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In today’s gospel from Mark 1:40-45, we find a leper kneeling before Jesus pleading, “If you wish, you can make me clean.” Jesus stretches out His hand to touch the man and says to him, “I do will it. Be made clean.” The gospel tells us that “the leprosy left him immediately, and he was made clean.”
Why all this talk of cleanliness? After all, if you or I were suffering from a horrible disease we would say, “please heal me,” or “make me well.” We would not ask to be cleaned. If we want to be clean, we take a shower, we don’t call a doctor.
It is telling that the Church pairs this gospel with a reading from Leviticus. In this reading the Lord tells Moses and Aaron (head of the priestly caste) that if someone has leprosy he should be brought to a priest and “the priest shall declare him unclean” (Lv 13:2). And, “As long as the sore is on him he shall declare himself unclean, since he is in fact unclean. He shall dwell apart, making his abode outside the camp” (Lv 13:46).
We may read this and think this was simply a way of preventing the spread of contagious disease by removing an infected person from the community. And it partly was that. But more importantly, an unclean person was cut off from the Temple, and thus from the ability to give worship to God in the way that the Mosaic law mandated. This is why it was the purview of the priest to declare a person unclean, as it had to do more with ritual purification than with health or hygiene.
The leper was cut off from his people, but even more importantly, he was cut off from his God. This is why the leper in today’s gospel is on his knees before Christ saying, “If you wish, you can make me clean.” His desire is for more than healing; it is for the reconciliation that his healing will bring about. And so, after Jesus makes the man clean, He tells him, “Go, show yourself to the priest and offer for your cleansing what Moses prescribed.” Now cleansed, the man could again offer ritual worship. Jesus was reconciling the man to the religious community, and through the community to God.
Those of you at Mass last Sunday heard Father say in his homily that all of Jesus’ healing miracles come with “an expiration date.” This is true. Everyone whom Jesus healed eventually died. The eyes of the blind man cured by Christ years later ceased to see. Lazarus, raised by Christ from the dead, died a second time. The healing miracles of Christ are but signs of the greater miracle Christ performs, which is the forgiveness of our sins, the cleansing of our hearts, and our reconciliation to the Father. This miraculous healing has no expiration date. To borrow another phrase from the marketplace, “the offer is still valid.” Christ has left with the Church this “ministry of reconciliation” (2 Cor 5:18).
We suffer from spiritual leprosy. Sin is a disease of the heart, a malady of love. Like the leper, we long to be made clean. We today can still kneel before the Lord and say, “If you wish, you can make me clean.” We can hear Christ’s voice spoken to us, “I do will it. Be made clean.” We can go to the priest, just as Christ commanded the leper to do, and offer the cleansing prescribed. That is, we can make a good confession and receive the absolution of Christ through the sacrament. By the grace God offers through this sacrament, we will be reconciled to the religious community, the Church. And more importantly, through the Church, by the cleansing power of Christ, we will be reconciled to the Father. We will be made clean.