Readings: Leviticus 13:1-2, 44-46; I Corinthians 10:31-11:1; Mark 1:40-45
I suspect we’ve all experienced having dental x-ray images taken and being draped with that heavy apron that shields the rest of our body from exposure to harmful radiation. And, as we know, the person operating the x-ray machine typically steps out of the room and administers the x-ray from a safe, protected distance. I mention this because I wonder if this is not how we sometimes envision God’s relating to us in our present sinful condition, namely, sanctifying and purifying us from a distance, and only then drawing nearer. Although less emphasized in our post-Vatican II Church, the admonitions against receiving the Eucharist without first having gone to confession evoke a similar understanding of sin as making God keep his distance from us, much as we might perhaps shrink back from physical contact with an unkempt and unwashed beggar on the street.
This notion of a pure and all-holy God disdaining intimate human contact and thus being unapproachable by sinful humanity, is one that can be supported by various texts of the Old Testament. For example, when the people of Israel were encamped at the foot of Mount Sinai, they received the dire warning–presumably because of their unworthiness to approach the Lord–to take care not to go up the mountain, or even touch its edge. For, all who touch the mountain must be put to death. However, even when God purifies the sinful person so that he or she may worthily approach him, like the x-ray technician, this purification seems to be administered from a distance. Thus even someone as privileged as Isaiah was purified, not only at a distance, but not even directly by the Lord, as one of the seraphim touched his mouth with a burning ember.
These considerations make Jesus’ healing in today’s gospel all the more striking and remarkable. Contrary to several other instances of healing in the gospels, Jesus doesn’t simply heal the leper with a word or command but actually reaches out and touches him. Here was someone who was not only a sinner, but also someone afflicted with the dreaded disease of leprosy whose physical appearance was difficult enough to look at, let alone touch. Now, since this touching was not necessary for healing, it suggests that Jesus’ action was in itself intended to convey a powerful message about God and his relating to us in our present sinful condition.
Generally, in speaking of sin’s consequences we employ spatial terms: sin separating us from God, or a sinner being distant from God. Accordingly, repentance and conversion are thought to initiate gradual drawing closer to God from whom we have distanced ourselves. And although there is some validity in these terms, it can also result in misunderstanding and misconstruing God’s attitude and relationship to us in our still sinful and impure state. Among other things, if there were any distance between us and God–even for a moment–we would cease to exist and evaporate into nothingness. For, in the words of the Psalmist: You take back your spirit, they die, returning to the dust from which they came. And because it is only God’s presence that ensures our continued existence, every fiber of our being and every cell of our body exists only because it is permeated and sustained by God’s loving presence.
Accordingly, as One at the very center of our being sustaining us in existence, there can never be any distance between us and God. God’s attitude towards us, and his love for us, remain eternally unchanged and thus he never withdraws his love or turns his face from us in disgust because of our sins. And just as Jesus reached out and touched the leper in healing him, so God continually enfolds us in his love even when we are totally closed to this love. Therefore, sin doesn’t create any distance between us and God but tragically closes us off from his unfailing and unchanging presence. To use a simple and inadequate analogy, it’s a little like those medication capsules we take: the healing medicine contained therein can have no effect until the outer protective layer is dissolved. Similarly, the liberating and healing love of God remains locked within the hardened walls of our sinful hearts until they are dissolved by the tears of true compunction and repentance so that the One dwelling within can radiate his healing and sanctifying love throughout our spiritually-leprous being.
That Jesus’ action in reaching out and actually touching the leper is reflective of our Heavenly Father’s attitude to us in our sinful state, finds expression in the parable of the Prodigal Son. For, in catching sight of his returning son, the father disregards his tattered and unkempt condition and rushes to enthusiastically and excitedly embrace and kiss him. Only then does he call for the finest robe to replace his tattered clothes and attend to his unkempt and dirty appearance. This amazing love and divine beneficence, whereby we are embraced and loved in our sinfulness, should thus inspire and embolden us to turn from sin and, with complete confidence and trust, cast ourselves into the Father’s waiting arms. For, in the words of C. S. Lewis, the Christian does not think God will love us because we are good, but that God will make us good because He loves us.