Third Sunday After Epiphany
by Father Francis Xavier Weninger, 1876
“Lord, if Thou wilt, Thou canst make me clean.”–Matt. 8: 2.
The leper of whom we read in today’s Gospel believes that Christ has the power to heal him, and he is not mistaken; Christ, stretching forth His hand, said: “I will, be thou made clean!”
What leprosy is to the body, that sin is to the soul. Many of the children of the Church, many who call upon Jesus, are covered with this leprosy. They believe in His Power and Will to cleanse them from sin, and yet they are not cleansed, and why not? Because they do not earnestly will it.
It often happens that the sinner, while apparently desirous of conversion, has in reality not the will. And why? That is the question we shall answer today. O Mary, thou purest of the pure, pray that we may be filled with a true desire to be cleansed from the leprosy of sin, through Jesus Christ our Lord! I speak in the most holy name of Jesus, to the greater glory of God!
“Lord, if Thou wilt, Thou canst make me clean,” cried the leper. How much more natural it is for us children of the Church to address Christ in these words, since we know so much better than the leper in the Gospel who Jesus is, and why He came into the world.
The leper did not doubt that Christ possessed the power to heal him, but he was not certain of Christ’s willingness to perform a miracle. In regard to the leprosy of sin, we have no reason to doubt Christ’s willingness to cleanse us. For this He came into the world, for this He sacrificed Himself on the cross, for this He gave His blood and life, for this He established His Church. Do not the Apostles teach us to say: “I believe in the forgiveness of sins?” To give us a remedy against sin, Christ called us to His holy Church, freed us in baptism from the inherited leprosy of our nature, and gave us access to all the Sacraments, those fountains of grace for the purification of souls.
Verily then Jesus is willing. If we are not cleansed, in whom lies the fault? In ourselves. The sinner is wanting in real sincerity and in the earnest desire of being cleansed. And why? Because he feels his own misery too imperfectly. He is not sufficiently disgusted with sin; he is not thoroughly penetrated with fear at the consequences of sin.
The leper was disgusted with himself. Leprosy is, as is well known, a revolting disease, and everyone is careful to avoid those who are stricken with it. But what is such a disease compared to the disfigurement of sin, which makes us resemble Satan in repulsiveness? Not only mortal, but even venial sin is leprosy. Not a moral fault but is more disgusting to God than all the ulcers and sores in the whole world.
Could the sinner but see himself, were he aware of how his soul is deformed by sin, how intense would be his desire, how great his haste to go to Jesus and beg of Him to be cleansed. Unfortunately, the sinner is seldom thoroughly conscious of his deplorable state. He generally believes that his moral condition is not so bad, and, regarding his sins as human weaknesses, consoles himself with the thought that there are others who are worse. He fails to consider God’s horror of sin, the disgust of the angels and saints, who have reason to be ashamed of him if he regards himself in communion with them, or perhaps even calls them his brothers and his sisters. He does not realize that the sight of his sins drives away his guardian angel, all angels, in fact, and saints. He never thinks of the misfortune into which sin has precipitated him, robbing his good works of all merit, and rendering him unable to earn anything for heaven; how sin has opened the gates of hell, so that he is liable at any moment to fall into the abyss, where he must bewail in eternal torments those sins which he here committed with so little concern.
He who stains his soul with many venial sins can not consider how these prevent him from lessening the flow of divine grace, diminish his merits, how they augment the debt that is to be paid in purgatory. Moreover, he can not reflect on the danger his waywardness exposes him to of falling into grievous sin. The consequence of this thoughtlessness is that the sinner hastens not to seek Jesus, and to approach Him in the person of His minister to receive, after sincere repentance, the forgiveness of his transgressions.
Secondly.–The sinner goes to confession and apparently is desirous of being cleansed from the leprosy of his sin, but in reality he is very indifferent. How few of those to whom sin has become a habit–a class of sinners who especially resemble the leper–examine themselves conscientiously before confession on the number of their mortal sins and the circumstances that affect the nature of their transgressions. The leper feels day and night the misery of his disease, and knows every place where it has settled. The habitual sinner does not take the trouble to consider the evil of sin on his soul, and hardly deems it necessary to examine his conscience. Why? He is not really in earnest to be converted.
