SIXTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR B

Leviticus 13:1-2, 44-46
Psalm 31:1-2, 5,11
1 Corinthians 10:31-11:1
Mark 1:40-45

February 12, 2006

There is something disarming about today’s Gospel. It is an encounter between abject misery and boundless mercy, the coming together of one who has known the pain of rejection with One who offers the touch of acceptance and of healing. A passage takes place: an exodus out of isolation into communion. The leper journeys from brokenness to wholeness. He passes over from ugliness to beauty. If we are, in some way, able to identify with the leper, there is a word of life in today’s Gospel for us. If we are unable to identify with the leper, then the Gospel — I tremble to say it — has nothing to say to us.

If there is misery within us, something that makes us repulsive to ourselves and to others, the Gospel tells us that for every misery of ours there is a corresponding mercy of God. If we have known the pain of rejection, the Gospel tells us that the hand of Christ is outstretched in welcome, that Christ would draw us to himself, that Christ is not disgusted by our deformities, not repulsed by “the swellings, eruptions, and spots” (Lev 13:2) that disfigure us. He himself was “without form or comeliness that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him. Despised and rejected by men, he was a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief” (Is 53:2-3).

If we are frozen in the isolation of sin, the Gospel invites us to communion, to the embrace of welcome, to the exchange of love. If we are fragmented or wounded, if we are scarred or twisted from having sinned or from having been sinned against, the Gospel tells us that healing awaits us, divine healing with a human face. If the image of God in us has been distorted by sin, the Gospel tells us that the beauty that was ours on the day of our Baptism is recoverable, that likeness may be restored. The Gospel tells us that a face made radiant by the beauty of grace may yet emerge from the deforming shadows cast by sin.

If on the contrary, we find in ourselves nothing broken, nothing scarred, nothing ugly, nothing in need of healing, then today’s Gospel has little to offer us and even our prayers will not save us. Abba Moses said that, “if the monk does not think in his heart that he is a sinner, God will not hear him.” If there are no cracks in the armor of our perfection, if the coat of our virtues is so tightly woven as to defy all penetration from without, then how, I ask you, is divine grace to seep in and reach those secret places of our being most in need of healing? I love the story of Abba Bessarion who, when a brother who had sinned was turned out of the church by the priest, got up and went with him, saying, “I too have sinned.”

Saint Mark describes, step by step, our passage from rejection to acceptance, from isolation to communion, from brokenness to wholeness, from ugliness to beauty. “And a leper came to Jesus” (Mk 1:40). To come to Jesus is the first step, and even this is a pure gift of God. “No one can come to me unless he is drawn by the Father who sent me” (Jn 6:44). The Father draws us to the Son by the secret action of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit exerts a gentle pressure upon us, leaving us completely free to choose and, at the same time, making the approach to Jesus easy, attractive, and sweet.

This is something that many of us have experienced at one time or another: the indescribable pull of grace towards Christ. Some are magnetized by the presence of Christ in the mystery of the Eucharist, others by his presence in the Scriptures, still others by his sorrowful and glorious Face hidden in the sick, the afflicted, the lonely, and the dying. In every case, the first step is itself a gift and an effect of the Holy Spirit already at work within us.

Saint Mark tells us that the leper pleaded with Jesus, and fell to his knees (cf. Mk 1:40). Always, authentic prayer has about it an urgent quality. In fact, urgency is characteristic of the prayer that wells up from deep within. The Fathers tells us that true prayer is akin to groanings, to sighs, and to tears. There is nothing studied about it, nothing routine. It is vehement and compelling. True prayer spurts out of the soul like blood from a wound.

And the leper, “kneeling said to him” (Mk 1:40). To kneel is an expression of creatureliness before the Creator. One who kneels confesses a radical dependence on the One before whom he kneels. This too is characteristic of true prayer. The lifting of the heart and mind to what is heavenly, imperishable and glorious, is inseparable from an identification with what is earthly, fragile and miserable. Saint Benedict says that “it is not by using many words that we shall get our prayers answered, but by purity of heart and repentance with tears” (RB XX:3), and the psalmist prays, “My soul cleaves to the pavement; revive me according to thy word” (Ps 118:25).

Now, the leper speaks. But he opens his mouth only after having come to Jesus, and knelt before him in the dust. The Holy Spirit who guided the leper to Jesus, and who moved him to kneel in his presence, now supplies him with words capable of touching Jesus’ heart. “If you will, you can make me clean” (Mk 1:40). The prospect of intimate prayer intimidates many people. Some people will do anything to avoid a personal meeting Christ in prayer for fear of finding themselves at a loss for words. If you have been led to Jesus by the Holy Spirit, if you have humbled yourself by kneeling in his presence, you may be confident that whatever words are needful will be given to you. And if no words are given, it is because no words are needed.

Finally, we come to the action of Jesus. “Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him.” (Mk 1:41). This is the gesture by which isolation gives way to communion, distance to nearness, and separation to unity. What was untouchable is touched. What was alienated is brought near. A current of life passes through the leper already claimed by death. Jesus, stretching out his hand, is the image of the Father reaching out to draw us to himself, closing the gap of separation, the isolating breach.

“If you will, you can make me clean” (Mk 1:40) “I will, said Jesus. Be clean” (Mk 1:41). “And immediately the leprosy left him, and he was clean” (Mk 1:41). The leper is healed only after he has been touched by Jesus’ outstretched hand. By touching the untouchable, Jesus draws him into the only situation in which healing is possible, the circle of Divine Love. The leper is drawn to Christ and, because the Head is not separated from the Body, drawn to the Church as well. The Church, the Body of Christ, is charged with the healing current of God’s love.

In the liturgy of the Word Christ stretches forth his hand. He touches us already through the proclamation of the Gospel. In the Eucharist, the touch becomes communion. We, many though we are, become “one Body, one Spirit in Christ” (EP III). It is not enough for us to be merely touched by his outstretched hand. Jesus would have us eat his Body and drink from the chalice of his Blood. In the Eucharist, we are more than touched by the untouchable God. By the sacrament of his Body and Blood, Jesus sanctifies our flesh by his Flesh and cleanses our blood by his Blood.

Jesus ordered the man purified of leprosy to keep silence, lest the true nature of his mission be distorted (Mk 1:43). At the end of this Eucharist there will be no injunction to keep silence about what we have experienced here. On the contrary, you will be sent forth to declare what has happened to you in the outstretched hand and in the healing touch, in the Word and in the Breaking of the Bread. We are all lepers. Your story and mine will touch the hearts of other lepers. Your story and mine can bring hope to those kept apart by their own private leprosies. Nourished by the sacred Body and precious Blood of Christ, it becomes our turn to stretch forth the hand, our turn to touch, our turn to draw into the healing circle of love that is the life of the Son with the Father in the Holy Spirit. At the beginning and at the end of that circle of love is the Eucharist.