There are few things Christ could have done in the Gospel this morning that would have shocked the people of His time more than reaching out and touching a leper. All throughout the Gospels, the words and actions of Christ are powerful, sometimes shocking, and even provocative.
But more than that, they are what we call salvific; His words and actions have the power to save, to heal, to transform. The earthly life and ministry of Jesus is itself an anticipation of the work He will accomplish on the cross. The cross is the place of power, that event where Christ will come to heal the sin and suffering not only the people of His own time but also people of all time.
This power to heal is not something that Christ relinquishes after He ascends into heaven and returns to the Father; Christ continues to reach out and touch us even now. I mentioned last week that He does this in the sacraments of the Church. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says that “in the sacraments Christ continues to ‘touch’ us in order to heal us” (CCC, #1504).
But the sacraments can become so familiar to us as Catholics, so common to our experience, that we risk taking them for granted. What is really taking place in this touch of Christ that we encounter in the sacraments?
Essentially, there are two aspects of the sacramental life that are made evident in our Gospel this morning. The first is the very power of Christ, who is able to bring about healing and manifest His grace simply by the act of reaching out to us.
The leper approaches Jesus and says, “If you wish, you can make me clean.” Christ is moved with pity for him, and He stretches out his hand, touches him, and says, “I do will it. Be made clean.” We are told that “The leprosy left him immediately, and he was made clean.”
In sacramental theology, the term used is ex opere operato; it means that the sacraments are effected simply by the power of Christ, regardless of the worthiness or the holiness of the one administering the sacrament (the priest) or the one receiving the it.
When a child is baptized, it is Christ who cleanses that child of original sin. When the Eucharist is confected, Christ transforms the bread and wine into His body and blood. It does not depend upon us.
The great Catholic author Graham Greene, in his classic novel, The Power and the Glory, gives us a challenging example of ex opere operato. The main character is a priest who is “on the run.” He is in Mexico during that period in history when Catholicism has been outlawed, so his life is in danger at every turn.
Now, all throughout the book he is struggling with his past. He is battling alcoholism—he refers to himself often as “the whiskey priest”—and he has fathered a child; he’s struggling with the shame that comes along with that. He’s in a terrible spiritual state.
But as he continues to run from the authorities, he encounters the common people who are literally dying for the sacraments. He goes through a village and they prevail upon him to celebrate Mass for them; in another place they get him to perform baptisms. And all the while he’s in a state of mortal sin.
The book poses some very complex moral issues, but nonetheless it gives a rather dramatic example of ex opere operato, the power of Christ in the sacraments beyond the worthiness, or often unworthiness, of His people.
But there is another essential aspect of the sacramental life, and that is our response. It is possible for the sacraments of baptism or the Eucharist to be rendered ineffective, not because of any lack or shortcoming in God, but simply because we have not responded or we have responded poorly.
The leper in the Gospel this morning is told very clearly by Christ not to publicize what has happened to him. “See that you tell no one anything,” Jesus says to him. The command is very clear. He publicizes the matter anyway, and as a result Jesus can no longer minister in that town. He is forced to change His mission in that place.
Sometimes we place obstacles before the sacraments, which render them ineffective. What kind of obstacles? Our sins, our lack of preparation in receiving so great a gift, perhaps our complacency or even lack of faith in what God is able to accomplish in us through the sacraments of the Church.
It has been said that the sacrament of baptism, un-inhibited, will eventually lead to complete personal sanctity; in other words, if there are no obstacles to hold it back, our baptism will allow us to become saints. One of the greatest things we can do to grow in the spiritual life is to acknowledge those obstacles, those difficulties we encounter which may be keeping us from growing in our faith, and give them to God.
God is more powerful than any obstacle in our way. He is able to overcome whatever is keeping us from living a joyful and faithful life in Christ. The miracle of grace and the miracle of the Gospel is that, time and time again, He does exactly that!
This week, may we become more and more aware of the power of Christ who touches us personally in the sacramental life, and may we respond more completely to that touch by allowing Him to accomplish all that He desires in us.