This morning’s Gospel reading is Mark 1:40–45:
A leper came to Jesus and kneeling down begged him and said, “If you wish, you can make me clean.” Moved with pity, he stretched out his hand, touched him, and said to him, “I do will it. Be made clean.” The leprosy left him immediately, and he was made clean. Then, warning him sternly, he dismissed him at once.
He said to him, “See that you tell no one anything, but go, show yourself to the priest and offer for your cleansing what Moses prescribed; that will be proof for them.”
The man went away and began to publicize the whole matter. He spread the report abroad so that it was impossible for Jesus to enter a town openly. He remained outside in deserted places, and people kept coming to him from everywhere.
As a Catholic, I’ve seen our faith depicted in popular culture in a number of different ways, and with a number of different motives. One particular aspect draws a lot of attention, especially in films: the confessional. Sometimes movies get this correct, and sometimes wildly wrong, at times eve hilariously or infuriatingly so. A favorite depiction — and one which I think comes closer than most to reality — is the confessional scene from Moonstruck. The lead character, Loretta Castorini, has just slept with the brother of her fiancé and goes to church to confess her sins. However, she tries to slide one past the goalie, so to speak:
“Bless me father, for I have sinned,” Loretta says quickly. “Twice I took the name of the Lord in vain, once I slept with the brother of my fiancé, and once I bounced a check at the liquor store. But,” she adds, “that was really an accident.”
“Then it’s not a sin,” the priest says. “But … what was that second thing you said, Loretta?”
“That I slept with the brother of my fiancé?”
“That’s a pretty big sin,” the priest replies.
We have a habit of attempting to slide our sins past the Lord, as though He doesn’t know us and can’t see past our clumsy attempts to hide our offenses. We replay the Garden of Eden cycle throughout our lives: we sin, we hide, and then we blame others. At our best, we finally admit to our sins and seek forgiveness.
Today’s readings give us an analogical view of sin through the issue of lepers within the community. Leprosy was — and still is — a real physical disease, not caused by sin (of course) but by infection. We now know it as Hansen’s disease, which is spread by contact but which we also know now is not easily acquired. Most people have an immunity to Hansen’s disease, and it is treatable for those who do not have such an immunity.
Those treatments and that knowledge did not exist in Jesus’ time or at the time of Leviticus, our first reading today. People lived in fear of lepers and the risk of contracting that dreaded disease. The Lord tells Moses and Aaron to have lepers announce themselves by crying out “Unclean, unclean,” to allow others to avoid contact, and to further limit contact by having them live outside the camp. This was a standard treatment for over three millennia; leper colonies continued to operate until very recently.
That sets the context for our Gospel reading today. Jesus’ cure of the leper would have had a dramatic impact on the community. A disease which defined this man and gave him his public identity had been wiped away; he had an opportunity to embrace his former identity and place within the community. His family and friends must have considered it almost a return from the dead. The man was so grateful that he talked too much about it, as likely did his family and friends in their joy at his return, causing Jesus problems within His ministry.
This is what happens with Christ’s forgiveness of sins, too. Sin is a disease that afflicts humanity, and for which Christ himself is the cure. It disfigures our souls rather than our bodies, which allows us to keep the disfiguration hidden from others. It takes away the identity we receive as a child of God and isolates us, exiles us from Him and our brothers and sisters. We do not go around crying “Unclean, unclean,” but our sins might well be contagious too, and just as dangerous to ourselves and others. When Jesus cures us of those sins through His forgiveness, we too have our identities restored and our isolation from the Lord and His people lifted.
Note, though, that Jesus does not just cure the leper and walk away. He instructs the man to present himself to the priest to perform the offering for cleansing. The act of restoration, of reconciliation, is a communal act, not just a personal act. Christ cured him, but he still needs to observe the proper ritual in order to become fully restored.
The sacrament of reconciliation accomplishes this same restoration. It is all too easy, as Loretta Castorini attempts in Moonstruck, to try to rationalize or minimize sin. When we do that long enough, we lose the ability to discern sin at all. In that sense, we suffer the numbness and decay of sin in our souls, just as the leper does physically through no fault of his own.
The process of reconciliation for me has always been about confronting sin honestly, not so much about Jesus’ forgiveness, which is always ready for those who repent. It allows us to excise the sores sin puts on our souls so that we may feel the suffering of sin. And almost without exception — unlike the more dire portrayals of confessionals in the movies — the priest is there to accompany us on that journey, not to castigate us for having a disease that afflicts all of humanity.
The love of Christ and His enduring mercy cures us of the disease of sin. All we need is the courage to face it.
The front-page image is a detail of a mosaic from Duomo di Monreale, Sicily, Italy.
“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here. For previous Green Room entries, click here.