The One Thing Necessary

by Fr. Denis Lemieux

If you choose, you can make me clean… I do choose. Be made clean (Mark 1: 40-41, 6th Sunday Ordinary Time, Year B).

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Immediately before Lent begins this year, we have the Gospel of Jesus healing the leper at the outset of his public ministry. You would not think this healing miracle has much bearing on the current pandemic situation, would you? Well, you might be surprised…

The three Synoptic authors (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) all place this healing miracle shortly after the calling of the first disciples. While the healing of a leper is inherently a good thing, worthy of being noted and celebrated, there is therefore more going on here than just that.

Jesus in calling his first disciples is establishing the first seedlings of his Church, the New Israel, the new people of God who are to fulfill the mission of God in the world to draw all people into the one new humanity offering to God the one worship in spirit and in truth.

As he does this, he reaches out his hand to cleanse a man who, by the Levitical law of the Old Law, was excluded from that worship and the shared life of God’s people (cf Lev 13).

His touching of the leper, which in the Mosaic law would have made Jesus himself unclean, instead renders the leper clean, restored to the community of Israel, the worshipping community of God.

From this we see that Jesus, in establishing the new community of the Church, is himself the source of ritual purity (that is, what is needed to enter the true Spirit-filled worship of God) and the one who restores the bonds of community frayed by illness and fear of contagious disease.

And with that, this Gospel lands us with a hard bump right on February 2021 and our global situation.

We all find ourselves living in a world where, whatever we happen to think about the whole thing, illness and the fear of contagion have worn away at the bonds of communion and connection not only in the Church, but in virtually all of society.

Worship, at least in its public and communal expression (which for Christians is the vital beating heart of worship, not a secondary aspect of it) is curtailed, restricted, at some times and places over this past year even outright banned.

People draw away from each other in public spaces. The sight of another human face not of one’s immediate household is rare, the omnipresent mask concealing much of our individual expression.

Elderly people are cut off from children and grandchildren; children are cut off from their friends. Social isolation for those who live alone and lack nearby family and friends is devastating in impact.

Those whose emotional or mental health is fragile are pushed to the breaking point as the scant resources for their care are even less available than usual.

I write all this not to take any side in the debates around COVID and the response to it. No matter what one’s opinions are around all that (and oh boy—there is a wi-i-i-i-de range of those, isn’t there?), the above paragraph is one of indisputable facts we can all observe and agree on.

And so… we have Jesus, cleansing the leper. Jesus, touching the one who is sick. Jesus whose whole purpose in coming is arguably to make all of humanity one ‘household’, the holy temple of God, the one people of God brought together by the outpouring of his blood (cf Eph 2: 13).

Jesus who, above all, is restoring the worship in Spirit and in truth (cf John 4: 23), the ability of the human race to fulfill in depth and in totality its exalted mission, its raison d’être.

The human person was made from the beginning to be an act of pure worship, to receive everything given from God the Father as a gift of love, and to return it to him in an act of love and thanksgiving (the meaning in Greek of eucharist).

I do not write this article with all sorts of brilliant ideas in my head about how to resolve the dreadful impasse we find ourselves in, in which sincerely held concerns about a very contagious disease have led to a deeply compromised sense of what the Church in its social teachings calls social charity, the basic bond of connection between people sharing a civil space without which efforts at better social justice and political order are doomed to go awry.

If I cannot perceive the “other” as a brother, as sister, someone who I am to embrace in my heart if not with my arms, if that other is instead first and foremost a “leper” or at least suspect of being one, who must be feared and shunned and driven away from my presence, then there is not much we can do together as God’s family, is there?

No, I don’t have great ideas in my head about how to balance the fears of disease spread and loss of life against the loss of social charity and the connecting bonds of humanity we used to take for granted. Instead, it seems to me that the Gospel enjoins us not to rely on human cleverness and creativity, but to go, as children do, directly to Jesus.

Jesus is the one who can heal us—not  necessarily of COVID, although this certainly is in his power and would be very nice of him. But rather, to cure us of anything of the leper, outcast, unclean spirit that might infect us at a deeper level, anything that causes us to turn away from the other with fear, with disdain, with suspicion, or contempt.

Above all, to cure us of any attitude of mind and heart that prioritizes anything over the worship of God that is our very reason for existing, the very meaning of life.

We are here for no other purpose on earth but to render honor, glory, and praise to God for his manifest goodness and love poured out first in the goodness of creation and last and best in the gift of the Holy Spirit through the grace of Jesus Christ.

Again, I do not know the way forward for parishes across the world to sort out how and when to keep their doors open in a prudent and just fashion.

But what I do know is that, when we pass through those doors, we are to pass through them with hearts fixed on the one thing necessary (cf Luke 10: 42), which is our heartfelt exchange of love with the Creator and Redeemer of all.

To never fall into the trap of prioritizing physical safety and social distancing (even if these be needed) to the point that they take the focus of our mind and heart off of the Lord.

And if circumstances indicate or dictate that we cannot attend church services for a time, to avoid the fatal error of reasoning that is heard so often from secular sources that “public health concerns and my own health are more important than worshipping God.”

Nothing is more important than the worship of God; nothing can be. If you cannot or should not attend Mass for a time, then obedience to the will of God as you have discerned it is in fact your act of worship, and maintaining that as your focus will ensure that you return to Mass attendance as soon as those circumstances change to allow it.

Jesus came to make us one family, to unite the whole human race. What God has joined, let not COVID put asunder.

Jesus came to lead us and perfect us in worship of God; let nothing whatsoever, no matter what difficult situations we find ourselves in, distract us from that most essential reality.

If we keep those two realities alive and at the forefront of our minds, hearts, and prayers, we will indeed be made clean of the things that really defile us – defects of charity towards our neighbor and the cooling of our love of God—and pass through the current crisis of society and Church unscathed, come what may.