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The readings for this Sunday, the Sixth Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year B, are all about how religious rituals years ago addressed a disease that has been all but wiped out today, so we run the risk of considering them lessons in ancient esoterica.
But don’t make that mistake. The Church puts them here not as a history lesson, but to teach an urgent lessons about our spiritual life: Sin is foul and ugly.
Jesus deals with each of us the way he deals with the leper in Sunday’s Gospel.
In the Gospel, “A leper came to Jesus and kneeling down begged him and said, ‘If you wish, you can make me clean.’ Moved with pity, he stretched out his hand, touched him, and said to him, ‘I do will it. Be made clean.’ The leprosy left him immediately, and he was made clean.”
Notice what happens: The leper, disgusted with his own condition, goes to Jesus, kneels before him and makes an act of faith in both the freedom and power of Jesus. He is rewarded by being healed.
This is exactly the situation we find ourselves in. Actually, our situation is worse.
The second reading, from St. Paul, makes it clear that we don’t become “unclean” from anything outside of us anymore. But we do become “unclean” from sin, according to Pope Benedict XVI.
“According to the ancient Jewish law, leprosy was considered not only an illness, but the most serious form of ‘impurity,’” he said. “In leprosy, it is possible to glimpse a symbol of sin, which is the true impurity of the heart that can separate us from God. … If the sins that we commit are not confessed with humility and trust in the divine mercy, they can even reach the point of producing the death of the soul.”
King Louis IX of France — St. Louis — saw this clearly and once challenged his friend, the Barron of Joinville, with the question: Would you rather commit mortal sin or be a leper?
“I would rather commit 30 mortal sins than be a leper,” his friend answered, honestly.
The King said he was looking at it the wrong way. “When a man dies, he is healed of leprosy in his body; but when a man who has committed a mortal sin dies … he ought to have a great fear that the leprosy of his sin will last as long as God remains in heaven.”
This is because, “Mortal sin is a radical possibility of human freedom, as is love itself,” as the Catechism puts it. “If it is not redeemed by repentance and God’s forgiveness, it causes exclusion from Christ’s kingdom and the eternal death of hell, for our freedom has the power to make choices forever, with no turning back.”
St. Louis had learned his revulsion from sin from his mother, who had told him as a child, “I love you my dear son, as much as a mother can love her child; but I would rather see you dead at my feet than that you should commit a mortal sin.”
This is the proper understanding of sin that we can see in the First Reading about shunning lepers.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, we might have thought Sunday’s First Reading from Leviticus sounds harsh and cruel. “The one who bears the sore of leprosy … shall cry out, ‘Unclean, unclean!’” it proscribes, and “He shall dwell apart, making his abode outside the camp.”
Today, of course, COVID-19 sufferers must “dwell apart” from the population — and in case we have it, we all have to keep our distance and wear masks to avoid being “unclean.” The rationale of our coronavirus regulations and the leper laws serve a greater good: Stopping the spread of disease to an ever larger number of people.
We ought to see mortal sin the same way. It is uglier than leprosy — and more infectious.
We’ve all broken rules and gotten caught. But that’s not the same as being in sin. The feeling we get when being pulled over for speeding, for instance, can be intense: regret, embarrassment, shame. When we wrong someone we love, we get regret and shame, plus something more: disgust with ourselves and a helpless sorrow at our own inability to heal the rift.
But when it’s God we offend, that rift is even deeper, and the consequences are greater than we can imagine. Being in sin isn’t just embarrassment at breaking a rule, but something like a defilement. We have turned this most fundamental relationship inside out. Sometimes a feeling of disgust accompanies it; sometimes it doesn’t.
The feeling can be deceiving: It can mislead us to “feel” sinful when we’re not or to feel fine when we’re not.
Do you ever feel like you’re a basically good person and stamping your life “sinner!” seems inappropriate and extreme? I do. For that, read 1 John 4:20, where he says: “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ but hates his brother, he is a liar.” Sometimes we think we love God but we are mistaken, because we are overlooking serious sin in our lives.
Do you ever feel like a hopeless sinner, imagining you are in a state of sin even when what you did does not really meet the definition of a mortal sin? I do. For that, read 1 John 3:20, which says, “If our hearts condemn us, we know that God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything.” Sometimes we feel guilty when we really shouldn’t.
Examine your conscience to gain sensitivity to sin, but focus on God’s presence in your life, and do it with Catechism beside you. It uses the language of “grave” or “serious” about certain sins to specify which are potential mortal sins — if we choose them deliberately and with knowledge.
The cure for our mortal sin is not unlike the cure for leprosy. Jesus tells the leper, “Present yourself to the priest.” The Church tells us the same thing: Seek forgiveness through the sacraments. Tell Christ in the sacrament “If you wish, you can make me clean.”
As Sunday’s Psalm puts it: “I confessed my faults to the Lord and you took away the guilt of my sin.” There follows the greatest joy possible the greatest joy of all, “the joy of salvation”: “Blessed is he whose fault is taken away, whose sin is covered.”