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Sunday 11 February 2024 Epiphany 6 Sixth in Ordinary Time

The wonderful exchange

Mark 1:40-45

By Christopher Angel

Parish Priest of St. Stephen’s, Skipton, in the Yorkshire Dales, in the Catholic Diocese of Leeds

Context: Sunday mass with a congregation drawn from town and country, with both young families and older folk

Aim: to remind hearers of the ‘wonderful exchange’ which happens in Jesus, who takes what is ours and gives us the grace and peace and freedom which are his

The famous writer Leo Tolstoy once wrote a story about a fierce king who wanted to see God. None of his wise men was able to help. They all gave different answers that only confused the king. But a shepherd, just coming in from the fields, heard of the king’s request and offered to help. The shepherd was led in, and the King said to him, ‘I want to see God.’ The shepherd told the king that his eyes were not able to see God. In which case, the king replied, can I at least see what God does? The shepherd said to him, ‘In order to answer your question, you and I need to swap clothes.’ The King was suspicious, but he was also curious, so he agreed. The king dressed in the ragged, smelly, dirty clothes of the shepherd and the shepherd put on the dazzling, bejewelled robes of the king. ‘There you are,’ said the shepherd, ‘this is what God does.’ This is the essence of the gospel. Jesus, the King of Heaven, came to earth, took on flesh, so that, by His grace, we could become sons and daughters of God.


Today in the Gospel we hear of a leper coming up to Jesus and asking to be healed. On the face of it, it seems like a simple story. Jesus was a famous miracle worker. But notice that this story is in chapter one of Mark’s Gospel. This is his introduction to the whole message of Jesus. There’s more going on.


There are two characters involved. Jesus, God-made-Man, the One Who lives in the bosom the Father, the Presence of God walking among us. And a nameless leper, one who was shunned and despised, suffering from a fearful disease, who couldn’t go to the Temple, who wasn’t part of the community, who had to live outside, quarantined and isolated. But notice what has happened by the end of the story. The man has been healed. Jesus tells him to go to the Temple, to rejoin the community. He is restored, renewed, brought to life again. But, it says, Jesus ‘had to stay outside in places where nobody lived.’ The two of them have exchanged places. This is why Mark tells the story in chapter one, because this is what the gospel is all about. This is what Jesus does. Jesus takes from us what is ours, our sin, our suffering, our shame. And gives us what is His, grace and freedom and divine life. In the words of St Paul, ‘For our sake God made the Sinless One into sin, so that in Him we might become the goodness of God.’


I often think about this when I’m celebrating baptisms. Baptism is sometimes called Christening, which is a beautiful name. It tells you exactly what is going on: ‘Christ-ening’. We are being made like Christ. We are being given what is His, His identity, His righteousness, His closeness to the Father.


You see this happening throughout the gospel. The Son of God is born in obscurity and some obscure shepherds become famous the world over. The despised tax collector Zacchaeus is honoured with a visit from Jesus and Jesus becomes despised and rejected. The penniless Prodigal Son receives lavish mercy and Jesus, the merciful one, becomes stripped and poor. A woman caught in adultery, about to be killed, is set free by Jesus and Jesus is bound and dies for us. This is the work of God’s grace. This is what happens in the sacraments. As St Athanasius put it, ‘The Son of God became human so that we might become God.’


I once heard a talk given by Cardinal Raniero Cantalamessa. He is a Capuchin Friar who has been the Preacher to the Pope since 1980. He also travels across the world to give talks and retreats. At one point during the talk, he showed us a picture of Christ, painted by the Dutch Renaissance artist Jan Mostaert. It shows Christ in His Passion, with His hands bound together, a crown of thorns on His head and eyes filled with tears.


Cantalamessa said that whenever he is invited to give a talk somewhere across the world, before he leaves, he stands before this picture. And he prays, ‘Lord Jesus, I am only free because You were bound for me. I am only able to preach because You were silenced for me. I only live because You died for me.’


Right at the beginning of the Gospel, St Mark is teaching us how to understand Jesus. Each of us is like this leper – wounded, isolated, suffering. And, like this leper, we come to Jesus, who takes from us what is ours and gives us the grace and freedom and peace that is His.

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