February 16, 2003 Homily by Fr. Robert Altier Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Reading I (Leviticus 13:1-2, 44-46)
Reading II (1 Corinthians 10:31-11:1)
Gospel (St. Mark 1:40-45)
Saint Paul, at the end of the second reading today, says to the people of Corinth, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ,” which really means, “Be imitators of Christ.” As Saint Paul is trying to be like Jesus in all things, so he is telling us that we must do the same, just as what he was doing. Now the reason why we need to do that is very simple because each one of us is another Christ. The goal of our lives as Christian people should be to allow Christ to live in us and through us. Saint Francis of Assisi tells us that our hands become His hands through which He touches people, our feet become His feet by which He goes to people, our mouth becomes His mouth by which He is able to speak to people. Because Our Lord is in Heaven, He works now through His Mystical Body, that is, each one of us who is a member of Himself.
And so in this way, if we would be willing to get our own selves out of the way we will become, as Saint Paul told the people of Corinth, “all things to all people”. That does not mean that we try to become sinners for sinners, but rather what happens is that we allow Our Lord to show us how to be toward a certain person. Whatever that person is going to need to bring about their salvation is what we want to be able to do for them. The problem is that on the human level we do not know what that person needs, but the Lord does. And if we are willing to allow Him to work through us for the sake of that person then we can touch that person’s life in such a way that they will be brought to the Lord, that they will be able to be converted, to be healed of whatever the internal problems may be, and to save their souls for all eternity.
That we can actually have a share in the work of salvation is something which should fire us up to do anything that the Lord would ask us to do. The difficulty, however, is that most of us will draw back immediately upon hearing that because we are not sure we really want to do what the Lord wants us to do. We are not sure that we would want to put ourselves out to do whatever is required for another person because we recognize just from looking at the life of Our Lord, the lives of the apostles, the life of any one of the saints, that some of the things the Lord is going to ask will not be easy. Sometimes we have this idea (that is not backed up by anything except our own strange ideas) that if we are going to give our lives over to the Lord that will mean no more suffering, that it will mean everything will be easy because since Jesus loves us so much everything should just be a cakewalk for us, everyone from this point on will think we are the most wonderful people and they will all want to be our friends. All we need to do is look at the life of Jesus and realize that is not what happens. Jesus is the most wonderful person ever to have lived and they did not like Him very well. All we need to do is look at what happened in the Gospel today to ask ourselves if we would be willing to do the same.
In the first reading, we hear what needs to happen when someone has leprosy. They are to show themselves to the priest and if the priest declares that they are in fact leprous then they have to tear their garments, they have to muffle their beards, they have to scream out “Unclean! Unclean!” anytime another human being would be anywhere near to them so that they would not even risk the possibility of touching them. They could not enter into a town other than openly because they were screaming out “Unclean! Unclean!” all the time. There was no way they could just be a normal person. They had to live outside the dwellings of the other people. They could not be with their families; they could not be with their friends; they had to dwell apart by themselves or with other lepers because they were unclean.
Now, with that in mind, we place ourselves in the Gospel. This leper comes up to Jesus – obviously fulfilling all of these points and screaming out “Unclean! Unclean!” – and the Lord did not run away. The man comes up to Him, kneels down before Him, and asks to be made clean. In other places in the Gospel, Our Lord simply spoke the word and people were healed; but in this case He reached out and touched this man. Imagine being that leper and being untouched by anyone from the day that he got leprosy. Imagine what it would mean to him just simply to be touched. By Jewish law, if you touched someone who was unclean that made you unclean and you had to go through all of the various ceremonial purifications before you could enter into the temple or be part of any of the things that were going on. But Jesus was willing to reach out and touch this man, and in so doing made the man clean.
And then look at what happened to Our Lord. In essence, what He did was to take on the sufferings of this leper. While He Himself did not become leprous, from that point on He was treated like a leper. We read in the Gospel that He was no longer able to enter a town openly. He had to dwell apart from the town just like a leper had to. Unlike the leper, He did not have to cry out “Unclean! Unclean!” but anytime that He entered a town He could not do so just as a normal person; He would be immediately recognized. He was not able to carry on His normal business or whatever reason He was entering the town. He came to preach the Gospel but He was inundated with all of the sick, making it very difficult to preach because He was caught up in the curing of the people. But you see that, in essence, what it means to become all things to all people in this case meant that Jesus was willing to become as a leper. While He did not actually become a leper, He took on the sufferings of this particular leper. He was willing to go beyond Himself and reach out and touch a man who was unclean, taking the risk that a communicable disease could have been given to Him, and instead, in this act of love, took away this man’s disease. Far more than what He did to the man externally is what He did for him internally.
Saint Paul was willing to take on the sufferings of all the people in the towns where he went to preach – and these things became his glory. He rejoiced in his suffering for the sake of the people. He united his suffering with the suffering of Christ and offered that for the Church, saying to the Colossians that he made up in his own body what was lacking in the suffering of Christ for the sake of His Body, the Church. Putting that into the modern context, we recall the words of Our Blessed Lady at Fatima when she said, “Souls are falling into hell like snowflakes because they have no one to pray for them.” They have no one who is willing to pray for them or to suffer with them. There is no one who is willing to reach out and touch them – not physically, but spiritually. There is no one who is willing to unite themselves with the sufferings of these poor souls in order to keep them out of eternal perdition.
In our society, we are caught up into ourselves. We are taught that we are to look out for our own selves and not to worry about anyone else. That is the opposite of what the Gospel teaches us. Our Lord tells us that we are to love our neighbor as ourselves. We need to be willing to place ourselves at the service of others; that is what it means to be an imitator of Jesus Christ. He came to serve, not to be served, and to give His life as a ransom for the many. And in His goodness to us, He has left a small portion of the Passion – not that His suffering could not have been enough and was not enough to save the whole world – but because He would unite us to Himself as members of the Mystical Body. He allowed us and continues to allow us to share in His suffering for the sake of the rest of the body of the Church, for the sake of the salvation of souls, to share in His work of redemption. He allows us, not only to share in His suffering in some generic way, but if our hands become His hands and our feet become His feet and our mouths becomes His mouth, our suffering becomes His suffering and our suffering becomes divine, our suffering becomes redemptive, our suffering becomes the means for the salvation of souls, for the purification of our own soul and for the salvation of others.
That is the dignity which Jesus Christ offers to each one of us. Are we willing to unite ourselves with Him? Are we willing to imitate Him in all things? He Who came into this world and took the form of a slave, He Who came into this world to serve, He Who came into this world to suffer and to die, are we willing to die to ourselves in order to live for others? Are we willing to suffer with Him in order to keep others from suffering for eternity? That is the question. Are we willing to do what Saint Paul tells us to do – to imitate him as he imitates Christ?
* This text was transcribed from the audio recording of a homily by Father Robert Altier with minimal editing.