Sixth Sunday of the Year. Fr Vivian Boland preaches on the saving scandal of Christianity.
On the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel is Michelangelo’s famous painting of the creation of Adam, in which the outstretched hand of God the Creator almost, but not quite, touches the outstretched hand of Adam. Within that tiny gap between the two fingers is found – so we can imagine – the entire energy of creation, as the One-who-is reaches out to the one-who-is-not so that he might come to be. God said ‘let there be’, and there was.
In today’s gospel reading Jesus reaches out and touches a leper who has asked to be made clean. In that moment when the outstretched hand of Jesus reaches the suffering body of the leper is found – so we can imagine – the entire energy of the new creation, as the Word become flesh reaches out to the one subject to the power of sin and death, so that he might live a new life. Jesus said ‘I will, be clean’ and the leprosy left him.
In touching the leper Jesus acts scandalously, breaking the laws of which we are reminded in the first reading of today’s Mass. The leper was unclean and must live apart, says the Book of Leviticus, he must live ‘outside the camp’. So we can imagine this also, that the hand of Jesus reaching out to touch the leper, reaches out from within the Law, from within the traditions and decency of Israel, from within culture and civilization as human beings succeed in establishing those things. He reaches out from within law, decency and civilization to touch someone who is unclean, dwelling at the margins and even beyond the limits of law, decency and civilization.
In doing this Jesus reveals the radically scandalous truth that God is love. Moved with compassion for that which is not (so Thomas Aquinas puts it) God creates. Moved with compassion for the one who is suffering (Mark uses the graphic term ‘feeling it in his guts’) Jesus creates anew. God is not waiting for us to become presentable, to tidy ourselves up, before receiving us back. Saint Paul says that even if we do have all sorts of impressive moral and spiritual achievements to report but are without love then it is of no use to us at all. What proves that God loves us, Paul says elsewhere, is that Christ died for us while we were still sinners. God’s love comes to touch us while we are still lepers.
Also striking about this encounter with the leper is the fact that, at the end, the leper can return to civilization while Jesus ‘could no longer openly enter a town, but was out in the country’. It is as if they have swapped places, the leper now cleansed can move in human society again, Jesus is obliged to live as if he were a leper, outside the camp. His marginalization becomes more pronounced as the story unfolds and the power of sin asserts itself ever more strongly against him. Eventually he will be crucified outside the city and will even ‘descend into hell’.
Here is the great saving scandal in which Christians believe, that God is scouring the limits of His creation, way beyond the boundaries we can manage, loving His creation even to its furthest, weakest, most alienated limits. From within the law (‘go show yourself to the priest’) Jesus transcends the law (‘he stretched out his hand and touched him’). From within the community Jesus reaches out to touch one who is outside the community. Love inspires this development and leads to the establishment of a new law and a new community.
In touching the leper Jesus gives us a glimpse of what his work is all about. He is setting new boundaries. He opens up for us the possibility of a ‘civilization of love’ that draws us and haunts us because we have come to believe that this is where the love of God – the love that God is – is to be found and experienced. As Paul puts it in today’s second reading, those who imitate Christ reach out not for their own advantage but that of many, that they may be saved.