Those Aren't Beauty Marks: Sunday Reflection

Unknown artist / Wikimedia Commons

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.

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 Note: I struggled to find a better reflection on this than the one I wrote in 2015 on these same passages. I have begun adding links to previous reflections so that readers can see my previous work, and I almost always re-read them before writing a new reflection. I hope this previous reflection will strike the same chord with readers today as it did with me.

... For those readers who aren’t Catholics, we are generally called to the Sacrament of Reconciliation once a year at a minimum, which in the context of today’s readings is a bit like the old joke, “I bathe once a year whether I need it or not.” More specifically, Catholics are called to Reconciliation if they have committed a mortal sin, which then separates them from the body of Christ in a significant way. Even absent that, my wife and I like to go on a more regular basis, in order not just to reconcile with God but also to keep our sense of sin refined, and our hubris and rationalizations at a minimum.

Of course, not all Christians participate in this practice, but the need for forgiveness and atonement is common to all denominations. We are all sinners; we all fall short of the glory of God, and only His grace can fill the gap. Whether one goes to a confessional or not, the same basic concepts are in play for Christians, and the same pitfalls too. Among those is the stubborn human tendency to deny our sins, our sinful nature, and indeed sin itself.

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Today’s readings start with a Leviticus instruction on how to treat leprosy, a then-common ailment (now identified as Hansen’s Disease) that was only somewhat contagious, and was incurable until modern times. In the literal English-translation reading of Leviticus 13, we get instruction on quarantining victims of a disease: have them “dwell apart … outside the camp,” and have them dressed or otherwise explicitly identified so that healthy people could avoid contact and the spread of the disease. The manifestation of the disease would likely be obvious anyway, but the instructions seem to err on the side of caution for the rest of the camp.

However, the word used in Leviticus is tzaraath, which is not a perfect analog to leprosy. In general, it can mean any kind of skin condition with visible corruption, but in Talmudic interpretation tzaraath is considered to be a visible manifestation of punishment for sin. And not just any sin, but for what Catholics and some other Christian denominations would call mortal sin: malicious gossip, murder, adultery or fornication, pride, and so on.  We get some hint of this meaning in Leviticus 14, where the priests cleanse lepers of their disease through ritual rather than medical treatment, followed by a sacrificial offering on the altar as a “guilt offering.”

This puts the language of Leviticus 13 in a different light. The need to walk around saying, “Unclean! Unclean!” doesn’t make much sense even as a quarantining method, when those quarantined “dwell[ed] apart” from the camp and had torn clothes, muffled beards, and perhaps especially uncovered heads. The wages of sin and tzaraath were a physical and spiritual separation from Israel — and the Lord’s instructions required those who committed sins that warranted this kind of separation to not just be expelled but to pronounce their separation from the rest of the nation. Only when the afflicted explicitly recognized their sinful status, repented of those sins, and atoned through the assistance of the priests could they re-enter the nation of God’s chosen people.

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Today’s reading from Psalm 32 sings of the joys of reconciliation from sin. “Blessed is he whose fault is taken away, whose sin is covered,” the psalmist writes. “Then I acknowledged my sin to you, my guilt I covered not. I said, “I confess my faults to the LORD,” and you took away the guilt of my sin.” Better yet, Paul writes to the Corinthians in the second reading, don’t sin in the first place if you can help it. “Avoid giving offense, whether to the Jews or Greeks or the church of God, just as I try to please everyone in every way, not seeking my own benefit but that of the many, that they may be saved.”

With this in mind, the leper of the Gospel story takes on a different context. Jesus cleanses the man on the basis of his faith, but still sternly warns him that he must make his reconciliation complete through the priests in accordance with “what Moses prescribed,” because sin separates us not just from God but from our community. It disrupts the agape love in which we should live with our brothers and sisters in Christ and in the world. It is not enough to be cleansed of sin, but we need to reconcile ourselves with the greater community which we have disrupted through our own corruption. This does not need to take the form of walking the streets shouting “Unclean! Unclean!”, but it does require a recognition of the damage our sin does not just to ourselves but to those around us as well.

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That is the hurdle that daunts me most when it comes time to go to confession in our Catholic tradition — and why it’s important for me personally to make that confession out loud to another person. It’s all too easy to hide our tzaraath within ourselves and convince ourselves that no one sees it. Our pride screams out that to admit that we have these blemishes weakens us more than the blemishes do.

Eventually, we rationalize that we don’t have blemishes at all, but beauty marks, and then begin to convince ourselves that sin doesn’t actually exist, period. We figure that God forgives us anyway even though we’re imperfect and rebellious, and so there’s not much reason to dwell on those beauty marks anyway. Or alternately, we convince ourselves that our sins have become so great that even God can’t overcome them. Sometimes we believe both at the same time.

We talk ourselves into believing that we’re still dwelling in the camp, even while we keep pitching our own tents farther and farther away.

Jesus heals the leper in the Gospel to bring him back into the house of Israel, not just to make him feel better about himself. We all end up on the perimeters from time to time, having cut ourselves off spiritually from the body of Christ. That’s what I spent my Saturday afternoon repairing, moving my tent back into the camp with the help of a priest who offered up my sins to assist in my reconciliation, as is our tradition. I was “unclean, unclean,” and was screaming on the inside for cleansing and salvation from Jesus Christ, and happy to receive it. Believe me, I have to bathe a lot more than once a year in this sense, even if occasionally I have to be dragged to the bath. 

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Previous reflections on these readings:

The front-page image is "Jesus Heals the Ten Lepers," artist unknown, 17th century. Via Wikimedia Commons.

“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.  

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Stephen Moore 12:00 AM | February 22, 2024
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