by William A. McLaughlin,
Murphy’s Law holds that anything that can go wrong will go wrong, and at the worst time possible. How awful for someone to wake up on the morning of a job interview, a graduation photo session, or a wedding to look in the mirror and find a large, unsightly pimple on their face that has erupted overnight. Skin cream and talcum powder cannot cover it up. That person faces unpleasant self-consciousness on an important day.
We can only imagine someone detecting the sore of leprosy and realizing with it comes a life sentence of suffering and rejection. Such was the curse of this disease that afflicted people from the ancient world to the community of Father Damien on Molokai.
Today’s first reading from Leviticus gives the formula from the Mosaic Law if someone in Israel should show signs of leprosy. It was ordered that the person present himself to the priest who was to examine him, judge whether he was leprous, and, if so, declare him unclean. The person would have to live outside the community of Israel, unfit to offer worship any longer. Such a judgment brought physical and psychological rejection – the destruction of self-image along with the deterioration of body. The physical stigma of the disease was compounded by the constant self-declaration to others that one was “unclean,” to be avoided by healthy society.
In today’s passage from the Gospel of St. Mark, we hear of an encounter between Jesus and just such an unfortunate. Here, though, the leper approaches Jesus rather than warn him of his presence and pull back. Their short dialogue says much. The leper offers the Lord an open-ended invitation, “If you wish, you can make me clean.” All of our prayers to the Lord for help should similarly respect God’s freedom to respond as He chooses. Jesus is moved by pity for the man, or, perhaps, by anger at how this disease has destroyed the life first given him by God. The Lord stretches out his healing hand and touches him, responding with the divine will, “Be made clean.”
In an instant, the leper is physically healed. Jesus instructs him to tell no one, but to present himself to the priest to validate his cure. This may be an effort by Jesus to preserve the messianic secret of His identity so as to prevent the sensation of His healings from getting in the way of His mission to proclaim the kingdom of God. Or, it simply may be His desire for the man to follow the dictate of the Mosaic Law with haste. Confirmation of the healing of his body will ensure his total healing by his readmission to the community of Israel. In an ironic twist, Jesus, the font of healing, now has to remain apart from society in a deserted place, not as an outcast but because of His growing reputation.
Today’s psalm gives us a sense of the joy that comes from the healing of our spiritual sore – our sin: “I turn to you, Lord, in time of trouble, and you fill me with the joy of salvation.” With confession of my sin and true repentance, my guilt is covered. It is as though my sin never existed. Even though I might wish to cover a bodily sore and so remove it from public sight, it still remains. But when God “covers” the fault of my sin, it is removed and I am healed. Sin is forgiven, and the spiritual sore is not apparent. I am no longer alienated from God nor from the community of the Church. My healing by God is complete, and I rejoice.
St. Paul echoes this sense of reconciliation when he reminds us in the second reading that as members of the Church, healed of our sin by Christ, we should live always by the Lord’s command of love. As Christians we are bound by the law of charity, to avoid the selfishness of sin that offends the other and wounds the Body of Christ. If we do sin, we should petition Jesus to forgive us and make us clean again. With His forgiveness, there is no need for cosmetics; our spiritual sore is gone. We are healed and free to imitate Christ.[divider] Readings for the Sixth Sunday of Ordinary Time:
Leviticus 13:1-2, 44-46
Psalm 32:1-2, 5, 11
1 Corinthians 10:31-11:1
Mark 1: 40-45[hr] Father William A. McLaughlin, administrator of St. Fidelis parish, College Point, is an adjunct professor of theology at St. John’s University, Jamaica, and teaches in the diocesan Pastoral Institute.