Scripture Readings, Feb. 11, 2024

February 11, 2024

Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B

Leviticus 13:1-2, 44-46

Psalm 32:1-2, 5, 11

1 Corinthians 10:31–11:1

Mark 1:40-45

“See that you tell no one anything.” (Mark 1:44) Strange words from a man who came to bring Good News to be witnessed to, to the ends of the earth. (cf. Acts 1:8) Stranger still because Jesus also tells the leper he heals in this week’s Gospel to show himself to the priests, literally “in witness (martyrion) to them.” (Mark 1:44)

Can Jesus not make up his mind? Or is there something deeper at work here?

The best-known explanation for Jesus’ seemingly illogical injunction is what is known as the “messianic secret.” This is the idea that early in Christ’s ministry, he wished to conceal the fact that he was the Christ — the “anointed one,” the “messiah” — because of the propensity for this status to be misunderstood as a call for political rebellion in the temporal realm in ways that might derail his heavenly mission of eternal redemption by way of the Cross. He also came not only to die for us, but also to found the Church — God’s Kingdom on earth — which would take time, especially working with knuckleheads like us. And so, Christ maneuvers to orchestrate precisely when his time would come to lay down his life according to his Father’s will.

That healing a leper would identify Jesus as having messianic status is made clear in Matthew’s Gospel, where Jesus tells the disciples of John the Baptist, who come to inquire whether Jesus is “the one who is to come,” to tell John what they themselves see and hear: “the blind regain their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have the good news proclaimed to them” (Matthew 11:3-5) — all things prophesied by Isaiah as marks of the messianic age. (cf. Isaiah 35:5-6 and 61:1)

But keeping his status secret for a time was not the only thing at play in Christ’s command. St. Bede the Venerable turns another corner on the reason for Jesus’ discretion, pointing to the example it provides his disciples for the day when they, too, will work wonders in his name. He writes, “The reason why, in doing a miracle, (Jesus) ordered it to be kept secret, and yet for all that it was noised abroad, was, that his elect, following the example of his teaching, should wish indeed that in the great things which they do, they should remain concealed, but should nevertheless unwillingly be brought to light for the good of others. He gave an example of what his members ought to wish for, and of what should happen to them even against their will.”

Discretion and true witness. The two go hand in hand. It is what St. Paul urges the Corinthians in our Epistle this week: “whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God,” he writes, “not seeking (your) own benefit but that of the many, that they may be saved.” (1 Corinthians 10:31,33) Christ is not looking to market himself and win effervescent praise as a wonder worker. As Mark’s scene makes clear, he was “moved with pity” for this man — a verb that even evokes a kind of visceral anger felt in the face of the leper’s plight. So he reached out to heal him. The encounter is quite personal, not calculated according to poll numbers and popular opinion.

Christ’s act of reaching out to touch the leper, itself aided and abetted the leper’s violation of the Levitical law. As our First Reading makes clear, he was expected to “dwell apart, outside the camp” (Leviticus 13:46) and to cry out “Unclean! Unclean!” (Leviticus 13:45) when approached. But Christ’s coming upends the economy of temple cleanliness. He sends the man to be declared clean by the priests and so regain permission to come into the temple, thus showing Christ’s desire not to abolish the law; and yet, simultaneously, he fulfills it by ushering in the new era, prophesied by Ezekiel, when healing and cleansing would flow out of the New Temple. (cf. Ezekiel 47:1-12) The only twist for all to digest was that this New Temple was no building, but Christ’s Body, from which all blessing and healing flow. (cf. John 2:19-21) Perhaps this was the “witness” Jesus wanted the cleansed leper to provide to the temple priests.

Perhaps above all, Christ’s invocation to silence was for the good of the leper himself. When God acts in our lives, it is all too easy to take that action for granted, perhaps casting it before the “swine” of chatty conversation, and then moving on to the next shiny thing that steals away our attention. But Jesus heals this man and then “warns him sternly” (a verb again indicating deep emotion, to the point of “snorting”), saying, literally, “Look! You say nothing. To not even one.”

An encounter with the divine in our lives demands a sacred silence to allow its full effects to take root in us. Without it, we risk becoming like seed that falls on rocky ground, springing up quickly but scorching with the sunrise. As we perhaps ask Jesus for our own healing this week, be it of bodily ailments or of the true leprosy of sin, the ancient liturgy of St. James states well the interior disposition with which we ought to receive it:

“Let all mortal flesh keep silence, And with fear and trembling stand; Ponder nothing earthly-minded, For with blessing in his hand, Christ our God to earth descendeth, Our full homage to demand.”