Life on the Chrism Trail

Homily for the Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time

World Marriage Sunday

February 14, 2021
Saint Patrick Cathedral
Fort Worth, Texas

Leviticus 13:1-2, 44-46
Psalm 32:1-2, 5, 11
1 Corinthians 10:31-11:1
Mark 1:40-45

The first reading from Leviticus and today’s reading from the Gospel of Mark are related in that they both involve leprosy and its effects on participation in the community. Leprosy in the Bible is not always the condition known to us as Hansen’s disease, but it is always a visible skin defect. Leprosy in the Bible is presented as an exterior blemish, a disorder of surfaces, a superficial disfigurement, and it never seems to go away.

The visibility of these sores and the perceived threat of contamination resulted in the exclusion of the victim from the community. In this way, leprosy was a sign of sin that called for temporary treatment until the skin looked better. The Book of Leviticus instructs such individuals to wear torn clothes and no hat, to wrap their face, and announce themselves to others as unclean.  Isolated from family and friends, their lives are lonely, unpleasant, and humiliating, not unlike the life of sin.

By the time of Jesus’ life and ministry, the prescriptions called for in the Book of Leviticus and the examination required by the priests of the Temple to permit readmission into the community had become procedural and simply a review of externals. The priests of the Temple were responsible to declare someone based on external appearances to be clean or unclean and to bind those judged to be unclean with temporary restrictions sending them into the wilderness and isolation until their appearance changed.

But contrary to the practices of the priests at the time, Jesus welcomed and even sought out such outcasts. For Jesus, nothing truly human is alien or unclean. Jesus does not judge simply by external appearances but more perfectly by the interiority of the person’s life. Only sin is alien and unclean to Jesus because sin is not truly a part of human nature. Sin is not a part of God’s creation of the human person, sin resulted from an abuse of free will.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus encounters a leper in the wilderness who demonstrates the gift of courageous faith by what he asks of Jesus. “If you want to, you can make me clean.” The leper is not simply seeking a change of appearance, he truly wants to be healed and made whole. The leper trusts Jesus. So, with a simple gesture, Jesus reaches out and heals the leper, He does not simply treat the leper externally or declare the leper’s appearances to be clean. Jesus fully makes the leper clean — inside and outside. Jesus heals the leper. Jesus frees the leper from sin. Faith enables the leper to see the interiority of his need to be healed from not just an external blemish, not just a permission to re-enter society, but to truly be healed of sin and its effects. This requires faith in Jesus and not simply external compliance for cosmetic change.

Jesus sends the healed leper back to the priests to show them that he has been cured as proof of the authenticity of Jesus’ mission and identity as the Messiah and the Son of God —only God can forgive and heal sins. The cleansing of the leper by Jesus involves both recognition of the external blemish and the interior reality of the leper as a human person. In a sense, this miracle of Jesus is a manifestation of the Church’s understanding of sacraments, an outward sign instituted by Christ to impart grace. Or, as the Catechism teaches, “Jesus’ words and actions during His hidden life and public ministry were already salvific, for they anticipated the power of His Paschal mystery. They announced and prepared what He was going to give the Church when all was accomplished. The mysteries of Christ’s life are the foundations of what He would henceforth dispense in the sacraments, through the ministers of His Church, for “what was visible in our Savior has passed over into His mysteries.”

One of the sacraments that we consider this weekend is the Sacrament of Matrimony.  Today is World Marriage Sunday. Too frequently we consider marriage only in terms of the obligations and promises exchanged in marriage between a man and a woman. We consider the vows and commitment of permanence, fidelity, and openness to God’s gift of children. These aspects are worthy of our consideration — especially during these challenging times — but they are secondary considerations in relation to matrimony’s institution as a sacrament by Jesus as a means of grace. We consider the vows and commitment of marriage with faith in the light of God’s grace because Christ has made marriage a sacrament that’s even more life-giving than simply a revered human tradition.

Too frequently we live only by appearances and take care to present ourselves as well as possible. Our concern with appearances also prompts us to hide other unpleasant aspects of ourselves: jealousies, pettiness, deceptions, enmities, failures, and ultimately, our sins. But the Gospel invites us to recognize our hidden (and sometimes not-so-hidden) defects and disabilities — aspects that a husband or wife can recognize more clearly than one’s own self. We need not fear those parts of ourselves that we try to hide. Those are the wounds Jesus comes to cure with His healing grace, but He cannot if we deny we have them and are unwilling to present them to Him.

There is a perennial temptation to consider marriage only in its externals: the externals of the wedding ceremony and party, the externals of a contract of two individuals to share property rights, the externals of physical attractiveness, the external appearance of children as an extension of individual parents’ desires, externals put forth to shroud a private lifestyle choice and that results in egotism and loneliness.

As a sacrament instituted by Christ, the Sacrament of Matrimony is a means by which Christ transforms and heals the husband and wife through their vowed and shared life of fidelity, permanence, and openness to His gift of children. It is a sacrament that is administered by each, the husband and the wife, to each other, through this public profession of vows that offer them the grace and the fruit of vulnerability with each other and with God.

The sacramentally married life includes externals, appearances, and public commitment but these manifest and nurture the conversion towards interior holiness through the practice of shared prayer, encouragement, forgiveness, and generosity in caring about each other — in short, through sacrificial love. The struggles with weakness and sin that a person is tempted to deny are the hard work of marriage and family life, the place where a couple should look for God’s grace.  His grace is in the struggle.

In this way, the grace of the Sacrament of Matrimony makes the family and not the individual to be the vital cell of society. All of this is a grace, a selfless gift, from God. It is the selfless gift that brings healing and conversion from sin, forming the willingness in husbands and wives to love each other and their children. The Sacrament of Matrimony tells us that before it is a duty or commitment of obligation, it is a grace and a vocation from God. It is the sacrament that enables a husband and wife to pray with the prayer of interior conversion and exterior commitment, “Lord, if you will it, you can make me whole.” In praying this prayer and in living its fruits, a husband and wife pray it on behalf of our society and share with society its fruits of family life.

I invite young people present today who are not yet married to pray to the Lord for discernment of meeting and coming to know their future husband or wife by looking deeper than just externals. I invite married couples to pray this week with and for each other as husband and wife — even if it is simply the joint recitation of the “Hail Mary” or the Lord’s Prayer. I invite married couples who are struggling with the obligations and challenges of married life to trust the efficacy of their vows as they trust the efficacy of the words of consecration prayed by the priest at Mass. In so doing they can be reminded by the Holy Spirit that Matrimony is first a gift from God, a cause for gratitude, and a sacrament that brings about real change and conversion. If you do this, as a society we can declare with Saint Paul his words from his first Letter to the Corinthians, “not seeking my own benefit but that of the many, that they may be saved.”

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