6th Sunday – The Purification of the Lepros

Leviticus 13:1-2,44-46, Mark 1:40-45

We are offered a significant miracle of healing in Mark’s gospel, that of a lepros. The account is very vivid.  What is translated as leprosy is lepra in the Greek. While semantically similar, they were probably not referring to leprosy itself but a variety of skin diseases. They might have caused scale-like skin to appear. The leproi were deemed ritually unclean and had to live exiled from society. This might seem very archaic to us, but even today, in a lot of places, lepers live exiled from their families and societies. We ourselves, have had a taste of that in our pandemic. We’ve had to cover our upper lips and be in imposed exile. We don’t have to shout ‘unclean’, thank God, but Track and Trace will do that for you! 

Notwithstanding the differences, the consequences of contracting lepra or leprosy, were similar. The prohibitions helped control the spread of the disease; but the main reason for the rules surrounding lepra was spiritual. The disease was a symbol of death. With their flesh was peeling away, corrupting, as it does with a corpse, the leproi symbolically became the living dead. The person therefore was ritually unclean. To be ritually unclean was not the same as being sinful. You could be unclean in a moral way, i.e, sinful. Contact with anything that was to do with death, made you ritually unclean. This might sound strange to us, but it was expressing a deep, spiritual truth. Ultimately, this says something about ourselves. God is life itself and the source of life. We don’t have life in ourselves – we receive life from God. As such, we are always a mixture of life and death. When we try to satisfy our need, find our source of life in anything other than God and the streams of life he has provided for us in this world, we die. That is what sin is. The leproi then, while not sinful because of his state of life, was a prophetic symbol of the one cut off from the life of God. He was one who was walking about dead, though alive.

He was therefore cut off from the community of Israel and sent to the outskirts, to live by himself or with others of the same fate. There was no hope for a cure. Only God could cure lepra, because only God could give life to the dead. This was a painful situation to be in. One such man, comes to Jesus. And Jesus reaches out, touches him and heals him. No one would have come close, let alone touch someone in this state, not least because they would have made themselves unclean. On Jesus touching him, however, the man becomes clean. Rich as it is, I want to focus on Jesus’ instruction to the man, after he is healed.  Jesus tells him sternly – in fact, Mark depicts an almost angry Jesus – to tell nothing to anyone and go to the priests and perform the required offering for his purification. 

The man however does just the opposite, he talks about it with everyone. He’s a great evangelist, and there doesn’t seem to be anything intrinsically wrong in what he did. Many whom Jesus saved – the Samaritan woman, Matthew the tax collector, Zaccheus, the Gerasene demoniac, all went and spoke of what they received. This should be the normal course of events, something that we Catholics should become better at. Here however, Jesus requires strict silence, something that would have been quite difficult with the greatest of wills. Maybe, there was something about this man’s healing itself and what the purification did for him, which was needed to complete his healing. 

The purification rite for a lepros is quite complex and you would be doing very well to pick up Leviticus and go through it. Let me pick on just a couple of points. For a lepros to be purified, he will first have to be examined by a priest locally. He will then go to the Temple, clean out his clothes, shave his hair and offer the required sacrifices. For this lepros, up in Galilee, in the North, it would mean making a long journey to Jerusalem, in the South. In other words, a pilgrimage. Galilee was the land of the gentiles, of those by default, ritually impure and outside the covenant with God. Jerusalem was the center of the worshipping life of Israel. This would be a summary of his own life so far. To make this pilgrimage would be to find his own way home. Having arrived in Jerusalem, he will have to wash clean, change his clothes and shave off his hair. What is hair but dead cells which grow out of the head? And what arises from the head except your thoughts? He has to now forsake his way of thinking, learnt from living as dead, in his time of misery. 

“…let the wicked forsake his way, 
and the unrighteous man his thoughts; 
let him return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on him, 
and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.” (Isa 55:7) 

He has now been brought into life. God has brought him into a new state of life and death has no place in it. This is something very relevant for us. We often live by scripts that are completely negative, damaging and actually do not reflect reality. Sometimes you find people in their fifties and sixties, still blaming their parents for the way they are, when their parents have been dead for decades. Sometimes people experience hardships growing up, and well after they have turned a corner, they still live out of the same experience they did before. Sometimes we are so caught up in our negativity and pain, that even when God does something wonderful in our lives and changes it, we never notice it. We continue living out of the same memories. We remain bitter, ungrateful. To be healed is to have our thinking transformed. 

And having forsaken his way of thinking, he now offers the sacrifices required. He is brought back into the Temple, the place of life, from which he had been excluded all this while. Here, it is God who marks him as his own. He is no longer someone outside.  Before Jesus began to preach, he heard the voice of his Father, affirming him as his Son. This is what the purification rite was meant to do. Through this, God affirms him as his own. Now, he knows, as does everybody, that he is a full worshipping member of the community of Israel. This is not the least marked also by his clean clothes, a symbol of his new dignity. He still has to be in (self-)isolation for eight days. But the eighth day, which is a symbol of the resurrection, he is admitted into the community. This was part of the process of healing. Unfortunately, while the gospel records his activities as an evangelist, it does not mention anything about fulfilling his rites of purification. In not allowing the voice of God to speak over him first, he lets others interpret the meaning of the story of his life. He makes himself vulnerable to the attacks of the enemy. 

Today we don’t exclude lepers thank God, but there are many who are exiled for different reasons. We try to be aware of those suffering exclusion and reach out to them. There is of course, the terrible ‘cancel’ culture we live in. To veer the slightest from the woke mob means you are declared unclean and sent into (digital) exile. No one should associate with you. The violence done to the person is immediate. The purification of the lepros is nothing else but our baptism. Here, we have been brought from death into life. Here, we have been brought into a community of worship, a community that God has called his own. Here, he has marked and spoken over you and me as his son and daughter. And as a son or daughter, we have access to the source of life, the Eucharist. If we know that, we can, much like this lepros, to go out and share our experience of the goodness of God to a world much in need of it. Especially those in exile.

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