Homily, Ordinary Time Sunday 28C
When I was growing up, we had a fireplace in the house, and I was always kind of fascinated by fire. And with the snow outside, a fire sounds really good right about now. I could spend hours just watching the flames dance back and forth. I also liked to stoke the fire and keep it going, and if I wasn’t careful enough, I could end up burning myself, which, as you probably know, isn’t the most pleasant thing to do. When we get burned, I doubt that many of us think it’s a great blessing to be able to feel the heat and pain caused by the fire, but if you’ve ever done research on leprosy or Hansen’s disease that we hear about in today’s readings, one of the main problems caused by leprosy is damage to the nerve endings and numbness, the inability to feel pain. So while most of us have reflexes to prevent serious injury when we get too close to fire or touch something that’s hot, or even when we just stub our toe, those who have leprosy can end up doing a lot more damage to themselves because they don’t feel the pain that a healthy person would feel in the same situation.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus heals ten lepers. And how would they know that they’d been healed? They would have started to feel again, and to feel pain, which might explain why only one of them returned to give thanks to God. For most of us, pain is not a pleasant experience, but it does serve a purpose. Pain can motivate us to pull back and get out of harmful situations, like fire or injury. Pain can let us know that all is not well, and that a change might be in order. The ability to feel pain is a sign of health and normal functioning in our bodies. Numbness, whether physical or spiritual, is never a very good thing, even though we might sometimes think feeling nothing at all is better than feeling pain.
When we ask God for healing, when we cry out with the lepers in the Gospel, “Jesus, Master! Have pity on us!” God always answers our prayers. But when the answer to our prayers is actually a new awareness of a harmful situation that we’re in, a new awareness of sin, an experience of pain or restlessness and the healing of our spiritual numbness through trials, are we still able to recognize this as a great grace and healing from God, and to give thanks for it?
It’s not the easiest thing for me to point out to fellow Catholics that certain things are serious sins that we need to bring to Confession before receiving Communion again, things like missing Sunday Mass—even when we’re traveling—or to point out that certain living arrangements contrary to God’s law can also prevent us from receiving Holy Communion fruitfully. But throughout the Bible, the Presence of God, and so the Presence of Jesus in this Holy Eucharist, was never to be treated casually or thoughtlessly. The Letter to the Hebrews tells us that “our God is a consuming fire,” and St. Paul makes it clear to the Corinthians that the holiness of God in Holy Communion can even be dangerous and contribute to sickness or death, if we consume the Body and Blood of Jesus without first examining ourselves, examining our consciences to make sure we have the proper dispositions (Hebrews 12:29, Deuteronomy 4:24; Cf. 1 Corinthians 11:27-30).
Are we spiritually aware, or have we developed a spiritual leprosy, a spiritual numbness that prevents us from experiencing a healthy pain in our conscience in response to sin and sinful situations that do us greater harm than any physical injury? Do we have the reverence we should have, in approaching this fire of the Presence of Christ in the Eucharist? With Naaman the Syrian and with the Samaritan in today’s Gospel, we give thanks to God even for the pain and trials we experience, as answers to our prayers. May God continue to wake us up to the spiritual realities that surround us, that we may be purified and found worthy to withstand and to dwell within the “consuming fire” of God’s love for us.