Holy to be (Un)Holy: Celebrating Holiness in its fullness
Passage: St. Mark 1:40-45
Prayer: Dear God, Speak to us so that we may learn through your word, which is your Son himself. Help us to learn from the word and to live accordingly. In Jesus’ most holy name we pray, Amen
“We don’t need to refer any online or printed materials to know about Mother Teresa. She dedicated her life, to live and work among the alienated people on the streets of Calcutta. Once a journalist commented her that she cannot kiss the face of a person with leprosy even for 1000 pounds. Mother’s reply was amazing. She replied, even I won’t kiss the face of a person with leprosy for 1000 pounds, but when I see a man with leprosy, I see Jesus in him. When I nurse him, I feel like nursing Jesus himself. Isn’t that a beautiful experience?
The Passage that we read now, is very familiar to us. Jesus healing a man with leprosy. We all are well aware about the social settings of the Israel community. They live with a complicated chain of laws concerning purity and pollution, rather clean and unclean, holy and unholy. They have clear instructions regarding everything about what is holy and what is not. What is touchable or consumable and what is not. They were very much particular to observe these laws and to abide by it. It is called Purity map which keeps everyone in a particular position of the society attributing to their holiness status.
In this passage, we can see a man with leprosy. Some say it is not leprosy but it is some other skin disease. Whatever it would have been, it was considered as unholy and unclean in the society because otherwise he would not have told Jesus, if you choose, you can make me clean. For the same reason, we can assume, how much risk this person had taken to be in the presence of Jesus when Jesus was in the crowd. Many people could have found him and could have stoned him. Many could have tried to chase him out of the city or to kill him. But Jesus shows a different understanding about Holiness. Even though he was well aware with the societal norms and rules, through this incident he goes against it. He here restructures the concept of holiness and purity.
I. Not Ostracism but Acceptance is holiness:
We can see the pathetic state of the life of a person with leprosy. He was alienated in the society and didn’t have any acceptance in family or in social circle. It is very much visible in the gesture of the person. He bowed down with his face to the ground (Luke 5:12), which shows the utmost pathetic condition. . But the societal stigma and alienation (perhaps more than his sickness) put him into such state. So we can see a uniqueness in Markan gospel when it describes Jesus’ feeling. It is written that, ‘Jesus moved with pity’. There is a contradiction among two words here. In Greek Bible, the word σπλαγχνισθείς is used to tell that Jesus is moved with pity. But its nuance is not as mild as it is in English. It is a very strong word. It literally means the bowels gushed out, as in Acts 1:18. It was that kind of pain Jesus suffered when he saw this person. Even though, this word is accepted because of its geographical distribution, there is still another word, used which is more strong. That is ὀργῆς, which means “anger”. Even in NRSV Bible, as a footnote, this word is given to replace the word ‘pity’. Jesus was not obviously angry at the person, but rather at the society which was responsible for this person’s present condition and ostracism. Rather he is getting angry at the system or the rules of holy and unholy which pushed the man into the margin.
But Jesus here is trying to redefine holiness. In Hebrew, the root word for Holiness is קָּדַשׁ which means to set apart. In Greek also, the root word for holiness is ἅγιος which again means set apart for God. And most of the time, we also use these words in such a sense. We consider our Church Holy because it is set apart for God. But by the very act of calling something ‘Holy’ because it is set apart, we are creating a boundary. We are creating a line of distinction or a boundary to divide things as Holy and Unholy. When we call something “holy” we are labelling others as “unholy”. The old concept of Holiness was so fragile, as it needed to protect itself from unholy matters, or else holy will become unholy. It is clearly said in the book of Prophet Haggai Chapter 2: 12 and 13. If a holy vestment touches an unholy matter, then the vestment becomes unholy instead of turning the unholy to holy. But Jesus’ style of doing it was a bit different. Actually by touching the man, Jesus should have become unholy. So touching him was a challenge to the society. He might have looked around and might have challenged them silently, “look, I am touching a man with leprosy, does anybody dare here to call me unclean?” No one could call Jesus there “Unclean” because, the unholy became Holy there instead of Jesus being polluted.Jesus who is set apart or who is Holy, is making others also Holy or bringing it into the circle of “setting apart” and making the boundary irrelevant as there will be no one left outside the boundary. He did it by extending the hand of fellowship and acceptance to the people, not by isolating or ostracising them. In this context, Jesus didn’t simply say to the man “Be clean”. But he stretched out his hands and touched that person. And Jesus was bringing him back to the fellowship of the society. And was proclaiming he is meant to be in the fellowship or acceptance of the society and not to be ostracised.
