Through the sacramental cleansing of the waters of baptism the festering wound in our soul, the uncleanness caused by original sin, is healed, and we are restored to the life given to our first parents, Adam and Eve, before the fall. Those reborn by water and the Holy Spirit at the font are made new creatures, adopted children of God, partakers of the divine nature, members of Christ and co-heirs with him, temples of that same Holy Spirit (CCC 1265). As the Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us, through baptism nothing remains in us that impedes our entrance into heaven, the Kingdom of God (CCC 1263). And yet, as we know, the pure and spotless baptismal garment which is draped around the newly-baptized does not remain so for very long. Even though original sin is forgiven in baptism, we nevertheless remain subject to the consequences of the fall, and continue to struggle against our inclination to sin; choosing our way over that of the Lord. When we sin after baptism the relationship we share with God is attacked and is either wounded (by what we call venial sin) or destroyed (by what we call mortal sin, because it puts to death the bond with enjoy with God). Thus the disfiguration of our soul—the muddying of our baptismal robe, we might say—separates us from the spotless perfection of God.
This disruption of the union of God and Man is the subject of our readings today. In the reading from the Book of Leviticus the Lord God tells Moses and Aaron to keep those suffering from the disease of leprosy outside the camp, describing them as unclean. And in the gospel we hear of the Lord healing the leper, restoring him to health. When we commit serious sin, we do not of course contract a physical disease like those in our readings who suffer through no fault of their own. Physical disease, like death itself, is a result of man’s fallen nature, for sure, but by choosing to do wrong and failing to do good we enter into a spiritual sickness, walking away from the covenant-relationship given us in baptism and rejecting the life that God has given on us. God is always faithful to the covenant of our baptism; he does not desert us. Thus, when we commit serious sin we exclude ourselves from the camp, from the Church; we infect ourselves with a disease, make ourselves unclean, not in the body, but the soul. Thus any initiative to restore that relationship with the Lord should justly be ours.
And yet the very fact that the restoration of our relationship with God is possible (and it is) is not a result of our efforts. The one who joins us to himself in baptism, cutting us free of the tree of death and grafting us to the tree of life which is himself, by that same tree (the tree of the life-giving cross) gives us the means to be saved, and to enjoy once more the purity of the grace-filled life begun in those waters of regeneration. And that action, that gift of Our Blessed Lord’s death on the cross of Calvary, is itself a lesson in healing and forgiveness. Just as he became obedient even unto death of the cross in order to bring us to salvation, so we must imitate his obedience in our humility to the Father if we desire to be renewed in that saving work and receive the mercy and forgiveness which to us he extends.
Today’s gospel reinforces this. The leper came to the Lord and humbled himself, asking to be made clean. Saint Bede writes that this action is ‘at once a gesture of lowliness and shame, to shew that every man should blush for the stains of his life’ (Cat. Aur.). In the Old Testament the one who is sick is to be excluded from the camp; to be called, ‘Unclean, unclean!’ In Christ, though we exclude ourselves from his body, the Church, by the sickness of our sin, so by true sorrow and contrition the Lord offers us healing and the restoration of the life he has given us.
How, then, do we overcome this sickness in our lives? First, by recognizing the damage that sin does. Sin not only fractures our relationship with God but, as with the leper cast from the camp, also our relationship with his Church. Through baptism we are incorporated into Christ’s mystical body; when we betray our baptism through sin, we cut ourselves off from the streams of grace that flow to us through the sacramental life of his body. It is for this reason that Saint Paul tells us that whoever eats the bread and drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profanation (1 Cor. 11: 27). And it is for this reason that we must confess our sins not simply in the quiet of our hearts but to a priest—as the minister of Christ and Christ’s Church. Our sins do not simply affect our relationship with God in a linear manner, but damage the communion of the whole Church, cutting us off from its grace. Our sins may be secret but they are never simply personal, because by them we mar the life all God’s holy people.
Over the past few weeks we have prepared for Lent with the Sundays of septuagesimatide. Blessed Pope Paul VI reminds us that these Sundays act as a church bell that summons us 15, 10, and 5 minutes before the Mass. Today we stand on the threshold of the Lenten fast and so, conscious of all that we have heard this morning, I turn to you now with a special plea: make this Lent count; make this Lent holy. For the sake of your soul, do not put off making a good confession; do not put off making time for prayer, asking the Lord to give you the strength to see your faults; do not put off giving alms, so that by your sacrifice others may benefit. Make this Lent a season of true grace. Push yourself to achieve some heroic and courageous act of holiness of life. Allow yourself to be immersed in the riches of the liturgical season. And allow the pattern of this holy time—a pattern of humiliation and submission, of sacrifice and of penance—to become so imprinted in your lives that, when it comes, the great feast of the Lord’s resurrection might be an ever greater gift of grace, transporting us from the half-light of this mortal life to the blinding brilliance of the true life that awaits us in the beatific vision. In the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass these things are perfectly united. As we turn to offer once more the full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world, let us plead Almighty God for the grace of true contrition for our sins, and the strength to live this coming season—and all our days—more closely united in his love.