Only twice in the three-year cycle of Sunday readings do we hear from the Book of Leviticus. This middle book of the Torah is concerned with many topics related to worship, morality, and the conduct of one’s everyday life. As Catholics we should appreciate the deep care with which our Jewish forebears observed the call to holiness, noting that every aspect of their, and our, lives should ultimately be directed toward God.
In today’s first reading we hear from Leviticus about a dimension of religious practice that seems outdated today but which was eminently sensible in its time. People suffering from various illnesses that manifested themselves through rashes or other disfigurations, such as leprosy, were required to present themselves to Jewish priests to be recognized as sick and thus isolated from the rest of the community, and later, to be certified as having recovered and being allowed to return to community life. The idea was to seek the prayerful intercession of the whole community, something we still do today, and to have some mechanism, however inexact, to declare people sick or healed—exactly as we have been doing recently through the COVID epidemic.
The reason the Lectionary presents these verses from Leviticus about leprosy, of course, is that our Lord heals a leper in today’s Gospel reading. In fact, Jesus makes a reference to today’s passage of Leviticus when he orders the now-healed man: “Go, show yourself to the priest and offer for your cleansing what Moses prescribed; that will be proof for them” (Mark 1:44).
This incident takes place near the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in Galilee, shortly after his baptism in the Jordan River and his calling of the first disciples. It was a time when Jesus’ reputation was just starting to spread, and the saving power of God which had been so consistently proclaimed in the Torah, the Prophets, and the other writings of the Jewish scriptures was beginning to be recognized in his words and actions.
This year most of the Gospel readings we will hear at mass will be taken from the Gospel of Mark. Each of the evangelists tells his story using his own terms and emphases, but they all convey the same message of Jesus’ redemption and our opportunity to share in it. Part of the common message of the Gospels is that, while Jesus indeed surprised many people of his day by the force of his words and deeds, he truly was the fulfillment of the hopes of old. This is precisely what we see today: Leviticus anticipated the healing that the messiah would bring for those afflicted in body and spirit, and Jesus brought this expectation to fulfillment.
Leviticus essentially teaches us two things today: to be alert to the good of the entire community, caring for one another with the means at our disposal, and to find the strength to do so by turning to the Lord in our times of distress. Jesus was the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets, to him we go with faith and trust, saying with the Psalmist, “I turn to you, Lord, in time of trouble, and you fill me with the joy of salvation” (Ps 32:7).
Thinking of the joy of salvation, today we also remember that we will soon begin the season of Lent, a time when we renew our efforts at conversion and discipleship. As we mark Ash Wednesday in a few days let us resolve to be humble as the leper in today’s Gospel and embrace the healing power of God—spiritually and physically—so as to look forward to Easter with the fullness of Christian joy.
Father Edward Mazich, O.S.B.