II. Inner Personal Healing to the Social Healing:
As we have discussed, not just the physical healing took place here, but rather he was healing his wounded psyche, or healing the inner being of the person. He was so crushed internally, because, he suffered such great marginalization, and no one was with him. According to the Israelite rule, as soon as he is found as unclean, his robe should be torn and should have an uncovered head and also should make others aware about his presence calling himself “unholy, unholy”. (Lev. 13:45). He should stay outside the city or the society and as far as he is not cured, he should live outside and must not come to the city. The psychological trauma that the person is suffering is even beyond imagination. It was not actually the sickness which made the man unholy rather, it was the system that made the man unholy. Or else, he would have been accepted in the society as soon as Jesus said “I do choose, be clean” and there was no need for Jesus to tell him to go and show to priest himself to be accepted in the society. So the first priority for Jesus was to bring him into the level of self-actualization. That is why Jesus is telling him to go to the Priest to show himself. It was the prime focus of Jesus.
But the greater healing here happened not to that person, but to that community. Through touching one person who is unholy, through being unholy in the sight of the society, Jesus is teaching the society that, the real unholiness lies with not the man but with the society. There happened an incident in one of the Churches in Central Travancore, in the times of CMS missionaries. One day, CMS missionaries brought some People from Dalit background to an Anglican Church. When the so called “main religious upper caste Christians” saw them at the backside of the Church. They wanted to move out of the Church. But they couldn’t approach the back door, because people from “lower caste” was standing there. So they jumped out of the window and got out of the Church. That is why when Jesus sent the disciples to the people he said to them, “As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near’ Cure the sick, raise the dead, and cleanse the lepers….” Jesus didn’t include leprosy in sickness because it has a larger context and meaning in the societal level. Jesus was also healing the society and teaching them that the Holiness lies not in ostracism but rather in acceptance and fellowship.
III. Relationship and Reconciliation: Space to Celebrate the Holiness
Jesus actually not only healed the person, but also restored all his relationships. Till that time, his relationship with his family, his friends, and all dear and near ones was broken because of his unholiness. But here when Jesus dared to make himself unholy in the eyes of others, he restored all the relationships back to him. Also he is making the society to reconcile with the person. It is very interesting to read the story of prodigal son here. In the gospel of Luke 15:30 we read, the elder son tells to the Father there, “But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with the prostitute, you killed the fatted calf.” Here the words which are used are very important. He is referring his brother as “this son of yours”. That means he is telling to his Father that, O Father this man is your son and O Father you are his father. But he is not ready to accept him as his brother. So what is the relationship with him to his father. When he was not ready to accept his brother as his brother, or rather when he considered his brother as an unholy man, he lost his relationship with his father. So we can see in V. 28, “Then he became angry and refused to go in.” When he called his brother unholy, he couldn’t enter into the house. Nobody forced him to go out, but he himself couldn’t get into the holiness of the Father. That is why Our Lord has taught us to pray as “Our Father in Heaven…”. It is not my Father, but it is our father. My relationship with my God is based and depends upon my relation with my brother and sister. The moment I call them unholy, I am out of God’s holiness. Until and unless I reconcile with the people who is now in the lower section of the society, which we consider as unholy, we cannot be in God’s Holiness. Another example can be taken from the Gospel of Luke 9 verse 51 onwards. When Jesus was about to pass through Samaria, the people didn’t let him go, because he was heading towards Jerusalem. Here also we can see how they couldn’t accept the same Jesus, whom once they accepted as Messiah, only because they lost their relation with their fellow beings. Without being concerned about our fellow beings, I cannot stay holy on my own. During the days of last lent, Pope Francis urged all the believers to abstain from the “globalization of indifference.” When we do not care for our brothers, sisters, and all other communities of God, we lose our relationship with God. Same thing we can see in the Gospel According to Matthew chapter 25. In the picture of last judgment, Christ is blaming them for not doing the things which they ought to do to their fellow beings. Only when we show or have the empathetic feeling of Jesus towards others, only when we can make ourselves unclean in the sight of the world for others, we can call ourselves holy. That is why Pope Francis titled his book as “The Name of the God is Mercy.” Until and unless we be one with our siblings, we cannot be holy in the sight of God. So Jesus said, in Matthew 5:23, 24 “So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.” It is more important to reconcile, than to sacrifice. So when anyone from a Dalit background gets marginalized, I lose my relationship with my God. When a woman is downgraded I lose my relationship with God. When any one from LGBTIQ is looked down, my holiness is lost. When anyone anywhere is being made the victim of the societal perspective of Holiness, its me who loses my holiness and relationship with my God. Until and unless I reconcile with them, I cannot get inside the house.
So it is a question, how do we celebrate our holiness? How do we think we keep it? Is it by making ourselves unholy? Or keeping others unholy?
It is easy to keep others far from us, to preserve our holiness. But is it really the holiness of our Lord?
It might be giving an over importance to the Church, but still, can we really place the Church in the shoes of Jesus? When anyone comes to us and say, if you choose, you can cleanse me, what is the response of the Church? Is our Church available for them? Does the Church choose? Will the Church look around with sympathy and anger? Is the Church ready to stretch out the hands and touch the one with leprosy? The Church also should come out of its structure which is dominant in nature. If we come to a more personal level, could we individually accept such people? It is a difficult question for me. But let this question disturb us and let us be hurt by each act of making others unholy. Let us grow to that perfectness of Jesus together.
Come, Let us make ourselves unholy to celebrate the holiness in its fullness.