I will, be thou made clean

Guarigione LebbrosoAdore ye God, O all ye His angels; Sion hears and is gladdened thereby, and the daughters of Juda shall exult. V. The Lord reigneth, let the earth be glad; let the many isles rejoice. (Psalm 96:7–8, 1)

The Introit
Today’s Holy Mass opens, as did last Sunday’s, with the Introit’s immense call to adoration. Last Sunday the call was addressed to the whole earth — omnis terra —today the Introit calls upon the angels to adore God — omnes Angeli eius. The summons to adore God goes out to all the human inhabitants of the earth and to all the angelic habitants of heaven. Pleni sunt caeli et terra gloria tua. Heaven and earth are full of the glory of the Lord.

As I explained last week, “full, conscious, and actual participation” in the sacred liturgy is a grace given only to souls who prostrate themselves before God in humble adoration. Only the adoring man can hear the Word of God rightly. Only the adoring man can beseech God rightly. The adoring man places himself in total submission to the mysterious operations of the Holy Ghost and, as Saint Paul says, “God, who can read our hearts, knows well what the Spirit’s intent is; for indeed it is according to the mind of God that he makes intercession for the saints” (Romans 8:27).

The Collect
In every Mass and at every Hour of the Divine Office the Collect is given to us not only as the form of our prayer but also as a lesson in the school of prayer. If you would learn how to pray rightly, if you would pray as a Catholic, and “as the Holy Ghost gives utterance” (cf. Acts 2:4), then pay attention to the Collect and learn from it the secret of a prayer capable of asking for what God desires to give, and of obtaining that for which it asks.

Almighty, ever–living God, look mercifully upon our infirmity, and stretch forth the right hand of Thy majesty to protect us.

Faith from Hearing
This Collect gives us, in advance, the kernel of the Gospel. The leper approaches Jesus. It is quite possible that the leper, while remaining at a distance from the multitude of those who were listening to Jesus teach on the mountain, heard the teaching of Jesus nonetheless and so received the grace of faith in His divinity for, as the Apostle says, “faith cometh by hearing” (Romans 10:17).

Approach and Adore
Approaching Jesus — a bold action, for the leper was bound by the law to remain apart — he adored Him, and said, “Lord, if Thou wilt, Thou canst make me clean” (Matthew 8:2). The leper’s act of adoration precedes his petition. So too in the Collect: we address the Father, calling Him “almighty and ever–living God”, which form of address is, in itself, an act of adoration. Only then do we formulate our petition: “look mercifully upon our infirmity”.

He Touched Him
The gaze of Jesus, a gaze full of compassion, rested upon the leper. Look mercifully upon our infirmity. The sight of the poor man’s infirmity must have been a terrible thing. Most people found it repulsive and loathesome. Leprosy is a highly visible disease. It attacks the the skin, then the flesh, and finally penetrates even to the bone, deforming one’s members and mutilating one’s appearance. Not only did Jesus look upon the man’s infirmity; He did something more, something utterly unprecedented and shocking. “And Jesus stretching forth his hand, touched him, saying: I will, be thou made clean” (Matthew 8:3).

The Right Hand of the Lord
This extraordinary gesture — God reaching out to man in act of pure compassion — was also announced in the Collect when we prayed, “stretch forth the right hand of Thy majesty”. The majesty of God is the epiphany, the showing forth, of His splendour and might.  The “right hand” of God is the hand by which He works mighty deeds, deeds of surpassing power, deeds beyond anything man can do. This image of the right hand of the Lord will recur in just a few moments in the Offertory Antiphon of the Mass, which the liturgy, with genius, places in the mouth of the leper made clean, become a new man by the power of God:

The right hand of the Lord hath wrought strength: the right hand of the Lord hath exalted me: I shall not die, but live, and I shall declare the works of the Lord. (Psalm 117:16–17)

Michelangelo Finger of God

Here, what happens? Wholeness touches decay. Purity touches impurity. Life touches death. If you would understand the momentous import of this touch, look at what Michelangelo painted in the Sistine Chapel: the creating act by which God, with a touch of His finger (an image of the Holy Ghost), gives life. Michelangelo depicted the moment of contact between the divine and the human, between the Creator and the creature, between the Source of Life and one quickened by Life’s touch.

