Sometimes when we read the Bible, passages can seem strange and harsh, and completely opposed to how we live nowadays. This morning’s first reading from Leviticus is one such example. It refers to how people with leprosy and other skin conditions are to be treated. They are forced to endure a living death, public humiliation and disgrace, to be excluded from society, cut off and shunned. This is made most clear in the final verse:
‘He is unclean. He shall live alone. His dwelling shall be outside the camp.’ (Lev 13:46)
This verse is interesting insofar as it is used by the author of the Letter to the Hebrews at the climax of the letter to describe Christ’s crucifixion and death:
‘So Jesus also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood. Therefore let us go to him outside the camp and bear the reproach he endured. For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come.’ (Heb 13:12-14)
The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews encourages us to follow Christ’s example and to become outcasts, unclean in terms of Jewish ritual purity, to share in Christ’s suffering and to be united with Him. Something shameful has now become glorious: a demonstration of God’s love and healing, where once there was condemnation there is now reconciliation. We learn by copying, and so St Paul writes at the end of this morning’s second reading:
‘Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ’ (1Cor 11:1)
Paul encourages the Corinthian church to imitate him, as he imitates Christ, so that they all might live out the love of God in their lives, for the glory of God, and to proclaim the truth of the Gospel to the world. This is our calling as Christians, to follow the same example and live out the same faith, to proclaim the same truth in our lives.
Our gospel reading this morning continues the accounts of miraculous healings which we have encountered over the past few weeks. This morning Jesus is met by a man suffering from leprosy, who begs to be healed. Given the purity code in our first reading this morning, we can understand why the leper longs to be healed, and restored to his place in the community. The leper kneels before Jesus, performing an act of submission, putting himself entirely at Jesus’ mercy, and says:
“If you will, you can make me clean.” (Mk 1:40)
Jesus is filled with emotion and touches him. Rather than simply saying, ‘Be healed’, or ‘Be clean’, Jesus stretches out His hand and touches the man with leprosy. In Jewish ritual terms Jesus makes Himself unclean. He breaks the rules. He does what no-one would do. Instead of casting the man out, or ignoring him, Jesus touches the man and heals him. Here we see God’s healing love in action, the proclamation of the Kingdom of God, is the proclamation of love and healing, to restore humanity. Then having broken the rules, Jesus says to the healed leper:
“See that you say nothing to anyone, but go, show yourself to the priest and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, for a proof to them.” (Mk 1:44)
Jesus tells the man to comply with the Law, to show himself to a priest. This is so that he can undergo a ritual bath, and be restored to his rightful place in society. It is also as a proof to the religious authorities that a miraculous healing has taken place. God is announcing His Kingdom and the fulfilment of messianic prophecy. God is healing His people.
Despite the fact that Jesus has told the man not to tell anyone other than the priest, the healed man does the exact opposite, and tells everyone he meets about what has happened. He has, after all, been miraculously healed, and experienced the wonderful reality of the Kingdom of God. So he feels he simply has to tell everyone he meets how wonderful God is, and what miraculous healing has taken place in his life. He cannot not tell people. It is just too wonderful, and he does proclaims the reality of the Kingdom of God to all and sundry. His life has changed, and he is filled with joy and gratitude. At one level this is a metaphor for the Christian life. Each and every one of us has been touched by Jesus, and so we can follow this man’s example and proclaim the wonders of the Kingdom in all that we do and all that we are.
The joyful proclamation of the Kingdom does, however, pose a practical difficulty – Jesus cannot go anywhere without being mobbed:
so that Jesus could no longer openly enter a town, but was out in desolate places, and people were coming to him from every quarter (Mk 1:45)
Clearly this makes life very difficult for Jesus. It speaks of the deep and widespread need for healing in Galilee. As it was there then, so it is here, now. We long for God to heal us, to take away our fears, and fill us with His love. At a practical level this is bound to be exhausting for Our Lord, so He goes out to desolate deserted places, in other words, the desert. Jesus goes to be alone with God, to rest and to pray. This reminds us that in the Church’s calendar we are about to enter the season of Lent. We prepare for Easter by going out into the desert with Jesus to be close to God, through prayer, fasting, and deeds of charity. We follow Jesus’ example, we imitate Him, so that we may draw closer to Him and experience His healing love. We go with Him, so that we can prepare to enter into the mystery of His Passion, Death, and Resurrection, so that we may rise with Him at Easter. To Him with God the Father, and God the Holy Spirit, be ascribed as is most right and just, all glory, might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now, and forever. Amen.