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Rites of Miraculous Cleansing…

Rites of Miraculous Cleansing…

6th Sunday of Ordinary Time
By Fr. Victor Feltes

The gospels record how a man with some advanced form of skin disease once came to Jesus in one of Israel’s towns. Seeing Jesus, he approaches and kneels and bows beseeching him, “Lord, if you wish, you can make me clean.” Our Lord, who can read human hearts, probably knows how much this particular miracle will cost him, but he is moved with compassion. Jesus reaches out his hand, touches the leprous man and says, “I do will it. Be made clean.” And the leprosy left him immediately.

One can imagine that man’s joy and excitement. He wants to tell everyone about his miracle! However, Jesus warns him sternly, “See that you tell no one anything.” Apparently, at this point in his public ministry, Jesus does not want to attract too much attention too quickly. Instead, Jesus tells the cured man, “Go, show yourself to the priest and offer for your cleansing what Moses prescribed; that will be proof for them.” What did this offering prescribed in the Mosaic Law look like?

We read in the Old Testament Book of Leviticus: “This is the law for the victim of leprosy at the time of his purification. He shall be brought to the priest, who is to go outside the camp to examine him.” This reference to ‘going outside of the camp’ dates back to the days when the Hebrews were still wandering in the Sinai desert. “If the priest finds that the sore of leprosy has healed in the leper, he shall order the man who is to be purified, to get two live, clean birds, as well as some cedar wood, scarlet yarn, and hyssop.” So this offering involves a curious collection of items: two birds, some cedar, scarlet yarn, and at least a branch of hyssop plant.

Then Leviticus says, “The priest shall then order him to slay one of the birds over an earthen vessel with spring water in it. Taking the living bird with the cedar wood, the scarlet yarn and the hyssop, the priest shall dip them all in the blood of the bird that was slain over the spring water, and then sprinkle seven times the man to be purified from his leprosy. When he has thus purified him, he shall let the living bird fly away over the countryside.”

Jesus told the man he cured to perform to this peculiar ritual saying, “that will be proof for them.” But what would it prove? First, it would demonstrate to the Jewish leaders at the Temple that Jesus had not come to transgress God’s Law but to fulfill it. Also, the cured man himself would be living proof of Jesus’ greatness, for the miracle of a leper being suddenly healed is documented only twice in the Old Testament (i.e., the case of Moses’ sister Miriam and that of Naaman the Syrian). Yet ultimately, this ritual provides proof for all people that Jesus Christ’s saving sacrifice had been long-foreseen by God.

The scarlet yarn, the wood, and the hyssop would each have a role in his Passion. The scarlet yarn foreshadows the robe in which they clothed him. That cedar wood points to the Cross connected to his death. And St. John’s Gospel notes how a sprig of hyssop was employed to lift a sponge of sour wine up to Jesus’ lips. The two birds in that purification ritual were of symbolic importance as well. One bird is slain, while the other is spared. That second bird, after being dipped in the water and the blood of its brother, is set free. This ancient ceremony points to the liberating water of Christian baptism which receives its power from Jesus’ blood.

In addition to its commandments regarding sometimes contagious skin diseases, the Book of Leviticus has rules for evaluating, quarantining, and purifying fungal infections of houses, fabrics, or leather. These commandments were useful in helping protect peoples’ physical health. But these teachings also illustrate, in an allegorical way, lessons about sin in our lives. Mold in your home can harm the health of your whole household. Knowing this, people take black growths on their walls seriously. How seriously do you take diseases in your flesh? How seriously do you take the sins in your soul?

If you had been a leper back then, would you have come to Jesus? Lent begins this week, so decide what you will you do. Go, show yourself to the priest in Confession and faithfully offer the holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Remember and honor the scarlet yarn, the wood, and hyssop of the Innocent One who took your place and through whom you can be cleansed and freed.

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