6 Ordinary B – February 12, 2012 – “Do Not Keep It a Secret”
Leviticus 13:1-2, 44-46; Psalm 32:1-2,5,11; 1 Corinthians 10:31-11:1; Mark 1:40-45
Many years ago when I was quite young my mother took me to church to watch a ritual. We waited in the lobby. A priest met us with holy water. He said a few prayers and sprinkled the water over my mother. I remember her head was covered with a veil and she was holding a candle. My mother had just given birth to my sister, Elizabeth Ann and now she was being “churched.”
The churching of women is an ancient custom, no longer practiced in Western Christianity. It is a ritual where a new mother is blessed for giving birth to a child. There is nothing wrong about that. However, it was also known as a ritual for the purification of a woman after childbirth because she was thought to be sinful and unclean.
The purification of childbearing women is found in same book of Leviticus where we heard about the lepers this morning. Leviticus was a manual for the priests of Israel. Their job was to teach the difference between the clean and unclean, the sacred and the profane. It was thought that the physical impurities of the Israelites would pollute the temple sanctuary. The story about the lepers and child bearing mothers is about such impurities.
There are double penalties in these biblical stories. The persons stricken with a scale disease were seen as being punished by God. Then the priest was instructed to isolate those persons from the community. It was unlawful to talk to them, be seen with them much less touch them.
Today’s gospel is similar to Mark’s other episodes where Jesus is depicted as one who was eager to heal someone or connect with outcasts. Although the text says Jesus was moved with pity, older translations suggest the original word was “angry.” Why would Jesus be angry with the man who just wanted to be made clean? We know that the laws prohibited mingling with outcasts but that never bother Jesus before.
The more Jesus went about performing such miracles his reputation spread. The more popular he became the greater danger he was in. People would spread the news causing religious and civic leaders to grow suspicious of Jesus and his activities. Was this the cost of his discipleship? Was Jesus, who was determined to show God’s love for all, being punished himself? No wonder he said to the man in the gospel, don’t tell anyone, keep it a secret. Can we keep it a secret?
We are all blemished in some way. We live in an age when we are suspicious of others who are not like us, who do not think or look like we do. We are quite capable of treating others as outcasts by calling them names, excluding them from our activities, fighting with them, killing them.
Our stance as Christians is to learn how Jesus dealt with societal problems even though his life was at stake. For us there is no such risk so there is no reason for not being good to one another. We have the privilege and liberty to speak up in public for the rights of all human beings. What is the message? Do not mistreat other people just because they are not like us or do not share our values.
My mother, like other child bearing mothers in her time, was ostacized. The ritual was used to usher her back into the church. We still have liturgies in our church for reconciling, purifying, regenerating. We just do not use words like unclean or outcast to describe the persons celebrating them. Instead our rituals are built upon love and respect for others and the presence of God in them. Our sacraments are affirmations of who they are, how they relate to God and others. They are not designed to demean them.
The message to the Corinthians in the second reading is attributed to Paul. It says that he tried not to offend anyone; that he worked for the benefit of the many. Paul believed that Christ destroyed all barriers in life. Seeking the common good, the healing of humanity, is still our mission. We cannot keep what Jesus taught us a secret.