Monday, February 13, 2012

Homily for 6th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Homily for the
6th Sunday

in Ordinary Time
Feb. 12, 2012
Mark 1: 40-45
Ursulines, Willow Dr.

“Moved with pity, he stretched out his hand, touched him, and said to him, ‘I do will it. Be made clean’” (Mark 1:41).

In one verse you have a summary of the entire Gospel.

“I do will it,” Jesus says. His will is to heal, to save men and women. His will is to make us all clean and whole. God is neither the Great Policeman in the sky, nor the Eternal Scorekeeper, playing “Gotcha!” with humanity, waiting for us to fail so that he can condemn us. Sorry, John Calvin. Sorry, Cornelius Jansen. St. Paul wrote to the Thessalonians, “This is the will of God, your holiness” (1 Thess 4:3), our cleanness in all respects, our transformation into likenesses of him who made us, of him who saves us thru his cross and thru the workings of the Holy Sanctifier.

Jesus is “moved with pity.” The Greek word means that Jesus was deeply touched, was moved with heartfelt compassion. One commentator calls this pity “gut-wrenching.”[1] Jesus encounters humanity at its most wretched—not merely sick with a disease that is, at that time, incurable, but a disease that cuts its victims off from the community, excommunicates its victims, renders them physically, emotionally, and socially “untouchable.” Recall the terrible experiences of Judah Ben-Hur’s mother and sister in Lew Wallace’s famous novel and its William Wyler version of 1959.

This man has no business coming anywhere near Jesus. Evidently he’s desperate for healing, more than any of the other people whom Jesus has so far encountered in the 1st episodes of Mark’s Gospel. The leper’s probably looking for healing of more than his body. The heart of Jesus, who has come to save us from every manner of evil—as he’s already demonstrated in this 1st chapter—can’t help but be touched.

Then Jesus does the unthinkable. Not only is his spirit touched deep within—the leper has touched him psychologically—but “he stretched out his hand and touched him.” He touches the leper; we’re not told how or where, as for example we were told that he took Simon’s mother-in-law by the hand (1:31). But however he touches this diseased man—on the hand, the shoulder, the arm, the head—he’s risking his own health. He’s incurring uncleanness himself. Implicitly, he’s breaking the Mosaic Law, just as the leper’s doing by approaching so close. But Jesus is encountering this desperate man; he’s giving him the 1st touch of humanity he’s felt, probably, in a very long time. That already would offer him a kind of healing. He’s giving the healing he’s about to effect an intensely personal “touch.”

Altho both the leper and Jesus are breaking the law in this interaction—Jesus showing in action what he’ll later verbalize, that the Law is made to serve humanity, and not humanity to serve the Law (Mark 2:27)—Jesus shows his respect for the Law and the values it expresses by directing the man to “go, show yourself to the priest and offer for your cleansing what Moses prescribed” (1:44). The man wishes to return to the community of Israel, and so he must take upon himself and observe what makes Israel a community: their faithfulness to their covenant with God, their faithfulness to the Torah. For any community, law, and the values to which it gives voice, is an essential binding force and can’t be set aside without jeopardizing both those values and community cohesion.

Jesus’ stretching out his hand and touching this man who is diseased and unclean, and thus becoming unclean himself, is also a metaphor. Mark has a subtle way of showing how Jesus takes upon himself the burden of our sins and the degradation of our human condition. In accordance with the Law of Moses, as we heard in our 1st reading (Lev 13:44-46), the leper has been cast out of the community, out of civil society, and is obliged to “dwell apart, making his abode outside the camp.” Jesus heals this man, who’s restored to the community. But Jesus’ fame renders it “impossible for him to enter a town openly,” and he must “remain outside in deserted places” (Mark 1:45). Jesus has become a sort of leper in this man’s stead, just as he will later be the sacrificial Lamb offered in our place.

The scene displays what St. Paul lauds in the hymn that he quotes in Philippians: “Christ Jesus, though he was in the form of God…emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; …he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death” (2:5-8). God’s Son stretches out his hand—his very Person, in fact—and touches the human race by becoming one of us. He risks the uncleanness of a race of sinners; he becomes a social outcast thru the opposition and hatred of the religious and public authorities; he risks death. The Son of God, in a manner of speaking, becomes a leper by extending himself to us and our condition thru his incarnation.

But in doing so he’s healed us. He elevates all those he touches, raising us to a new status, a new dignity, as children of God.

The same commentary that I alluded to earlier links Jesus’ touching the leper with the sacraments.[2] All of the sacraments—those “outward signs instituted by Christ to give grace”—use sensual components (words, physical elements, our 5 senses) to effect the healing that Christ wills for us (“I do will it. Be made clean.”). Four of the sacraments in fact use the laying on of hands as a explicit part of their rites: Baptism, Confirmation, Orders, and Anointing; two include an implicit laying on of hands thru the extension of the hand or hands: in Reconciliation over the penitent as she’s absolved, and in the Eucharist over the bread and wine as the Holy Spirit is invoked for their transubstantiation. The 7th sacrament involves its celebrants’ entire bodies. In the sacraments, then, the healing touch of Jesus is extended to the whole body of believers, making us part of, or restoring us to, community with the Holy Trinity.

The Letter to the Hebrews, in a well known passage, exhorts us “confidently” to “approach the throne of grace to receive mercy and find grace for timely help” (4:16). Like lepers, we sinners come to Jesus—desperate, if we truly consider our condition without grace—to be made whole, to be made new, to be restored to communion with God. And Jesus with heartfelt compassion always receives us outcast offspring of Adam with words and deeds that effect his will to save us.

[1] Days of the Lord: The Liturgical Year, vol. 5—Ordinary Time, Year B (Collegeville: Liturgical Press), p. 56.[2] Ibid., p. 57.

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