February 13, 2018
Paulist Fr. Rich Andre preached this homily on the 6th Sunday of Ordinary Time (Year B) on February 11, 2018, at St. Austin Parish in Austin, TX. The homily is based on the day’s readings: Leviticus 13:1-2, 44-46; Psalm 32; 1 Corinthians 10:31 – 11:1; Mark 1:40-45.
Today, St. Paul famously asks, “What will separate us from the love of Christ?” He concludes that nothing will separate us. At the heart of Christianity lies the mystery of the Incarnation – the belief that God is not a remote being. God dwells among us. Nothing can separate us from God.
That may be true, but we humans are very talented at separating ourselves from one another. Separation, even when well intended by the laws of Leviticus in our first reading, leads to a loss of dignity. As the Supreme Court famously concluded in 1954, “separate is not equal.”
I know some people are excited about the approach of Valentine’s Day, but please be aware: there are only two shopping days remaining until Ash Wednesday! As we prepare for our upcoming Lenten journey, let us take a few moments to recall the times we’ve contributed to separation and division. And then, let us ask for God’s mercy.
The extensive laws in Leviticus about leprosy were not necessarily about the specific disease that’s called “Hansen’s disease.” The laws concerned any malady that caused human skin or fabrics to become whitish in appearance. The ancient Israelites believed that this loss of color was a beginning of a loss of life. They also believed that it was highly contagious. For the safety of the community, those with leprosy were kept apart. They were to dress differently and to shout “unclean, unclean” when anyone approached. Even with the best intentions and even apparently following the dictates of God, the Israelite community turned lepers into social outcasts.
But it is dangerous to think that the story of Jesus and the leper has no bearing in our scientific age. Today, there are leper colonies for people with Hansen’s disease in many parts of the world – India alone has over a thousand leper colonies. What’s alarming about this is that there is no need for leper colonies in our scientific age. Hansen’s disease is not very contagious – 95% of people are naturally immune, the first effective medical treatment of the disease was discovered in the late 1930s, and the infectious stage of the disease only lasts two weeks. Perhaps there are reasons why leprosy cannot be eradicated, but it’s clear that lepers do not need to be quarantined for life. Two weeks is sufficient, and then they can come back into the larger community!
And that brings us to a rather remarkable coincidence today. Today is the Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes, and because of that feast, Pope John Paul II designated February 11 as the annual World Day for the Sick. At our 11:30 am Mass, we are celebrating the sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick at this Mass.
From the earliest days of Christianity, the Church recognized that people who were suffering physical, emotional, or spiritual illness felt separated from the community. You know what’s it like when you’re sick: you often feel miserable. You can’t get anything important done, but you don’t feel well enough to have any fun. Laying on the couch gets old after a couple of hours. As unreasonable as it sounds, you sometimes want to shake your fists at God: “Why me?” People with more serious illnesses feel truly isolated. The mentally ill can find it hard to find housing; the physically ill feel as if everyone defines them by their injuries. The spiritually ill suffer in silence, with no one aware that they are hurting.
The anointing of the sick is the most misunderstood of the seven sacraments. It is a beautiful moment of the Church reaffirming that a suffering person is still a full member of the Body of Christ. Like all the sacraments, it’s an opportunity for grace. Often people report having a sense of peace, of love, of hope, and/or of trust once they receive this sacrament. So forget what you’ve seen in 1950s black-and-white movies. The anointing of the sick is not reserved only for people who are dying! If you know someone who is seriously ill, encourage them to request the sacrament.
How sick do you need to be? I tell people that although you do not need to be at death’s door, you should have something more than a cold. The more isolated you feel by your illness, the more you will benefit from the sacrament’s graces.
It does not matter what Jesus knew about the nature of leprosy. The important thing is that he desired to bring this man back into society – to make him “equal” in dignity by ending what made him “separate.” Even though Jesus asked the man he cured of leprosy to tell no one, the man proclaimed his cure far and wide. If I had been separated from family, friends, and acquaintances for years and I could suddenly walk among them again, I’d be shouting from the rooftops, too!
As individuals, we can each do so much to end needless separation, but most of us continue to separate ourselves from many different kinds of people. Few of us visit the sick, the homebound, or those who are shut in. A lot of us are uncomfortable talking to people with physical or mental disabilities. Very few of us visit people in prison. With the rise of the internet and cable TV, many of us separate ourselves from people who have different political views than ourselves. Perhaps most scandalous of all, cities around the world are constantly sorting themselves into economically-isolated neighborhoods, where the rich, the middle class, and the poor rarely rub shoulders. Sure, we have reasons for our separations, but are they as compelling as Jesus’ example to come together?
Nothing – and no one – can separate us from the love of Christ. And that’s something to shout about!