Perhaps one of the most moving scenes of the Gospel—the narratives of the evangelists are full of them—is the one that we have this Sunday, the sixth in Ordinary Time. In the encounter between Jesus and the leper, we can almost feel the tension between the latter (whose name is not mentioned, but who is rather known through the condition that he suffers), driven by his need to be healed, and the Lord Jesus, who is moved by compassion. Were we to place ourselves in the skin (no pun intended) of the leper, we would be able to understand his desperate plea to the Lord: “If you wish, you can make me clean”. We are all aware what being a leper in biblical times means; the First Reading, taken from the book of Leviticus, which explains the laws by which the people of Israel would have to live by, shows how people stricken with skin disease—especially leprosy—are to be treated: he was to keep his garments rent, his head uncovered, and his beard muffled; he was to advertise the fact of his ailment to others, so that they would keep far away from him; furthermore, he was to live outside of the settlement, rejected, until he is healed of the disease (though if one were to be truly stricken with leprosy in those times, there was very little hope for that). In a few words, to be stricken with it was not merely shameful (the rent clothing, the shaved and uncovered head, the muffled beard—a sign of manly beauty—and the public advertisement of uncleanliness were all indicative of the public shame that the sufferer had to bear); the leper was actually regarded dead. True, the deformed and degenerated state of the sufferer merely reminded everybody that he was on his way to the grave. As I write these words, my eyes rest on a beautiful painting which captures the scene. At the feet of Jesus one sees the leper. Barely dressed in a shroud-like garment, he appears as if he rises from the tomb to new life.
New life. For the leper, this was what the Lord was for him when he happened to pass by. Everything seems doomed for the tomb until he prostrates himself before Jesus and makes his request, moving in its humility, and yet full of faith. Jesus, moved with pity, stretched out his hand, touched him and said: “I do will it. Be made clean”. The result was immediate: the disease instantly left him, and he was made clean.
The fact that the leper didn’t have any name invites us to see ourselves within the skin of the leper. Like him, we are also known for our weaknesses; before the Holy One, all of us stand as sinners: filthy, ragged, impure, walking carcasses. For all the glamour and attraction that it may use to tempt us into sin, the devil, the flesh and the world will always leave us like the leper: with garments torn, our heads shaven like criminals, and our own beauty marred, we are nothing more like the garbage and refuse thrown outside the walls. Sin makes us ugly; not only does it uglify, but it also divides. Not only does it divide, but in the final instance, it kills: it destroys the life that God has placed in our hearts, it disfigures His likeness in our souls, and thwarts the plan that he has for each of us.
And so, like the leper, we go to Jesus, who is always for us with a heart full of compassion and pity. Compassion and forgiveness has this power to rebuild what has been torn down. In the sacrament of Confession the Lord patiently waits for us. In a society bombarded by showy senate trials, one could appreciate that in the confessional we could find the only tribunal in the world wherein one’s sincere declaration of guilt acquits him of his crimes.
It is in the sacrament of Confession that Christ does what he did in the gospel: he stretched out his hand, touched and said to him, “I do will it. Be clean”. In this marvelous sacrament, the Lord extends his hand, the divine Healer touches us, and through His word, makes us clean. The forgiveness of sins is not done through mere wishful thinking. Through the ministry of the Church, the Lord grants us pardon and peace, as the formula of sacramental absolution reminds us. In the ministry of the priest—a sinner like all of us, in the same need of God’s pardon—Christ continues to touch, heal, pardon and strengthen. What more direct way could there be of knowing the Good News of God’s mercy, when we can hear the words of divine pardon through the mouth of the priest? Could there be any more direct way of making our confession, when we are really sure that we are heard, and we ourselves hear the words “I absolve you from your sins”?
In order to see this one precisely needs the faith that comes from God; the grace to believe in that forgiving WORD that has made itself flesh and that dwells among us, this time in the ministry of His priests, in the ministry of His Church. The confession of sins is a confession of faith, the same faith that pushed the leper to say “If you wish, YOU can make me clean”. It is precisely for this reason that it was the Lord’s will that the forgiveness of sins be done through the ministry of those whom He had chosen to continue His work on earth.
With Christ touching us through this sacrament, the life of grace is restored to us: we are brought back to life. St. Irenaeus once said, “the glory of God is man truly alive”. We cannot give glory to God while remaining in the death of sin. However, with lives animated by God’s grace, we could live according to the way St. Paul admonishes us in the Second Reading, in the letter to the Corinthians: whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God.
May the example of the leper move us always to go out and encounter Christ in the sacrament of Confession, so that in receiving the forgiveness of sins, we may be able to give praise to God with pure lives, and express the joy of salvation that lies in our hearts through works of love toward our neighbor. Amen.
FIRST READING: Lv. 13:1-2, 44-46
SECOND READING: 1 Cor 10: 31-11:1
GOSPEL: Mk. 1: 40-45.