The emphasis on skin diseases in the readings might seem a little odd. But let’s look at it.
Why would this even be in the Scriptures?
Let’s recall that the Book of Leviticus
is part of the Covenant that God made with his people at Mount Sinai.
At a website called “The Sacred Page,”
I read a good article by Dr. John Bergsma,
who teaches Scripture at Franciscan University in Steubenville.
As Dr. Bergsma explains it,
Leviticus “was a complex system of symbolism
aimed at teaching about the contagious nature of sinfulness
and the connection between sin and death.”
Skin diseases were a serious health concern in Moses’ time;
and the rules about keeping those with a disease away
was for the good of the whole community.
All the same, having leprosy or other skin illnesses
not only meant separation from family and friends,
but also from worship in the temple;
it meant separation from communion with God.
So even though leprosy wasn’t a sin,
and those who it weren’t bad people,
in scripture, it becomes a powerful image of what sin does to us:
it can spread like an infection;
and it also separates us from one another and from God.
And let me give credit here: all that drew on Dr. Bergsma article.
Now this got me thinking.
We believe as Catholics that if we commit a mortal sin,
that separates us from the community.
It doesn’t mean we can’t come to Holy Mass,
but it does mean we refrain from receiving Holy Communion
until that rupture has been healed.
It’s called a mortal sin because it kills the life of God’s grace within us.
We go to confession and receive absolution
to restore that life within us.
Whenever someone makes a TV show or a film about the Bible,
and if they include anything about leprosy,
they always show it with great drama:
the lepers crying out “unclean, unclean!”
and folks reacting with horror.
If you ever saw the old movie Ben Hur, you know what I mean.
Let’s ask the question: do we feel horror toward sin?
If someone showed up in Russia with Ebola,
I think there would be a lot of concern, and probably some real fear.
There’s a lot of legitimate concern about measles.
But how concerned are we about “catching” sin?
We make a distinction between mortal and venial sins,
with venial sins not being so deadly.
But that doesn’t mean they are nothing to worry about.
Let’s put this in the context of a relationship.
There are lots of things that can happen between us
and a friend, a parent, or a spouse.
Little things; we don’t call quite as often;
we don’t talk as much as we used to.
A sharp or sarcastic comment here or there.
Too few times we say “please” or “thank you.”
But what happens when those things accumulate?
Maybe it’s an argument;
and suddenly it’s not a “little thing” any more.
Or it’s a gradual drift.
We go from seeing or calling a friend or relative
every few days to every few months, to every few years,
to…we can’t remember when.
And that is exactly how some people who used to be active Catholics become ex-Catholics.
Saint Louis, King of France, had this advice for his son:
“My dearest son, my first instruction
is that you should love the Lord your God
with all your heart and all your strength.
Without this there is no salvation.
Keep yourself, my son, from everything that you know displeases God,
that is to say, from every mortal sin.”
I would add that if we don’t mind the company of venial sins,
we’ll soon find mortal sins don’t bother us so much either.
This helps us understand what Lent is for.
More than anything else, penance is about conversion.
If you give up something you love this Lent, as I plan to,
it’s not because beer or chocolate
or video games or golf are bad things;
we do it so that they don’t have too much power over us.
When we fast this Ash Wednesday, and we feel that hunger,
the value of that is so that our stomach doesn’t rule us.
And we have the opportunity to offer it in prayer,
being mindful in particular
of the many people who are hungry every day.
Instead of buying ourselves food we don’t really need,
we can give that money away for those who are in real need.
Lent begins Wednesday. Now’s the time to make our plans.
Will you do any spiritual reading this Lent,
instead of time on the Internet?
Will you try to attend daily Mass?
Give up certain things?
Try to make the Rosary or Divine Mercy Chaplet
part of your regular routine?
No more delay: it’s time to commit yourself, if only to yourself.
Write it down; even if only you sees it.
A plan you follow half-way will certainly get you farther
than no plan at all.
In the bulletin today, you’ll find a handout with lots of ideas.
But above all, that handout will point out
all the many opportunities for confession.
Because when we get that sin really is something to horrify us,
then we realize what a miracle the sacrament of confession is.
Imagine looking at your arms, and seeing scabs and sores and infection;
but when Jesus says, “Be made clean!”
You look again, and you’re clean, pure and clean! Completely clean!
That’s what confession does. It feels really, really good.