Cleanliness is next to godliness is the old saying. “If you wish, you can make me clean,” the leper who was an outcast from society beseeched Jesus. He was growing closer to God in that plea.
Scholars tell us that the word “leprosy” in the 1st reading from Leviticus included not only the disease known today as Hansen’s disease, but a number of skin diseases and ailments that would exclude persons afflicted from the worshipping community surely in part for fear of contagion but also because they were not ritually clean.
Cleanliness has a large role to play in our day as well. There are all kinds of products on the market to assure that we and our possessions are clean not only from disease but from embarrassment. As a child I was instructed to always wear clean clothes in case I was in an accident. We want to be seen as clean and therefore be welcomed in the community. We also should want to be spiritually clean, free from sin. The season of Lent beginning on Wednesday is an opportunity to undergo a spiritual cleansing.
The opposite of clean of course is unclean or dirty. It is a way we describe that which is objectionable: dirty looks and dirty books. Jesus did not look upon the leper as dirty but rather compassionately as a person in need. We read in the 1st reading what the religious law required of the leper to essentially to stay away from the rest of the people. This man afflicted with some disease did not follow that law and boldly approached Jesus. Jesus did not follow that law either for he touched the man. The leper believed that Jesus had the power to make him clean and thus restore him to the community. Do we have such faith in the power of Jesus when we reflect on our need for spiritual cleansing?
When we are baptized He cleanses us from original sin. Through the sacrament of penance he cleanses us of our current sins. But like the leper we must approach God with the belief that he can do it, then make the request and when he does so with grateful hearts begin anew.
Too often in our culture the determination of who is clean or dirty, who is welcome in our community and who is not, is a matter of who has power and who does not, who is favored and who is not. The inconvenient unborn, the wandering youth, the burdensome old, the needy poor, the immigrant, those different by language or ethnicity do not have power or popularity and thus are outsiders not always welcome in the community. It is seen in bullying, in racism, in unjust discrimination, in abuse in its many forms, in abortion and euthanasia and in isolation and loneliness.
When the AIDS epidemic was just beginning I was doing pastoral ministry in a hospital. Little was known about the disease in those days so patients were totally isolated. In order for me to visit with a patient I had to put on boots, gloves, cap, gown and mask. I sat in a room with a young woman tormented by this strange disease while looking strange in my garb which took something away from my ability to express Christian concern. We were both outsiders because of what was between us on the outside. Christ calls us look to the inside.
You may be familiar with the true story about John Merrick, the Elephant Man, who was born greatly disfigured which embarrassed him. As portrayed in the movie about him Mrs. Kendal who was a famous British actress visits Mr. Merrick and holds out her hand to take his. He hesitantly extends the least deformed of his hands. She looks at him and shakes her head. Merrick pauses then slowly reveals his most deformed hand from under his coat. Mrs. Kendal takes his hand in hers and smiles. Merrick reflects that it was the first time in his life that a woman had held his hand. Jesus touched him through her and said be clean. You are not an outsider to me.
Among disturbing trends in our society is excessive individualism which inhibits coming together as a community because the focus is all about me. As an example is human trafficking that treats others as commodities to be used and abused. Sadly it is destructive practice in our state.
A core belief in Catholicism is our obligation to seek the common good, what is best for us all not just for us. This is grounded in respect for life from conception to natural death. We need a framework, an informed Christian conscience so we can make choices to do what St. Paul urges in the 2nd reading: “seek not your own benefit but that of the many.”
Saint John Paul II once wrote: “If we wish to travel together, we must pay attention to the road we are to take. If we go walking in the mountains, we must follow the signs. If we go mountain climbing, we cannot let go of the rope. We must always preserve our unity in the Divine Friend whose name is Jesus Christ. We must cooperate with Him,” the saint concluded. The Church’s moral and social teachings help us to do so. We need to know what the Church teaches and why and practice it to know the safest road and to cooperate with the Divine Friend, Jesus Christ. Perhaps that might be our Lenten focus this year.
A missionary in east Africa was asked by an African boy, “Was Jesus a white man or a black man?” The missionary thought for a moment and answered “He was not a white man or a black man but sort of in-between.“ It was not the soundest theological response but one that taught well. “Oh,” exclaimed the little boy with a smile, “then he belongs to both of us, doesn’t he.” He belongs to all of us.
Because he does, when we feel separated from the community, an outsider which most of us do on occasion, we can follow the invitation of today’s psalm response: “I turn to you, Lord, when I am in trouble, and you fill me with the joy of salvation.” And as members of the community of faith we welcome all regardless of race, ethnic background, language, gender, economic standing, legal status, health condition, appearance, family history or other arbitrary differences including sinner for all of us are His.
When we come to him with the confident faith of the leper and ask, “Lord, please make me clean,” through his continuing sacrifice from the cross, he will answer, “I do will it. Be made clean. You no longer are an outsider. You are mine, and brothers and sisters to all who are mine.”
May this Lent be one of spiritual cleansing for the church and for each of us.