20 February 2012
Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Sometimes people will ask me when I start preparing my homily. We were taught at Sacred Heart to always take a look at the readings for the following Sunday by the previous Monday, at the latest. When looking over them I tend to look for trends or themes in the readings, and then to mull it over for a good couple of days, letting the readings bounce around in my head and seeing what the Lord wants me to say. Sometimes I end up zeroing in the Gospel, other times it’s a combination of two of the readings, and on rare occasions, all three readings seem to have a similar theme.
Looking over the readings this past week, the theme of the readings as I looked them over seemed to be leprosy. It’s a major point in our first reading and Gospel passage today. But I wondered, ‘What am going to do with that?’ This is a homily, not a medical school lecture (although it is important to note that the leprosy the Bible speaks of could be a number of skin ailments, and was most likely not limited to Hansen’s Disease).
What struck me were the two different approaches God takes to leprosy. In the first reading, God tells Moses and Aaron that “‘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!” […] He shall dwell apart, making his abode outside the camp.’” In essence, God is telling Moses and Aaron, and all the priests and scribes that will follow and interpret this passage, to ostracize the leper.
And yet, when it comes to the Gospel, Jesus not only welcomes the leper into His presence, but even touches the man. This seems the exact opposite reaction to God’s warning in the Old Testament. It’s not hard to see how, as a Jew at the time of Jesus, it was confusing for this apparent carpenter’s son from Nazareth to claim He was God, yet at the same time seem to go against what God had said in Sacred Scripture. It’s also easy to see how one of the early heresies of the Church, Marcionism, asserted that the God of the Old Testament was a wrathful, angry God and was a lower deity than the God of the New Testament, proclaimed by Jesus to be loving, forgiving, and welcoming to the outcast.
But, Jesus is the same God, of the same substance (hence we use the term in our Creed consubstantial) as God the Father. They are distinct Divine Persons, but the same deity. And we cannot separate the two into different revelations, as if the Old Testament is opposed to the New Testament. Rather, the New Testament is the fulfillment of the Old Testament. So what do we do with these two readings?
In my meditation on these Scriptures, I found that leprosy could be interpreted allegorically to mean not so much a physical illness, but a spiritual illness. And in general, we can refer to the illnesses of the soul as sin. So what we’re really working with is the way God treats sin.
God was slowly teaching His people, the Chosen People, about who He is, and how the world works. As He taught them about leprosy, and how it distances people from the community, we can easily see how this is also true of sin. One of the effects of sin is that it damages or ruptures our relationship with God and our relationship with each other, including even the rest of the created world. Remember that all the world was in harmony in the Garden of Eden, but after Adam and Eve sinned, the whole created order was ruined, and even the plants stopped bearing fruit easily for our first parents, the animals, rather than being obedient and docile to them, started to either run away or to attack them, and even Adam and Eve started to desire each other not in accord with Divine Law, and so had to cover their nakedness. Certainly, all was not totally ruined. Adam and Eve were still carrying in them the image of God, but that image had been marred, and all creation felt the effects of the original sin.
Jesus, as the full revelation of the Father, does not deny that sin damages or ruptures the relationship with God and with the community, but completes the message that God wanted to communicate, that He is also the one who can heal sin. Yes, sin injures us and causes separation, but if we come to the Lord, then He heals us of our sins and restores us to a right relationship with God and with each other. Sin does not get the last word, but grace does.
These two passages are not used to explain the Catholic teaching on the Sacrament of Reconciliation, but read allegorically, it can help us to understand that sacrament. Because sin damages our relationship with God and with each other, we need someone who can represent both God and the community, and to heal what has been injured. And so the priest, acting in the Person of Christ the Head, speaks for Jesus in the words of absolution. And the priest, also because he is able to act in the Person of Christ the Head, who is Head of His Body, the Church, acts in the Person of the Church to welcome the sinner back to communion with each other.
In the bulletin this weekend is last week’s response from Bishop Boyea to the Health and Human Services mandate. This past Friday, the Administration proposed a compromise that it felt would address the major issues with which not only Catholics, but also Evangelicals and members of the Jewish community and others have grave concerns. To this proposed compromise the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops replied:
“[The compromise] continues to involve needless government intrusion in the internal governance of religious institutions and to threaten government coercion of religious people and groups to violate their most deeply held convictions…The only complete solution to this religious liberty problem is for the HHS to rescind the mandate of these objectionable services.
We will therefore continue—with no less vigor, no less sense of urgency—our efforts to correct this problem through the other two branches of government…and we renew our call to the Catholic faithful, and to all our fellow Americans, to join together in this effort to protect religious liberty and freedom of conscience for all.”
Again, this is not a partisan issue: this is an issue of the Federal government, even in this new proposal, being allowed to force institutions and individual citizens to violate their consciences. As Catholic Americans, regardless of which party we support, we should work hard to make sure that the government can never tell any institution or person: Catholic, Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindu or any person of faith to do something which is contrary to that institution’s or person’s faith.