SIXTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
(Leviticus 13: 1-2.44-46; I Corinthians 10: 31-11: 1: Mark 1: 40-45)
We anticipate issues with the imposition of ashes this Wednesday. Some will react to the way we do it. Because of Covid, Church ministers have been instructed not to make a cross with ashes on the forehead. Instead of the conventional way, the bishops want us to sprinkle ashes upon people’s heads. The discontented will say that they do not want to be deprived of an old tradition. They will also claim that they want to demonstrate their faith by having a cross on their forehead this one day of the year.
However, Christians have shown their faith since ancient times in a more convincing way. Ancient texts exhort the faithful to demonstrate their faith with acts of charity. True followers of Jesus listen and help those in need as if they were him. Saint Mother Teresa had it right when she said that the poor are "Jesus in disguise."
The ashes, formed in a cross on our forehead or sprinkled on our hair, actually indicate something else. They tell the world that we are sinners. We remember that one of the sayings accompanying the imposition of ashes is: "Repent and believe in the gospel." We are to repent of our sins every day and particularly during the forty days of Lent. Ashes are like the scarlet letter "A" that a woman wears on her dress in a famous American novel. Because she committed adultery, the woman is forced to acknowledge her sin to everyone. Maybe our sins are not as serious as adultery, but they offend God and undermine the church’s mission of evangelization. It seems fair that we acknowledge and do something to compensate for them.
But as hard as we try, it is not possible to compensate God for our sins. We continue to long after the wrong things, be they vanities that engulf the soul, pleasures that pamper the body, or hatred that poison the spirit. Only Jesus Christ, obedient to God from the beginning, can do what is required for salvation. So we have to turn to him as the leper in the gospel.
The leper does not demand anything of Jesus. He only tells him: "'If you want to, you can heal me.'” He knows that he is in a sorry situation and only Jesus can save him. According to the first reading, he has to announce wherever he goes, "Unclean, unclean!" We need to recognize that our situation is like his. This is the purpose of going to church this Wednesday. By receiving the ashes, we say to the world: "Unclean, unclean!"
We can count on Jesus to cleanse us. He came into the world to support us. He says to us as well as to the leper: "'Be made clean!'" Because he is God, his very words achieve what they say. To us today he says these words through the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
We should feel the relief immediately. Our sins will no longer be our ruin. However, they will cost Jesus tremendously. He will suffer the torture of the cross for them. We see a rehearsal of this suffering in this gospel passage. It says that the cured leper “began to publicize the whole matter” so that “it was impossible for Jesus to enter a town openly.” Before it was the leper who could not enter any town openly. Now it is Jesus whose movement is restricted. As with our sins, Jesus takes the leper's burden on his shoulders.
On Wednesday the season of Lent begins. We will undertake a pilgrimage, not alone or only with the faithful of the Church. Rather we march with Jesus himself. He is there to support us in our efforts to show our love to God the Father. We do this in three ways. We deprive ourselves of material goods to show that we are sorry for our sins. We help the poor who are God's special friends. And we tell God of our affection in prayer.