What do you dislike about yourself? What do you hate about yourself? Most of us have an answer to this question, even if we’re not willing to share it. I know I do. What do you dislike, or even hate, about yourself? Perhaps you dislike the way you look. Perhaps you dislike the way you feel inside. Maybe you’ve been sad, angry, lonely, or depressed for a really long time, and no matter what you do or how hard you try, you just can’t seem to get over it, and you hate that about yourself. Perhaps you dislike some aspect of your personality, some character flaw. Perhaps you dislike the fact that you have a bad habit or addiction that you just can’t shake. Perhaps you dislike the fact that you’re young, and you’re not yet able to do what you want to do in life. Perhaps you dislike the fact that you’re old, and you’re no longer able to do what you once did when you were young. What do you dislike about yourself? What do you hate about yourself?
It’s not hard to imagine that the man in our gospel disliked, or even hated, the fact that he was a leper. It’s not hard to imagine that he was ashamed and embarrassed of his leprosy. Leprosy was, and still is, a horrible disease. It can leave you horribly disfigured. Your skin is covered with sores and pustules. Your flesh begins to rot, and fingers, toes, and even full limbs can fall off. You give off a horrible stench. In the time of Jesus, there was no cure for leprosy, and it was thought to be an incredibly contagious disease. You had to go around with torn clothes and unclean hair. You had to live alone, away from the rest of society, in a state of perpetual quarantine. If you came near anyone, you had to cry out, “unclean, unclean,” as we heard described in our first reading. As a leper, you had to witness people your entire life giving you a wide berth and even running away from you in fear and disgust. It’s not hard to imagine, then, that the man in our gospel disliked and even hated the fact that he was a leper.
And yet this man was willing to come to Jesus, kneel down before him, and ask Him to make him clean. The joy of the gospel is that the thing we dislike about ourselves, the thing we hate about ourselves, the thing we are most embarrassed or ashamed of, need not keep us from Jesus. In fact, it is precisely there that the Lord wants to meet us. It is precisely there that the Lord wants to reach out his hand toward us and bring us healing. The joy of the gospel is that there is no self-hatred that is beyond the healing hand of Christ. The only self-hatred that is beyond His reach is the one that we do not bring before Him; the self-hatred that we hide from Him out of fear, shame, or despair.
What do we dislike about ourselves? What do we hate about ourselves? This is the leprosy in our life. And far from being the thing that keeps us from Jesus, this leprosy can be the thing that brings us to Him. It can be the thing which brings about a powerful encounter with his tender love and mercy. I was once told by a priest in confession that sometimes God allows us to struggle with a particular sin because if we never struggled with it, we would never go to God for forgiveness and healing. Sometimes it’s the broken road that leads us straight back to Jesus. Sometimes it’s the struggle with sin and allows us to encounter the healing hand of Christ. If you have a sin like this in your life, and if you haven’t yet brought it to the Lord, follow Jesus’ command to the leper in our gospel: “Go, show yourself to the priest.” Encounter the Lord of love and mercy in the Sacrament of Confession.
My challenge to all of us is to take the place of the leper in our gospel. This is especially appropriate as we prepare to begin the season of Lent. We all have some sort of spiritual leprosy; we all have something we dislike or even hate about ourselves; we all have something we’re ashamed or embarrassed of. Come before the Lord this Lent. Kneel before Him. And as He is lifted up in the Holy Eucharist at Mass, as He reaches out His healing hands from the altar, ask the Lord—beg Him—to heal you and make you clean. “Lord, if you will it, you can make me clean.” Make the leper’s prayer your prayer. And hear the Lord say to you, “I do will it. Be made clean.”