“Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean” (Mt. 8:2)
For the people of the ancient world, the most dreaded disease was undoubtedly leprosy. It was an incurable and pervasive disease that slowly spread over the body, covering it with painful, unsightly ulcers and condemning all who contracted it to horrible suffering and death. It was a merciless illness that honored no boundaries, ravaging the lives of everyone it touched: male and female, young and old, educated and illiterate, saints, and criminals, rich and poor alike. It was literally impossible to move beyond its reach.
But perhaps the most feared aspect of leprosy was that it condemned those afflicted to live out their lives in isolation, separated from normal society, from their families and friends. Because the disease was so contagious, lepers were driven out of their homes and forced to live in colonies, far from populated areas so that they could not infect anyone else. Those with leprosy truly suffered what could be termed a living death.
Because of this people were mortally afraid of lepers and strove to keep them as far away as possible. In fact, if a leper happened to encounter a healthy person at any time, he was obliged to cry out: “Unclean, keep away”, in order to warn them not to approach.
Jesus must have encountered lepers many times during the course of his public life as an itinerant preacher. Fortunately for us, one of these encounters is recorded in the Gospels, and this chance meeting of Jesus with the leper holds deep meaning for us today and opens new horizons of hope and opportunities of healing.
We see that Jesus did not react like everyone else when he encountered this leper on the road. He did not turn away in fear and revulsion, he did not avoid him or ignore him as others did. Rather, he approached him, looking at him with love, treating him with the dignity of a child of God.
And the poor leper, overcome with disbelief and joy that anyone would address him in such a manner, dropped to his knees in front of Jesus and said: “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.” And we read in the Gospel that Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man and said, “I am willing. Be clean!” (Mt. 8:3)
Is it not true, that we are very similar to this leper we see in the Gospel? Is it not true that our bodies, like his, are covered with sores, not necessarily physical sores, but wounds of the soul: sin, pride, jealousy, lust, hatred? And is it not also true that this spiritual disease has isolated us from each other and most importantly from God? Is it not true that many times, like the leper, we cry out to Jesus: “I’m unclean! Stay away! You cannot help me!?”
Thankfully, we, as a Church, are entering a special time of the liturgical year that is designed especially to help us break down the barrier that our spiritual leprosy has erected between ourselves and God: the time of Great Lent.
How? By means of the spiritual tools and treasures the Church offers us during Great Lent: the unique liturgical services that we celebrate together in our churches, a more intense personal prayer regime, fasting from that which separates us from God, good works and acts of service to our neighbor, and, above all, the Holy Mysteries of Penance and the Holy Eucharist.
During Great Lent, Jesus approaches all of us who are sickened with the leprosy of sin and pride, much as he approached the leper on the road. And even though we may protest that we are unclean, that we are unworthy, or unable to change, Jesus knows differently. He knows that with but a touch of his hand, we will be healed.
Therefore, in the blessed weeks of Great Lent that lie ahead, let us cry out as did the leper: “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean!” Let Jesus approach us and allow His hand to touch the spiritual wounds which cause us so much pain and misery: the wounds of pride, lust, envy, and every other vice, and especially the spiritual and emotional wounds caused by the bloody war in Ukraine. Let us return from the isolation of our sinfulness to the loving embrace of the Father.
As we embark upon these blessed days, we your hierarchs in the United States, impart upon you the blessings of the Holy Spirit for a fruitful and blessed Lent as we journey together towards Pascha.
Sincerely in Christ,
Archbishop of Philadelphia
Metropolitan of Ukrainian Catholics in the United States
+Paul Chomnycky, OSBM (author)
Eparch of Stamford
Eparch of St. Nicholas in Chicago
+ Bohdan J. Danylo
Eparch of St. Josaphat in Parma