In the gospel, we have the story of the healing of the leper. He was desperate because he knew that leprosy could not be cured unless a miracle took place. Leprosy, of course, was not just a terminal illness but a very slow and horrifying form of death when a person’s body rots away part by part. But most of all, a leper, because of his infectious disease, is cut off from society, especially from his loved ones. He could only live outside the city and not allowed to approach people, and if people come near he must give them warning that a leper was nearby by shouting, “Unclean, unclean.”
So it must have taken great courage for the leper to approach Jesus in the first place, something forbidden by the Law as he was not allowed to come nearer than six feet from a healthy person. Secondly, he came with humility by bowing low in front of Him. He could sense that Jesus was the visitation of God in person. Thirdly, he came with a request, not a demand, because he understood the sovereignty of God. “‘Sir,’ he said, ‘if you want to, you can cure me.’” He left it to the Lord to decide whether to heal him or otherwise. He came with faith in humility, but he knew that his cure would depend on the grace of God.
What has the healing of the leper to do with the Covenant that God established with Abraham in today’s first reading? It reminds us of the true meaning of the Covenant that God established with us, whether with the People of the Old Covenant or with the Christians in the New Covenant. In the first place, it was God who took the initiative to make the Covenant with us. God is sovereign and free to choose whom He wants to establish the Covenant with. In this case, He had chosen Abram and called him to Canaan where God wanted to give him the land and posterity, and a kingdom. It was not his right but a free gift of God, as in the case of the leper who asked to be healed. All that Abram needed was to respond in faith and gratitude. It was faith that made him righteous and not because of any good works that he did. It was purely the gift of God given without the Law, since the Law did not exist.
So, too, for us Christians. Baptism is a gift from God. In our sinful situation, like the leper, we can do nothing to redeem ourselves. We are helpless in overcoming our sin and death. Only Christ can take away our sins and restore us to fullness of life. Jesus did this by carrying our sins and infirmities in His body. “This was to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah, ‘He took our infirmities and bore our diseases.’” (Mt 8:17) St Peter also wrote, “He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed.” (1 Pt 2:24)
This truth about Jesus taking our sins upon Himself is illustrated in today’s healing of the leper. In touching the leper, He Himself was contaminated by his leprosy and that made Him unclean. But the man was cleansed because Jesus was sinless. His touch took away his sins, his brokenness, years of rejection and isolation. It brought him healing, restoration and integration. In Mark’s gospel, it is even more dramatically presented because we read that the healed leper “went out and began to proclaim it freely, and to spread the word, so that Jesus could no longer go into a town openly, but stayed out in the country; and people came to him from every quarter.” (Mk 1:45) Jesus literally took His place and became unclean and so had to stay out of the city in a symbolic manner. This is once again brought out at His death when He was crucified outside Jerusalem on Mount Calvary as His death was seen as a curse from God by the people. He carried out sins upon His own body so that we can find true healing of body and soul. Hence, at the Last Supper, He declared, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” (Mt 26:28)
In the Old Covenant, we are told that the sign was circumcision. “The Lord appeared to him and said, ‘I am El Shaddai. Bear yourself blameless in my presence.’ ‘You on your part shall maintain my Covenant, yourself and your descendants after you, generation after generation. Now this is my Covenant which you are to maintain between myself and you, and your descendants after you: all your males must be circumcised.’” Circumcision was not actually new to Abram. In his days, some people in Mesopotamia also practiced circumcision, more for hygiene, since people did not shower so often in a desert country where water was scarce. But it was also used as a rite for puberty as well. That was why only adults were circumcised. However, in the case of Abram, circumcision was performed on all males, young and old, that were associated with him. Belonging to Abram’s family would require all males be circumcised as a sense of identity and belonging.
In the New Covenant, the sign was baptism because it is a symbol of cleansing and dying to death; and rising to a new life. Jesus gave the baptism of John the Baptist a new meaning that goes beyond a symbolic washing of sins through repentance but new life through being born again in the Holy Spirit. It is also a symbol of dying with Christ to our sins and rising with Him anew in a new life. This is why we are also given a new name at our baptism to signify that we have put on a new way of life and our being have been transformed, that we are born again to a life of Christ. When Abram and Sarai were given a mission, they too were given a new name, from Abram, “Exalted Father” to “Father of multitude” and from Sarai “a princess” to Sarah, “the princess” from which children that were given birth by her would belong to the royal family which was realized in the Davidic dynasty and the Messiah who came from the line of King David. She, like Abraham, would become the ancestors of generations to come and kings and queens as well.
Just like the Old Covenant, baptism is given to all who are family members. Although the Covenant was made with Abram, it had implications for all those who were members of his family. All the male descendants of Abram and those that belonged to him had to be circumcised. This is because God’s covenant with Abram was intended for his people as well. This, too, is the basis for infant baptism in the Church. Although some Christians and even Catholics feel that because baptism is an act of faith, we should not impose our faith on our children. Logically, it seems to be the best way since a child might not be able to make a sincere confession of faith in Christ. But this is a fallacy. Very few can claim to have absolute faith in God when they were baptized. Faith is a growing reality. It is not something we possess once and for all, or something that cannot grow further.
In truth, faith is not something taught but caught. Faith is a relationship. It takes time to grow a relationship, to purify it and to strengthen it. This is why faith develops in an ambience of faith. The family is the most important ambience in leading a person to faith. Whilst faith requires a personal response on our part, faith is also a gift from God. “No one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father.” Of course, man must do his part to search for God, for truth and for life. When a child is raised up in a family of faith, the child’s faith is assured. If infant baptism has proven to be a failure in the fact that many of our young children have lost their faith by the time they reach adulthood, the real problem lies with the faith of our parents, their elders, their teachers and their guardians. Because they themselves are not models of faith, we cannot expect the children to imitate the faith of their guardians or be inspired by their life and example. So it is not that infant baptism is not effective, rather because we do not supply the conditions for the faith to grow. This is why we also read in the gospel and in the Acts that the entire household was converted because of a miracle of healing, or when they saw an act of God, as in the case of the jailer who was converted with his entire household when the Lord broke the chains of Paul and Silas. (cf Acts 16:16-34)
At any rate, we must be careful not to over-emphasize faith on the part of the efforts of man as if we make faith happen. Faith remains a free gift from God. He can work in us in ways beyond our imagination. Faith is a gift and also a task. God is the one who takes the initiative to reach out to us and we respond accordingly in faith. “Jesus stretched out his hand, touched him and said, ‘Of course I want to! Be cured!’ And his leprosy was cured at once.” Faith requires us to grow with the community of faith. That was why after being healed, the Lord said to him, “Go and show yourself to the priest and make the offering prescribed by Moses, as evidence for them” so that he could return and be re-integrated with the family of God, the Chosen People. So let us therefore cherish our faith, give it the right conditions for growth and nurturing so that we will remain truly members of the New Covenant.
Written by The Most Rev William Goh, Roman Catholic Archbishop of Singapore © All Rights Reserved. The contents of this page may not be reproduced, in whole or in part, in any form or by any means, without the prior written permission from the Archbishop’s Office. This includes extracts, quotations, and summaries.
Best Practices for Using the Daily Scripture Reflections
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