Have you noticed that we Catholics have some things about us that make us different from other people? This difference comes from the meaning we attach to the things we do. For instance, for Catholics the meaning of the love between a husband and wife is tantamount to the love of God who alone can create, yet in His love He creates a totally unique, new human being through the love of the husband and wife. This meaning transforms a bodily function into an act of God. We therefore consider it very sacred and not to be used in a tawdry way.
The sacraments are other uniquely Catholic interpretations of life: the person who is baptized, confirmed and eucharist-fed is living in an encounter with the Lord Himself. The one who is sick and given the anointing of the sick encounters the experience of sharing in the sufferings of Christ. The couple who are married in a sacramental marriage encounter the the Lord in the very relationship they share as husband and wife. The one who is ordained is an encounter with Christ for all those he serves, especially when he serves the people well. And the penitent who approaches the sacrament of penance encounters the Lord who sets us free from our sins.
That last sacrament, penance, aka confession or reconciliation, is the one that especially bothers non-Catholics. They think the Catholic Church dreamt it up. But they know not its history. They do not know this about the Old Testament days: that when one had committed an offense against God, that person would have to go to the priest and tell the priest what the offense was. Then the priest would prescribe what was to be done, like purchase a dove or a lamb and have it sacrificed by the priest so that the unclean person could be in a right relationship with God and with the community of Israel.
A big problem for people in those days was that any sickness, deformity or disease was seen as a punishment from God for some offense against God.
To break that concept of God’s doling out punishment to sinners Jesus came into the community and was constantly healing people from all kinds of ailments and sickly conditions.
Yet in today’s Scriptures we see not just Jesus healing, in this case, a leper, but also He reinforces the need for the cleansed man to “go and show [himself] to the priest.”
What is Jesus teaching us about this need to present oneself to the priest? We can see from the very early church that there was always a consciousness of the Christian’s need to remain pure, clean, unblemished, holy, and set apart from the ways of non-believers. If one had committed an act that violated this noble calling, then such a person would confess to the priest or bishop what act was done, and then a penance would be imposed on the penitent as a way of repairing the damage that was done to that person’s relationship with God, but also that person’s relationship with the community that was struggling to live up to the calling given to the baptized.
Jesus could have told the leper, “Your faith has made you well. Go in peace.” He didn’t do that. Why?
Leprosy or any skin condition like impetigo, ring worm, lice, and so many other conditions, were thought to be contagious. So, the leper would have to live apart from the community until the condition somehow got healed. When a healing happened, the leper was to go to the priest and show the priest his body. If there was no more evidence of a skin problem, the leper would have to go through two weeks of purification rites and sacrifices before the community could take him back in and not be afraid of catching what he had.
Over the centuries of the church this same attention to dealing with the contagious element of sin was addressed through the need to “go and show yourself to the priest.” Go, and fess up to what you have done to diminish the holiness of the community of faith, and diminish the luster of your relationship with God.
So, it is in the wisdom of the church that the Lord continues to give us this sacrament, this doorway into starting anew towards the Kingdom of God.
If you are not aware already, the Catholic Church throughout the country is setting aside “leap day”, February 29th from 4:30 to 7:00 PM so that in very Catholic Church across the country the confessional light will be on for you, especially for anyone who has been away from the sacraments for a while. And since Lent begins a week from this Wednesday do consider taking a leap of faith this leap day and “go show yourself to the priest.” Let’s let God’s grace sweep us up into His great mercy.