In the early 1960s, there was a television show called “The Untouchables.” I want to use that memory to draw attention to the focus of the Scriptures for the Sixth Sunday of Ordinary Time.
The Book of Leviticus lays out the law and direction for a person who has leprosy. They have instructions to be marked as a leper, to announce that they are a leper and to separate themselves from the community. Other Scripture passages give similar directions for physical ailments, the color of a person’s skin or the choices that a person has made. Many instructions introduce shame, rejection and isolation. There is usually a moral judgment made against the person. Imagine growing up in a religion or a society that uses those sorts of characteristics or markings as a way to judge people and to isolate them. Well, most of us don’t have to imagine anywhere other than in our present moment to know that these things still happen.
Since we profess ourselves to be followers of Jesus, our Church places the Gospel of Mark‘s rendition of Jesus’ encounter with a leper. In the Gospel, the leper approaches Jesus, instead of walking away from Him. Instead of using the word “unclean,” the leper asked Jesus to heal him. And Jesus, instead of running away from him with fear, reaches out and touches him. Jesus takes the chance of making Himself impure for the sake of another human being experiencing healing, wholeness and reconnection with the community. Have you ever tried to imagine the reaction of this leper’s family or religious community? I wonder if they welcomed him back or if they continue to shun him?
On Feb. 17, we begin our celebration of the season of Lent. This time of prayer, fasting and almsgiving is our traditional time as a community to deepen our lives as disciples of Jesus. We are asked to spend some time in communication with God and to do that on a regular basis. But what will that prayer time sound like or look like? We each have our routines of prayer, but might this be the time to introduce some new aspect to that prayer? In addition to prayer books and prayer rituals, what would it be like for us to invite God to shine a light on those places where we still use the religion of another person, the color of their skin, the language they speak or their economic condition to judge them or distance ourselves from them? Would we be able to be quiet enough within our own minds and hearts to actually notice and hear the nudges from God to see ourselves as we have never seen ourselves before? Do we have the courage and the audacity to open ourselves to that level of vulnerability with God? Or is Lent a safe time for us when we do the same things and expect the same results?
We are encouraged to fast during the season of Lent. The direct guideline to the Church used to be more stringent about that practice, but the Church still encourages us to find ways to fast in Lent. Instead of giving up something that we intend to pick right back up at the end of Lent, why not find something to fast from that would be better absent from our lives for good? Again, we would have to listen for the nudges of God, but it might have something to do with prejudice or hatred or cynicism or greediness or hoarding unneeded things. I think most of us can agree that our lives would be so much richer without any of those things in our minds and hearts. What is God nudging you to fast from this season of Lent?
Money is a difficult topic for most of us to share. But always giving is an opportunity for us to choose to take some of what we have and give it to some other person or some other organization. We have many examples in the Scriptures that teach us about the difficulty of choosing God and money. We are told that our treasure is where our heart is. In examining our almsgiving, it might be good to connect that to our prayer and our fasting. We might be able to see more clearly as we are notified by God the places where our gift of alms could make a difference both in us and in another.
I promise to pray for you as I hope you will pray for me that this season of Lent can truly be a time of repentance, renewal and reconciliation. Be sure to avail yourself of the sacrament of penance and reconciliation. No matter how long you have been away from that sacrament, you will find the welcoming Jesus who calls you home, carries you on His shoulder as the good shepherd and gives you the comfort and peace that your heart and mind long for.
Father Wester is pastor of All Saints Parish in St. Peters.