Leviticus 13:1–2, 44–46; 1 Corinthians 10:31—11:1; Mark 1:40–45
As many of you know, I returned to the Catholic faith when I was in my late 30s. For those of you who have practiced your faith steadily for your entire life, you will never know what it is like to make a twenty-year confession. I could say that you are blessed never to have to do so, and that would be true. But likewise, it’s a blessing after such a long time away from the sacraments and after having wended my way through all of the poor decisions of a young-adult life outside the Church to unburden myself and to hear those most beautiful words of absolution:
God the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of your son, you have reconciled the world to yourself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins. Through the ministry of the church, may God grant you pardon and peace. And I absolve you of your sins, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Those words were beautiful the first time I heard them after 20 years, and they are still beautiful now every time I go to reconciliation, which I try to do every three or four weeks.
But it’s really easy to get bogged down in shame and avoid acknowledging our need for forgiveness and healing. We get a hint of this in the reading from Leviticus. Note that the person with lesion is “brought to the priest”—that is, he doesn’t present himself, but those who notice his lesion bring him to the priest. The suggestion, of course, is that the person who might have leprosy does not come willingly but is forced to come because others see his possible uncleanliness.
And that makes sense. Back then, being branded as a leper meant that you were an outcast—unclean. You had a duty to warn people away from yourself, until you somehow were healed from your leprosy. But how could that happen if you are outcast? Who would heal you? You have to be healed before you can even approach the priest to examine you and perform the ritual sacrifices for you to be brought back into the community.
When St. Paul talks about the burden of the law, and when Jesus talks about the burdens that the scribes and Pharisees put on the shoulders of the faithful, this is what He means. They lay out the consequences and the costs but give no means for actually resolving the situation. If you become unclean, you have to hope that somehow you will become clean again, with no way of being able to make yourself clean. To paraphrase Psalm 49, we cannot pay our own ransom or the ransom of anyone else. So how hopeless is the plight of the leper? There is a chasm between him and the community that he can only pray will be breached.
Leprosy, of course, is a figure or type for sin. When I use the terms “figure” and “type,” I’m using the language of biblical scholars, but what those terms mean is that a figure or type is a foreshadow. It’s a pattern that precedes something in scripture that helps the second thing make sense. So if I refer to the crossing of the Red Sea as a kind of baptism, you see the crossing of the Red Sea in Exodus as having some kind of meaningful connection to the Rite of Baptism—a cleansing from sin, a transition from slavery to freedom. The Church counts on your ability to make sense of these analogies or “figures,” and it salts our sacramental rites with these hints. If you have listened to our sprinkling rite or the baptismal rite, you know that we remember every baptismal symbol from scripture: the separation of all matter from water, the story of Noah, the passage of the ark of Moses in the Nile, the passage of the people of Israel over the Red Sea, the passage of Joshua and the nation of Israel over the Jordan—all of these figures are important for us to grasp our faith. We need scripture to show us how it all works, and our liturgies are the apparatus by which it all comes together.
So leprosy is likewise a type for sin. The Old Testament Hebrews could not rid themselves of leprosy, any more than we can rid ourselves of sin. They had to rely solely on the grace and mercy of God to be healed. And then they had to be affirmed as clean by a priest before returning to the community. The gospel reading likewise demonstrates this. The leper seeks healing from Jesus, saying, “If you wish, you can make me clean.” There is no question and no hesitation from the leper as to Jesus’ ability to heal. He knows it’s simply a matter of Jesus’ willingness to heal him, and of course, Jesus wills it.
I want to interject here something I’ve been sort of stewing on that came to me last night. Notice the reversal that takes place at the end of the gospel reading. The leper, who is an outcast, comes to Jesus and is healed and then enters the city again, while Jesus becomes the outcast. He can no longer enter the city because of the crowds. He switches place essentially with the leper.
So imagine the courage it must’ve taken the leper, an outcast, to approach Jesus in this way? To come closer than 150 feet to anyone meant the possibility of violent reprisals. But he knew that Christ had the power to heal, and that Christ wished to heal. And he knew that he so desperately needed healing that only Jesus could give him, so he took the chance. It must’ve taken courage and humility.
Leprosy, in these readings, represents our uncleanness, or dis-ease due to sin. Perhaps no one else recognizes our sinfulness, no one sees the lesions, sores, and disfigurement than sin causes in us. We might try to rationalize it away—that’s one of the effects of sin—clouding and distorting our moral vision to hinder our ability to see our failings. But if we’re honest with ourselves—if we examine our motivations, our thoughts, our negative impulses—we come to recognize our need for forgiveness. That’s half of the battle.
But then we need to approach Jesus to find the healing we need. Sometimes that does take courage, and it always requires humility. For some of us, particularly those of us who have cultivated the habit, confession is easy. We know that the priest is there to show us God’s mercy not to condemn us. But for others of us, we feel the sting of conscience, the shame of hearing ourselves repeating out loud again the same sins we take into the confessional every few weeks. We think, “What must this priest think of me? How can I look him in the face when I see him around town?”
Now it’s common to hear non-Catholics ask why they would need to confess their sins to a priest. It might be more unusual to hear Catholics say the same thing, but I have heard it. Nonetheless, confession is necessary for mortal sin. When we sin mortally, we break communion with God and with the Body of Christ. Confession is the way that we reconcile with God and the Church. So before we come to this altar of sacrifice to share the Eucharist in communion with the Church, we need to prepare, and that often includes confession of our sins. It’s not only the law of the Church. It’s also noted in scripture. In John 20:22–23, Jesus breathes on the disciples and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven. If you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” James says in his letter to the Jews in the dispersion, “Confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed.” So for all mortal sin, confession is a necessity before we can receive the other sacraments.
But remember that the priest is not simply and solely a man in his role as confessor. He acts in persona Christi, in the person of Christ. That is, he forgives sins, not by his own power, but by the authority of Jesus Christ. The priest makes Christ present in his priesthood. We need God’s mercy and healing, and in His wisdom, He has given us this sacrament of reconciliation, so that when we hear those words of absolution, we truly know that God has forgiven us.