If it were a bodily illness he would immediately send for a physician, and explain minutely all the symptoms of his disease; but as the condition of his soul is a matter of little concern to him, he gives but a superficial account of its state, and not unfrequently makes a bad confession. It but seldom happens that a habitual sinner accuses himself fully and freely without aid from the priest. Jesus stretched out his hand and touched the leper. The priest should spiritually do the same to the sinner by his words, but as the sinner has not thoroughly opened his heart, the priest is not able to touch the affected parts and heal them by words of advice.
The sinner confesses, but he has not the earnest desire to make a frank and open declaration of his faults. He is satisfied with a lame, cursory accusation, hoping that the confessor will impart a speedy absolution, and not trouble him with many questions. He is not anxious about the future, how he may avoid relapses, anticipate temptations or combat them, when they do assault him, with effectual weapons.
The sinner, moreover, has not the determination to use the proper means to obtain grace and to advance in the ways of virtue, namely, prayer, spiritual reading, the reception of the Sacraments.
Happy are you, O sinner, if you are conscious that you are, earnest in your desire to be converted, to avoid all occasions of committing sin, and to resist temptations, so that you can truthfully say before Jesus and his minister: I will. Christ will say the same to you. And if you unite your will with His, do not doubt that you will be cleansed from the leprosy of your sin through Jesus Christ our Lord! Amen! (1)
THE LEPER–THE FAITH OF THE CENTURION
Once when Our Lord was coming down from a mountain, followed by a great crowd of people, He entered the city of Capharnaum. At the city gates there was a poor leper, who, bowing down profoundly, addressed Jesus and cried out: “Lord! if Thou wilt, Thou canst make me clean.”
Leprosy is a very filthy, disgusting disease. The whole body is covered with a false dry skin like scales, so that the person becomes a most hideous and loathsome object. In the East and in this country, too, leprosy is considered contagious, and the laws of sanitary boards separate people afflicted with it from those that are well, and will not allow lepers to come into the cities. This picture is but a very insignificant description of leprosy. You must see it to know how loathsome it really is.
When you read the description of leprosy think of that other kind of leprosy of the soul, for sin is the leprosy of the soul, and is as filthy and more so than the leprosy of the body. Yes, it is the leprosy of sin that makes the soul a horrible sight before God and the angels. The leprous souls that live in so many human bodies in cities and villages are not subject to any laws. They can remain where they please, and still we know that nothing is more contagious than the leprosy of sin. Thus it is that sin is continually growing and spreading, until we find it in every nook and corner of the world. How rare it is to find youths not infected with some vice or other! How few are untouched by this contagion, or who have preserved their baptismal innocence!
If you are already covered with the leprosy of sin, ah, then cry out: “Lord, you see how miserable my condition is! Heal me–cleanse me. You see that my mouth is infected because such bad words, blasphemies, and curses are continually flowing from it. You see, O Lord, that my body and my senses are infected with this terrible disease, for it induces the soul to commit the sins of impurity.” If you pray in this manner, humbly and confidently, you will hear in your soul the consoling words, “Yes, I will help you to overcome that vice. I will forgive you and give you the grace of remaining good.”
But Our Lord adds: “Go and show yourselves to the priest.” The priest is the minister of God. He will extend his hands over you, and you will be made whiter than snow. You will start up into a new life, in which you will acquire again the merits of your good actions, which would never have been any benefit to you unless you had thus repented. From slaves of Satan you will become adopted sons of God, co-heirs with Jesus Christ.
But remember well, my beloved children, that you must have a good will. St. Augustine says that God cures all evils, but only those which we really want to be cured.
The unhappy leper really wished to be healed, for he realized the sad condition he was in, and Jesus immediately extended His hand and touched him. We admire the power of Christ, for at once the whole body was healed. It was again full of vigor and health. Jesus did not give him time to burst out in sentiments of wonder, exultation or gratitude, but said: “See thou tell no man, but go, show thyself to the priest.” The man obeyed, and as he went he could not help letting people know what Jesus had done for him. The fame of this miracle spread about the country and drew many to look for help from Our Lord.
There was in Capharnaum a centurion, a soldier and a heathen, whose servant lay at the point of death. He came to Our Lord and laid his trouble before Him: “My servant lieth at home sick of the palsy, and is grievously tormented.” “I will come and heal him,” said Our Lord. But the centurion did not expect so great a favor; he repeated those admirable words: “Lord I am not worthy that Thou shouldst enter under my roof, but only say the word and my servant shall be healed.”
