To help us understand today's Gospel, I want to tell you about St. Maximilian Kolbe. St. Maximilian lived in Poland during World War II. He was a Franciscan Friar, so during the war, once Germany invaded Poland, he and a few other Franciscan brothers stayed put at their monastery. They used their monastery to hide and care for Jews, and in about 16 months they protected almost 2,000 Jews. Then in February of 1941, the monastery was shut down by the Nazis, and Fr. Maximilian was sent to Auschwitz. At the camp, he continued to function as a priest, and so he was beaten and lashed regularly. After just a few months at Auschwitz, three prisoners were found to have escaped, so the camp commander decided that 10 people should be starved to death to deter further escapes. When one man, Franciszek, was chosen, he cried out about his wife and children, so St. Maximilian volunteered to be starved to death in his place. Out of love, he willingly took on the suffering of a stranger so that the stranger might go free. In the bunker where Maximilian and the other prisoners were being starved, Maximilian led the other prisoners in prayer. After two weeks he was the only one left, so the guards gave him a lethal injection to finish the process. St. Maximilian traded places with a condemned man, he made himself condemned, so that the condemned might go free.
Our first reading, in giving the rules for the disease of leprosy, explains the Old Testament rules for those who were basically condemned. Leprosy was a frightening disease in biblical times because it had no known cure, so when you were found to have leprosy you were cut off from society completely. Leprosy is formally known as Hansen's Disease today and refers to one specific disease, but in the time of the Old and New Testaments, leprosy referred to a wide number of incurable skin and nervous system diseases. So in the desert wanderings, those with leprosy had to live apart from the camp, and even once Israel was settled in the Promised Land, lepers had to live apart from others. They could never approach other people, they were cut off from family and home forever, and whenever they went anywhere they had to announce their presence so others could avoid them. They had to live completely apart from everything they knew and loved. But worst of all, it rendered them ritually unclean so that they couldn't participate in temple worship. Like those poor souls in the concentration camps, life was emptied of meaning, and they were just men waiting for death.
So the leper in today's Gospel takes a huge risk in approaching Jesus, but what did he have to lose? He was living a life with absolutely no hope. But then he heard of Jesus, someone who could apparently heal any sickness just by speaking or touching that person, and so he knew he had to try. If his position in society could get any worse, if he could be ridiculed and hated any more than he already was, approaching a rabbi asking to be healed was surely the way to do it, so the risk was still huge. But he had to try. If there was any chance of restoring his old life, he had to try.
So he comes to Jesus, and what does he ask? Does he ask to be healed? No, he asks to be made clean. Ritual cleanliness and physical healing go hand in hand in this case, but this man's first concern is his ritual cleanliness. First and foremost he wants to participate in the religion of his people. So Jesus heals him. Now, we know that Jesus can heal by just speaking to people, he healed the paralyzed man just by telling him to get up and walk, Jesus can even heal at a distance like with the centurion's servant. But here Jesus does the unthinkable and actually touches him, and tells him to be made clean. Jesus renders himself ritually impure so that this man might be made clean again.
And then what happens? This is where the story gets really good. This is where it really hits home for us. This man goes off, presumably he offers the proper sacrifice so he can take part in the worship of the temple again, but he can't help but tell others what happened to him. And then the roles are reversed between Jesus and the former leper. Now, the leper can enter the towns and villages as he wants, but the Gospel tells us that "it was impossible for Jesus to enter a town openly. He remained outside in deserted places..." Jesus healed this man of his sickness, but then he took the punishment for the sickness on himself, without actually taking on the sickness. Like St. Maximilian would do 1,900 years later, Jesus traded places with the condemned so that the condemned could be free.
And yet, trading places with the isolated leper is only symbolic of what he would soon do on the Cross. Since Adam, sin had been our lot in life, and because of sin, death. But Jesus stepped forward and offered to die in our place. He took on the punishment of death, that punishment that was rightfully ours because of our sins, and he himself died so that we could go free and live. My friends, recognize that before Jesus, our natural end in life, like Franciszek in the concentration camp, was death with no hope of escape. Before Jesus, heaven was closed to us. But Jesus stepped forward and willingly traded places with us. Like Maximilian did for Franciszek, Jesus did for us, in fact, Jesus was the one who motivated Maximilian to sacrifice himself.
So we are preparing to undertake and celebrate again the disciplines of Lent. Lent is a time of preparation, but the season of Lent is so important to our lives as Christians that our preparations shouldn't begin just on Ash Wednesday. We should be preparing now to go into the desert with Jesus, and this is a good Gospel to hear on our last Sunday before Lent begins. Let this Gospel motivate you this Lent. Go into Lent with the understanding that you were bought at a price at Calvary. Your freedom, your eternal life, was won at a cost, and to Jesus, you were totally worth it.
So this Lent, strive to respond to his gifts with your own gifts. No Lent should ever be ordinary, but every Lent should be a new encounter with the Savior who offers you eternal life. When we get to Easter, as part of the Easter Exultet we'll sing to God "O love, O charity beyond all telling, to ransom a slave you gave away your Son!" We have been saved by a God who loves us, let's strive to respond in love this coming Lent.
[There have been recurring outbreaks of leprosy throughout human history. In the mid 1800's leprosy was rampant in the Hawaiian islands and so again, lepers were isolated. St. Damien volunteered to minister to them until he himself died of the disease. I had the opportunity to visit the colony where he worked last October and I wrote about it here.]