The Collect makes us ask not only that God stretch out His hand but also that, in so doing, He protect us. To protect is to provide shelter; it is to put a roof over one exposed to rain, cold, wind, lightening, and blazing sun. The Finger of God heals, cleanses, restores, and quickens; the Hand of God protects and shelters.

The After–Care
Jesus did not cleanse the leper and, then, abandon him. He provided for the care of his soul by imposing silence on him; by sending him to the priests of the Temple, who, according to Jewish law, functioned as the authorised witnesses of a cure from leprosy; and, finally, by enjoining him to make the prescribed sacrifice of thanksgiving to God. In these three facets of the after–care prescribed by Jesus we are instructed on what we ourselves are to do when healed, cleansed, restored, and quickened by the Finger of God.

First of all, we are to keep silent. We are not to go back over the misery of our former condition, nor call attention to what we were lest we lose sight of what, by God’s grace, we are, and are called to become. We are not to be, as the book of Proverbs aptly describes, “like a dog who returns to its vomit”. Silence, then, about past sins, past miseries, and past wounds. We are to imitate the mercy of God who, when he forgives our sins, “puts away our iniquities and casts all our sins into the bottom of the sea” (Micah 7:19). This silence is a bulwark against the temptation to risk despair by never putting one’s own sins behind oneself. It obliges us never to throw into another’s face the accusation of past sins, saying, in effect, “You may be clean now, but I remember when you were a stinking, loathesome leper”. It further obliges one never to address the same words to oneself, becoming one’s own accuser and, thereby, doing the devil’s work, for he is the accuser from the beginning (Apocalypse 12:10).

The Priest: Witness of God’s Mercy
Secondly, we are to have recourse to the ministry of Christ’s priests. The priest not only hears the confession of one’s sins and pronounces the words of absolution; he is also the privileged witness of the mercy of God. No one know more about the mercy of God than the priest who devotes himself to the ministry of the confessional. The confessional is where the Finger of God’s right hand touches us again and again, and this by the ministry of the priest. Even Saint Paul, whose conversion we also commemorate today, was sent by Jesus to Ananias so that, by the ministry of Ananias, the work begun by God directly, might be completed by a man representing Him and acting in His Name (cf. Acts 9:16–18).

The Sacrifice of Thanksgiving
Thirdly, we are to offer the sacrifice of thanksgiving. What is this, if not the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, the Great Thanksgiving of Christ and of the Church? Jesus has so ordained things that even the Sacrifice of Thanksgiving should be for us the sacrament of healing. We come to give thanks and, in the very act of giving thanks, even as we partake of the thanksgiving sacrifice that is the sacred Body and precious Blood of Christ, we can expect to be healed. For this reason does the Church makes both priest and people thrice repeat in every Mass the words of the centurion in today’s Gospel: “Lord, I am not worthy that Thou shouldst enter under my roof; but only say the word, and my soul shall be healed” (Matthew 8:8).

The Communion Antiphon

All wondered at these things which proceeded from the mouth of God. (Luke 5:22)

The Communion Antiphon invites us to hold fast to the words of Jesus in today’s Gospel and to ponder them in our hearts. In so doing, we will imitate the Blessed Virgin Mary who, Saint Luke tells us, “kept all these words, pondering them in her heart” (Luke 2:19). What are these words of Jesus? They are: “I will, be thou made clean” (Matthew 8:3), and “I will come and heal him” (Matthew 8:7). What Jesus says to the leper and concerning the centurion’s servant, He says to us and to our souls. What can one say in response, if not this: Suscipe me, Domine, secundum eloquium tuum et vivam? “Uphold me according to thy word, and I shall live: and let me not be confounded in my expectation” (Psalm 118:116).