These words are so applicable to all poor sinners who are about to receive the visit of the Lord, that the Church has borrowed them and uses them three times when communion is to be given. “We should repeat them with a heart full of confusion, because even though we possessed the purity of an angel and the sanctity of John the Baptist, we would not be worthy to receive in our heart Our Lord Jesus. Therefore ought we do all in our power to be free from sin, that we might be the less unworthy to receive Jesus in the great Sacrament of His love.
There are few young people who are so impressed with the sublimity of this holy Sacrament that they approach it with sentiments of respect and veneration. On the contrary they generally go without proper dispositions. They do not endeavor to excite in themselves the sentiments of devotion and love of God which are required to make a good communion.
But there are many, too, who are unworthy to receive Jesus in their heart because their souls are blackened with crime. They defile their tongues with impure conversations, and they dare to receive on them the body of Christ. They defile their bodies with impurities and into these they dare to introduce the Holy of holies. They give scandal and they wish to receive Jesus.
They go to confession and if the priest refuse them absolution because he sees no signs of amendment, they go to another, who is easier, so that they may get through. How blind such young people are! They do not comprehend that they are making a bad communion.
Go, of course, frequently to communion, but do so with a pure heart, and free from sin, full of humility, reverence, and love. When the time approaches for communion, call on the angels, the archangels and all the holy spirits, and beg of them to accompany you to the banquet of Our Lord.
When Our Lord heard the humble words of the centurion He was struck with astonishment and said, “Amen, I say to you, I have not found so great a faith in Israel.” It was certainly a great act of faith, and that was the reason it drew on the centurion that commendation which the Lord seldom gave. The centurion trusted in the power and goodness of Our Lord. He knew, too, that it was not necessary for Our Lord to come to his house. He knew He was God, or at least had the power of God at His command. For this faith and trust Our Lord broke forth into unusual praise.
Even among faithful Christians it is rare to find those who really trust in God. They put trust in their friends, in their own smartness and strength, but they do not remember that they have a God at their command to whom they may go with all confidence. We trust too much to our friends in many things and even prefer them to God. Here is a young man who, meeting his companions, goes with them to lunch. It is Friday. The young man refuses to eat meat, but his companions persuade him. “Oh, eat it! What wrong can there be?” He yields, and the sin is committed.
Another meets a companion on the street. “Where are you going?” “To hear a sermon,” is the reply. “Oh, don’t be so foolish as to sit there to listen to such an insignificant preacher. That is good enough for doting old people or pious women. Come, let us go to the theatre. You will see nice things; you will laugh and be happier there than in church.” He goes out of friendship for his companion. He witnesses the derision of his religion, or immoral scenes; he sees many things that please the eye and stir his sensuality. He hears many improper things; his mind is filled with loose sayings and bad thoughts, and all this has happened simply to please a friend. You see then how obsequious you are to your friends, but of God and Christ you make no account.
When Our Lord had said the words of commendation to the centurion He added: “Many shall come from the east and the west and shall sit down with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, but the children of the kingdom shall be cast out into the exterior darkness.” God is merciful to all; He calls all; but they must have the faith of the centurion. Then He turned again to the centurion and said, “Go, and as thou hast believed so be it done to thee.” That same moment the servant was healed, and when the centurion arrived home he found the man perfectly restored to health. Just reflect a moment on these words of Our Lord. “The children of the kingdom shall be cast out into the exterior darkness; there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Terrible words; but which will prove as true to many Christians as they were to many of the Jews. Not a day passes but many infidels and idolaters come to the faith, are converted, and enter the kingdom of God, while many Christians born in the faith, brought up and educated in it, perish miserably in eternal damnation. A damned soul once returned to the earth and asked whether there were any good people still on earth, for he had seen such innumerable multitudes going to hell that he thought there could not be one left.
St. Bernard understood so well the misery of those who went to hell that he used to say, “If out of all the human race, who number thousands of millions of souls, it were known that only one was to go to hell, I would tremble with fear lest I should be that miserable one.” O, my dear young people, let us make up our minds that we will not be of the number of the wicked Christians who will lose their places in heaven which were marked out for them from all eternity had they remained faithful. Are we, the sons of the kingdom, we, the adopted sons of God, to be excluded from our future heritage in heaven and thrown out into darkness? Oh, since the Lord has been so good to us that we have received the grace of being born in a Christian family, let us beg also the grace to remain faithful to Christ and love Him so dearly that we may enter the heavenly kingdom which is ours by right. At the same time knowing that many places are left vacant in heaven by bad Christians, let us beg Our Lord to send His light to the east and west and bring many to occupy these seats of glory. (2)