6th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)
We are in the midst of flu season, and according to most news sources, it is a bad one. So when someone comes down with a fever, or even just a runny nose, we naturally avoid that person. We don’t want to catch whatever illness they have. And most people are considerate enough to isolate themselves from greater society while they are sick. They stay home from school and work. The Church even tells us that it’s OK to miss Mass on Sunday if you are sick.
So even though most of us have never encountered leprosy in 21st century America, we understand why the Jewish people had among their laws in Leviticus this proscription that lepers had to live apart from the rest of the community. It makes sense. Quarantining those who are ill keeps the illness from spreading. The downside, though, is that the sick not only suffer from their illness, but also from isolation.
Leprosy of the Soul
So when the leper is healed by Jesus in this Sunday’s gospel, he regains not only his physical health, but also his place as a member of the community. While the latter may seem less miraculous to us, it is in fact of greater significance. After all, Jesus did not come to save us from leprosy, the flu, or any other physical ailment. If that were the case, Jesus would be a failure. Think about this: everyone Jesus healed eventually died. Every eye that Jesus opened eventually went blind again. Every mute tongue Christ gave voice to eventually went silent. All the flesh Jesus cleansed of leprosy eventually decayed. And even though Jesus healed great multitudes of people, they were only a small percentage of the world’s infirm. If Jesus came to heal our bodies, then despite all His miracles He was a failure.
But Jesus did not come to save us from disease. Jesus came to save us from sin. Sin, like leprosy, isolates us. It separates us from God and from the God’s people, the Church. By saving us from sin, Jesus restores us to communion. The healing miracles Jesus performs are a visible sign of that invisible reality. They are like the sacraments in that regard. We see this most plainly in another part of the gospel when people bring a paralyzed man to Jesus. Our Lord sees him and says, “Courage, child, your sins are forgiven.” The people get offended. They accuse Jesus of blasphemy, because only God can forgive sins. So to demonstrate that He could indeed forgive sins, Jesus heals the man’s legs (Mt 9:1-8). The physical healing was an outward sign of the greater spiritual healing.
Let’s look at what Christ’s healing of the leper has to teach us about reconciliation. Jesus healed the leper of his illness, and from that point on he was objectively clean. Yet Jesus still instructs him, “Go, show yourself to the priest and offer for your cleansing what Moses prescribed” (Mk 1:44). Why? The leper was healed, wasn’t he? What more needed to be done? The leper still needed to be reunited with the community. This was achieved by means of a ritual.
Our Need for Ritual
We need ritual. It satisfies some deep need within us to mark important moments in our lives. If ritual is not supplied by our religious observance, we will make it up on our own. In our largely post-Christian culture, people still feel the need to mark marriage, birth and death with some sort of ceremony. Fraternities and Sororities have their rites of initiation. Universities have their graduation rites. Ritual is all around us. Our lives seem empty without it.
Wiser people than I have pondered this innate human need for ritual. We are beings of both spirit and flesh, and so we need to celebrate spiritual realities in ways we can see, hear, touch and taste. This is why our rituals include things like water and wine, incense and bells, music and physical gestures. This is the function of the sacraments — to convey God’s spiritual grace to us in ways we can recognize through our senses.
Show Yourself to the Priest
When we have been separated from God and the community by our sin, we have a human need to be reconciled to God and the community through a ritual. God knows we need this, which is why He commands it. (The sacraments, after all, are for our benefit, not God’s). And who represents both God and the community but the priest?
We must understand that it is not the priest who forgives sins, but God. The priest acts as His agent and minister. The gospel gives us a good parallel. Jesus is the one who healed the leper, but the priest declared him clean, ritually receiving him back into the community. The priest is an ordained minister of the Church and thus has the authority to reconcile penitents with the Church. As someone ordained to act in persona Christi (in the person of Christ) he also has the authority to serve as conduit of God’s forgiveness.
Why the need for this conduit? Why the need to confess our sins out loud? The Catechism speaks of this:
The confession (or disclosure) of sins, even from a simply human point of view, frees us and facilitates our reconciliation with others. Through such an admission man looks squarely at the sins he is guilty of, takes responsibility for them, and thereby opens himself again to God and to the communion of the Church in order to make a new future possible (CCC 1455).
In other words, it is very easy for us to fool ourselves into thinking we are sorry for our sins if we don’t have to actually do anything about it. We may know in our heart we’ve done wrong. We may even feel sincere remorse. But can there be true repentance without the willingness to admit fault and accept responsibility?
Just like the leper cries out “Unclean, unclean!” and the psalmist says, “I confess my faults to the Lord,” we find freedom and healing in the verbal admission of our sins. Giving voice to our transgressions is our human way of admitting responsibility and accepting the consequences, which are necessary aspects of repentance.
We have a human need to confess our sins. We also have a human need to receive forgiveness. Confessing our sins aloud to a priest makes it possible for us to then hear Christ’s words of reconciliation spoken aloud through His sacred minister. No words bring peace to the heart of the penitent more than these words spoken by the priest in the confessional:
God, the Father of mercies,
through the death and the resurrection of his Son
has reconciled the world to himself
and sent the Holy Spirit among us
for the forgiveness of sins;
through the ministry of the Church
may God give you pardon and peace,
and I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
A Time for Repentance
Lent is fast approaching. Next Wednesday is Ash Wednesday, the start of the Lenten season. It is a season of penance, during which Christians have traditionally taken on additional prayer, fasting and acts of charity in preparation for Easter. It is also a time when many engage in a deeper soul-searching, examining their consciences and repenting of their sins. Many Catholics go to confession during Lent, which is fitting. If you’ve been away from the practice of Confession for a while, the penitential season of Lent is a good time to return.
But remember: God’s forgiveness knows no season. The best time for repentance is now. Any time you fall into sin is the time to repent, receive God’s mercy, and then do what Jesus says in the gospel: “Go, show yourself to the priest and offer for your cleansing what he prescribes.”