[HOMILY] Lent: A Time to be Made Clean
Leprosy was one of the great and terrible mysteries of the ancient world. Anyone who caught the horrible contagion- or anything that remotely resembled it- was immediately exiled. As the reading from Leviticus tells us:
The one who bears the sore of leprosy shall keep his garments rent and his head bare and shall muffle his beard; he shall cry out, “Unclean, unclean!” 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.
How horrifying to lose your family, your livelihood, your life in one terrible moment, and to spend your days at a distance, in a lonely community of exiled people. Yet it could not be any other way. Leprosy is contagious, and in the ancient world they thought it was contagious through physical contact, so the precaution seemed totally necessary.
Most folks assumed there was some sin the leper must have committed, and the disease was his punishment for this sin- why else would God put them through this? It takes us back to last week to Job’s lament. His friends begged him to repent of whatever sin he committed to have deserved God’s punishment.
Our gospel today presents us with something new. This is a leper who has not lost hope. A leper who has great faith in God’s mercy and boldly abandons himself to God’s providence- so much so that he is willing to break the law. As we see in our first reading today from Leviticus, approaching Jesus was a serious break from the law of Moses.
Yet something in Jesus assures him he is safe, gives him the confidence to approach him. And in the conversation between Jesus and the leper we see exactly the disposition before God that we ought to be seeking in our own lives. The leper says to Jesus, “If you wish, you can make me clean.”
When we face great suffering, or addiction, or habitual sin in our lives, how do we approach God? First do we believe he can heal us? Are we truly confident in the transforming grace of God, or do we approach life with the hope that our current state probably as far as we will get, hoping at least nothing will get worse?
This fatalist attitude is certainly not the approach of the leper. He is utterly confident God can heal him, yet confident that even if he is not healed, God’s providence is still at work. What great faith! It calls to mind the great Principle and Foundation of the Jesuits, part of which reads:
“For [it] it is necessary to make ourselves indifferent to all created things as much as we are able, so that we do not necessarily want health rather than sickness, riches rather than poverty, honor rather than dishonor, a long rather than a short life, and so in all the rest, so that we ultimately desire and choose only what is most conducive for us to the end for which God created us.”
Both the Leper’s petition and the Jesuit Principle have at their core the one thing that matters- that is seeking to know, love and serve God. Perhaps the mission Christ has for the leper is best lived out with leprosy- so be it. When we abandon ourselves to God’s will, our joy is no longer rooted in the world, it is rooted in God, freeing us to find joy amidst any circumstance.
All the same, seeing this great act of faith, “Jesus is moved with pity, stretches out his hand, touched him” and in doing this says, “I do will it, be made clean.” A great Trappist commentator points out that Jesus words “be made clean,” are in the passive imperative, a very odd way to give a command. Yet this command calls to mind another command in that same form, “Let there be light.” So, Jesus, the word through whom God created the universe from nothing, recreates this leper through his word. And is this not the whole reason Jesus came among us? He comes to recreate us, to restore us, to make us clean.
Something the Church has taught unceasingly throughout the ages is the call to holiness. God does not merely justify us, he does not settle for dragging us to heaven despite our fallenness, instead he calls us to perfection, to be transformed in grace. So, as Ash Wednesday sits just three days away- we need to examine ourselves. We see continually in the scriptures that physical healing is always secondary for Jesus. What is most important is our spiritual healing. So, we ask ourselves: What are my addictions? What are my sins? Where do I need the Lord most? If you don’t know yourself well enough to call those things to mind now, that is your assignment this Monday and Tuesday (And Ash Wednesday when you read this).
Why would I assign such a downer of a task- should we not focus on the positive? The greatest athletes, the greatest musicians, the greatest artists, were not great because they worked the hardest, or the longest hours, but because worked smart. A greatest violinist of the early 20th century, Jascha Heifetz, only practiced four hours a day. Yet those four hours most were brutal, tedious work focusing in on his weakest areas.
We must do the same in the spiritual life. This lent, let your penance be specific to that place you struggle most- if you are prideful, assign yourself menial, humiliating tasks. If you struggle eating too much, fast. If you are addicted to the tv or social media, put the tv in the storage room or switch to a dumb phone for lent.
St. Bernard of Clairvaux tells us that “Continual effort toward perfection is reputed as perfection.” God is a good father, he will give us what we desire- so let us desire him!
Finally, let us take one last look at the gospel. At the end of this story, we see Jesus, “remained outside in deserted places, and people kept coming to him from everywhere.” The leper begins the gospel exiled, set apart in a deserted place. Jesus restores him, heals him, and sends him into the city. Then Jesus takes upon himself that lepers exiled status, identifying himself with the exiled, the lonely, the suffering. In our lives as Christians, we are also called to go out to the desert to suffer with those who have no hope- yet we never do it alone, for Christ is with us always.
Be courageous this lent, enter the desert with Christ. If you do, you will find yourself transformed.