6th Sunday in Ordinary Time
So for those of you who might be unaware I would like to remind you that this coming Wednesday, February 14, Ash Wednesday, is also Valentine’s Day. A friend of mine shared with me that since he could not participate in both the celebration of their love and in the penitent attitude of Ash Wednesday, he had to tell his wife, “Honey, don’t worry I will get you something next year.”
Now, please do not make my friend your example. I believe that most of you are capable of chewing gum and walking at the same time, so it should be possible to celebrate both Valentine’s Day and participate in Ash Wednesday without too much inconvenience. Besides, what better way to show love for your mate but through a little fasting and prayer.
With that being said, I thought it would be a good time to refresh our liturgical memories about the practice and purpose of Lent. The season of Lent finds its beginning in the Church as early as the 2nd century as early Christians prepared themselves for the celebration of the resurrection of our Lord by engaging in fasting and prayer immediately preceding the feast day. The liturgy for this season then developed throughout the next 5 centuries and by the 7th century the 6-week season of Lent, as observed by the modern Church today, was established.
So what is the purpose of this season of Lent? Lent is a period of time during which we prepare ourselves for the renewal of our baptismal commitment by abstaining from sin and praying for the continual conversion of our hearts. In order to get the most out of this period of preparation The Church encourages us to practice the “3- S’s”; Seek; Serve; and Sacrifice.
Seeking is accomplished through prayer and reading of scripture. So, during the next 6 weeks I encourage you to create for yourself space and time to engage in prayer and study. Service is accomplished by not only the giving of “alms”, or your treasure, but also through the giving of your time and talents. The third “s”, sacrifice, is accomplished through fasting, or more generically, self-denial. When we abstain from chocolate, coffee, beer, and other types of indulgence we allow ourselves the opportunity to discover our true nature, and more importantly our true dependence on God and his mercy for our sustenance.
However, I must point out that in order to truly appreciate our Lenten experience and ultimately achieve the grace intended we must go beyond just the adherence to rules, and to that end I ask you to reflect on today’s Gospel.
In today’s Gospel we see Jesus going about the business of being Jesus. In other words, engaging in the ordinary work of doing extraordinary works. On his journey from town to town he is approached by a person who is suffering from leprosy. In ancient Palestine leprosy was a diagnosis given to an individual who was suffering from a noticeable skin condition. Jewish law was very specific about the diagnosis of leprosy, and as today’s 1st reading indicates the life of the individual suffering from this diagnosis was a life lived very much on the outside.
In ancient Palestine a person suffering had no status. That person had to alter their appearance ensuring that wherever they went they were recognized as unclean and unworthy. Because they lacked status, they were excluded. They could no longer participate in their community. They couldn’t go to public places, engage in work and commerce, nor could they participate in worship. They were excluded from the normal everyday routine of living. Finally, a person with a diagnosis of leprosy in ancient Palestine had no recourse. They had no way of getting back in, unless of course they were healed, and at that time there were no effective treatments for a condition that had no specific diagnosis. In essence, a person suffering from the diagnosis of leprosy existed in a constant state of shame.
The significance of today’s Gospel is not that Jesus healed a man with leprosy, he had been healing people since the beginning of his ministry. The significance of today’s Gospel is found in the faith of a man who had no status, who was excluded from public life, and had no hope…except… for his hope in the healing touch of Jesus. And it is in that faith, the faith that Jesus could heal him, that this man found purpose, inclusion, and hope. It is in that faith, through which, and by which, Jesus looked upon him, and with compassion reached out and touched him, and he was healed.
I propose to you today that we have more in common with that suffering man of the Gospel then we would be willing to admit. You see sin, in it’s many different forms, in it’s many different manifestations, and with it’s many different symptoms, has for us the same consequence as leprosy. Sin causes us to live in shame. Sin causes us to exclude ourselves from our community. Sin steals our hope. When we allow ourselves to exist in a state of sin, we allow ourselves to exist on the outside, away from the love, grace, and abundant mercy of God our Father.
Our challenge this Sunday before Ash Wednesday, as we enter this season of Lent, is to imitate the faith of the leper. To approach our savior humbly, on our knees, recognizing that he is the only cure for our disease. Our disease of sin, no matter it’s manifestation, can only be cured through the forgiveness made possible by the death and resurrection of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
Our challenge, is also, this Sunday before Ash Wednesday, as we enter this season of Lent, is to respond with the compassion of Jesus. As we interact with those who are suffering; those who are without status; those who have been excluded; and those who have no hope, we too should respond to them with compassion. The same compassion modeled by Jesus, who ignored social customs and norms, and reached out to the most marginalized and ostracized individual in that society and brought him back into community.
This Lenten season, as we seek God, serve others, and engage in self-sacrifice we will do so from the humble, faith-filled position of the leper. And, having discovered the only source of hope for our salvation in the very body and blood of Jesus Christ, we will share that same hope with those around us who are in desperate need of the healing touch of Jesus.