Today is our last Sunday before Lent, and we have a wonderful set of readings to help us prepare for the upcoming season. The first reading and the gospel talk to each other. They concern the proper interpretation of the subject of purity. The first reading deals with the question of purity, and its consequences. Our gospel shows us the true meaning of this, and the extent and reach of God’s power.
The theme of purity in the Bible is very profound. On one level it deals with obvious subject of boundaries. What we let in, and what we keep out. We are all familiar with this topic. All communities know what is acceptable and what is not. All parents try to set boundaries, both in terms of behaviour and in terms of relationships. All of us know there are good and bad influences, people we should hang out with and those who encourage the worst in us. Having lived through COVID, we are all alive to such issues and the debates surrounding them.
More importantly, though, in the Bible the purity laws speak to the cosmic drama we find in creation: the battle of life versus death, of order versus chaos. Most importantly, though, purity speaks to the experience of the holiness of God. What do I mean by this?
We have talked before about the point of creation. Creation is built to be the temple of God, or better yet to be the body of God. God wants to enter into creation and so share the divine life of love with us. However, creation must be sufficiently pure for that to take place. Whatever is pure can be sanctified by God. It can be raised by God to achieve its fullest reality. Purity then is the raw material for the act of glorification. What is pure can be transformed by the presence of God.
However, through sin, creation falls away from its original form. It becomes something that cannot stand the presence of God. It needs to be healed before it can be raised up. The discussion of purity in the Old Testament is therefore not fundamentally about sin. Rather, it is about the consequences of sin. One of which is illness. Not that illness is caused by a particular sin of someone; rather, there is sickness because of original sin.
It actually goes further than this. It was also thought that what was impure could infect what was pure. It could therefore put at risk God’s presence to creation.
In our first reading we hear that leprosy is determined to be impure. We can therefore understand two reasons for this. First, leposy as an illness is the opposite of health. It therefore partakes in the fallenness of creation. Second, because it is contagious, it presents a threat to God’s people. It threatens to infect and kill those who have been entrusted with the task of introducing God’s salvation to creation. It therefore threatens the very potential of creation.
However, our first reading is shaded by our gospel. Our gospel does to the first reading, what the whole Bible does to pagan mythologies of the ancient world. Whereas our first reading sees the purity laws as protecting what is holy from contamination and therefore putting at risk the means of salvation, our gospel flips the whole thing on its head. Impurity becomes a way of demonstrating God’s power, the awesome power of God’s holiness. At the Easter vigil, we talk about the felix culpa, that blessed fault that gained us so great a redeemer. This is what it means. Darkness just becomes an opportunity for God to shine all the more brightly.
This is the fundamental transaction of Christianity: God comes to us that we might go to God. God takes our sin, that we might receive God’s holiness. While the leper ends up in the Temple, Jesus ends up outside. This of course prefigures the Cross: Jesus crucified outside the city gates, while the veil of the Temple is torn allowing us entry to the Holy of Holies. This prefigures Jesus taking our sins on himself, our death, that we might gain his life.
This is the mystery of the Cross. That it is in our weakness, in our temptations, in our crosses, that we experience the power and mercy of God. We will hear this in the preface to the Eucharistic prayer. This means that there is always hope.
Let’s pray then as we prepare to begin Lent that we will know this power in our lives. Wherever we exclude ourselves through sin and its repercussions, its shame, let’s pray that we will know God’s healing touch. May all who despair, all who know feel condemned to be outsiders, may they know how far God will go to be with them, how much God loves them. And may they know these things through God’s body, the Church, through us.