Sunday, February 15, 2009

Hope and the Horror of Loneliness

Today's first reading, Lv 13:1-2, 44-46, presents us with the shame of disease and sickness which isolates the infected person from life in human society. Sin has a certain similarity to leprosy. We tend to think of sin as a small blemish on our forehead, but it can spread, destroying our limbs and tearing apart friendship and neighborhoods. The words of Leviticus 13 must have sticken terror into the hearts of ancient people: "The one who bears the sore of leprosy [...] shall cry out, 'Unclean, unclean!'" What hell on earth to be cut off from everyone for the rest of one's life! And yet in the reading is the faintest gleam of hope, which must have seemed impossible for one who discovered in himself the stigma of leprosy: "As long as the sore is on him he shall declare himself unclean" (NAB). Could anything reverse this corruption and save us from such a death in life?

The black smudge of a cross we will receive on Ash Wednesday is a public confession of our corruption and the death we rush toward (even as it also forms the hopeful sign of the cross). Uncleanliness is not just the problem of lepers — it's my problem too. As Fr. Antonio López has written: "Ultimately, every fear is the flourishing of a suspicion that loneliness may well be the final word on human existence" (Communio 35: 174).

What a reversal it must have been for the leper in today's Gospel! Imagine the poverty and trust he would have needed in order to say, if you wish, you can heal me. And how could he have kept silent about such a restoration? But what unknown joy may have resulted from this impossible obedience?

A new hope has dawned in the world. And the seeds of this hope are firmly rooted in the human, creaturely soil of Mary of Nazareth. Fr. López tells us that "With a faith that will grow along with her child, Mary knows that a person may entrust himself entirely to God without fearing that God will desert him. Thus, we see the truth of man's constitutive relation with God in God's indwelling in Mary, and through her, in man" (179). Fr. López continues "It is characteristic of faith that it roots man in the present. Precisely because Christ brings the Father's mercy into history, however, he also becomes the certainty for the future. Hope, in this sense, is the most beautiful fruit of faith because it is the certainty that love's ever-surprising presence will remain" (179-80).

We are not alone. And nothing can separate us from the love of God. Through Mary, Jesus has taken on the stigma of human sin even to a shameful and unjust death on the cross. Having embraced sin and death, Jesus binds sinners to Himself, conquering and reversing the destructive isolation of sin. Henceforth, sin does not have the last word, but mercy. The only thing left to isolate us is self-sufficiency, self-righteousness, a smug misguided confidence in our own goodness and niceness. For, as Origen so well expressed it: Outside the Church, which is the house of Rahab [the redeemed sinner], no salvation. Hope is for those who recognize that all merit comes from Christ's faithfulness to the Father. Hope is the certain trust that God's present actions are a promise for eternity.

1 comment:

clairity said...

Thank you for this beautiful reflection. The connection with Mary is very clear.