraid of contracting the disease to share his good news with them, to give them hope as well. No doubt he reconnected with family and friends who he hadn’t seen in years. And the joy was more than just “I’m not sick anymore” – It was the entire encounter: the life-changing, miraculous, compassion unlike he had ever experienced. Which was that Jesus knew him… this man who remains anonymous to us. Jesus saw the depth of isolation and pain. Jesus heard the despair, the fear. Jesus reads the heart of faith, hope, and love that carries the seemingly unimaginable vision – you can make me clean. Jesus reveals to him an intimately close God who desires to enter into all of that. This is why he does what he does… he embraces him and tells him not that the leprosy is gone, but that he has in fact been made clean.
What is of great urgency is that all of this remains true to us here and now, here almost a year into this pandemic. Jesus knows you. Jesus sees the depths of isolation and pains that you are experiencing right now. Jesus hears the despair and fear that is plaguing you. Jesus knows in your heart – that there resides faith, hope and love in Him that desires His healing touch to make you clean.
Which is what can make this gospel dangerous or easily misunderstood. When I’ve advocated people recognize the importance of faith over fear, this last year, some have misheard it (or deliberately misrepresented that) to deny science or as a call to resist different policies or protocols that were being mandated. I will admit that I may have been frustrated with some inconsistencies and confusion, but I never would advocate ignoring the advice or mandates and saying just believe Jesus is going to protect you from COVID or others from getting it. But unfortunately, too many people have gone too far in the extreme on the other end of the spectrum. Where they feel more comfortable going to Home Depot or Shop Rite than to Mass. Where they have bought into the lie that since the obligation to attend Mass was lifted, that somehow that makes what we’re doing here irrelevant or non-essential. Where they have more faith in fellow imperfect human beings than in the God-incarnate Jesus Christ.
A friend of mine a year ago wrote these words that have haunted me since and caused much reflection. She said: It’s the plan of the devil to stop Mass and to eradicate human touch, hugging, kissing, and all forms of love and affection. The touch and kiss of Christ live in the Baptized. Who wants to isolate and deny the food and touch of Christ? The evil one. She said that at the very start of the lockdowns and cancellations and closings of everything last March and I can’t help but think that she’s been proven correct in more ways than I ever imagined.
Again, I’m not saying that to encourage people to be reckless or to put themselves at risk, especially if they want or need to take the highest of precautions. That’s a personal thing that people need to logically and rationally judge for themselves. But one of the things that have sickened me is seeing the despair, the depression, the fear that is gripping so many people or hearing people saying “I don’t want to get my hopes up.” Brothers and Sisters – that’s exactly what we’re supposed to do. We’re supposed to get our hopes up and raise other people’s hopes that Christ has come to save us. Not just from a viral pandemic that we had never heard about a year ago – but from sin and death which we all know all too well, and is still running amuck… will be around after COVID is a part of history and again, not denying science but I know is far deadlier than this pandemic.
This week, the Church begins our annual retreat, as we enter into the season of Lent. Someone asked the other day if Lent is canceled – no… it’s not… If anything we need it more than ever. Sure it’s going to look a little bit different. We won’t have crosses traced on our foreheads but ashes sprinkled on the tops of our heads. Yes, we will still have capacity limits and safety precautions. But the fact is, most churches have been far below hitting any of those capacities. And even if someone doesn’t feel ready to come in person, there are still countless opportunities online for people to join in virtually.
Aside from that, there’s no reason the three pillars of Lent need to be excused because of a pandemic. We’re asked to Fast, Pray, and give alms. Let’s try to up our game this Lent and be even more serious and intentional about that. Fasting from food is a powerful experience that is meant to help unite body, mind, and soul in prayer. The Church only asks that we limit our food intake to one full meal on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday and refrain from eating meat on Fridays – which honestly is a pretty low bar that should be easy for us to meet. But what else could we fast from? Maybe the news. Maybe social media. Maybe from Netflix or Hulu… Maybe it’s Starbucks or something. What is a small sacrifice that we can make for the Lord, where we remove something that is part of our routine, something we’re used to or are comfortable with and just make ourselves a little uncomfortable – reminding ourselves every time that annoys us, Jesus suffered far more for me than this momentary slight discomfort. And not complaining about it, but using that as an opportunity to ask Jesus to come closer to me.
For Prayer – it’s great that we’re here for Sunday Mass – who can you adopt to pray for? Who is someone who hasn’t been coming maybe since the pandemic started – maybe never did even before that – that you want to pray for this Lent. Maybe even to pray for the courage to invite them to come with you (socially distanced and with our masks on of course).
And almsgiving – for those of us who are not suffering financial distress, how can we make a financial sacrifice or gift to someone or someplace that is helping others. We can easily get lost whenever we hear people talking about financial needs and giving from the pulpit – and for good reason – I know we’ve experienced people who have taken advantage of our goodness and generosity – all of us have. But you know what – they’re going to have to answer to Jesus on that. There are still good people in the Church – there are good people here who are doing good things in Jesus’ name that are worthy of our support. And there are good people who are doing good things in Jesus’ name outside of here that are worthy of our support. Lent is a good opportunity for us to make sacrificial offerings to support that work. And is another spiritual practice the Lord invites us to renew ourselves in as we begin Lent.
These are just some ways that we can do something. Because we need to do something. We need to be inspired by this anonymous leper. He demonstrates the importance of moving out of the fog of sickness, of isolation, and recognizing that deep desire within each of us to encounter Jesus Christ – that longs for healing, that wants renewal, that needs to be made clean. As we follow his courageous faith-filled example, we find Jesus is waiting for each of us and says to us “I do will it.”