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“Lord, if you wish, You can make me clean.”
A Reflection on the Gospel of Matthew 8:1-4
Unknown Artist. “Christ Cleans the Leprous Man.”
Through the icon we pass within the dimensions of sacred space and sacred time, attaining the point of intersection between the earthly and the heavenly, between the temporal and the eternal… The icon, that is to say, does not simply “represent” these persons in an artistic manner but it “re-presents” them, it makes them present. (Kallistos Ware “Praying with Icons.”)
There is a saying that “every picture tells a story.” That is exactly what St Matthew is giving us today, a beautiful icon depicting the relationship between God, humanity, and sin. A religious icon is an image that is intended to convey a religious truth or truths. The word comes from the Greek, eikon, which means an image in a mirror or the conveyance of an image or idea into the mind. As Kallistos Ware writes, it makes the truth portrayed “present” for us. In the Gospel today St Matthew conveys to us an icon of God’s relentless love for the entire world and our correct response to that love.
In the first few lines of the Gospel, we are told that,
When Jesus came down from the mountain, great crowds followed him. And then a leper approached, did him homage, and said, “Lord, if you wish, you can make me clean.” (Matthew 8: 1-2a NABRE)
Jesus has just completed the Sermon on the Mount. He took the people into the heights to teach them the things of heaven. The Lord teaches us in Sacred Scripture even with geography. If we are to attain heaven, we must climb. But, because we cannot climb to heaven by our strength alone, He must descend to us to lift us up. As He descends the mountain, Jesus is immediately confronted with a Leper.
In the time of Jesus, Leprosy was accounted as the result of sin. The Leper was an outcast from the community and even his or her own family. Because of the believed contagious nature of the oozing sores that covered a leper, leprosy is a near insurmountable barrier, as sin forms a barrier between God and us, sinners. Only a miracle can bring the two back together. Here lies the beauty of the first few lines of today’s Gospel icon. Jesus descends from the heights, from heaven, into the depths of our own misery and sin to save us, to accompany us, to reconcile the purity of heaven with the ugliness of sin. We are all in need of this reconciliation. We are all sinners, and we are all in need of God’s forgiveness and grace (Romans 3:23–24).
God is not distant, uncaring, and aloof, but seeks us out, even to the point of lowering himself into the mire of sin, so He can be present with us in every adversity. He comes to us. If we are to “put on Christ,” should we not do the same? The Church must leave its walls, descend the mount, to care for those who are lost in sin and desire reconciliation. We cannot push them away, or simply remain aloof, but we must actively seek out those who are lost and lift them up. This is relentless love. Reflect on this just a moment. Are you relentless in seeking to lift up the lost, especially those in your own family, so that they too might know the Lord? Or, do you simply leave them alone out of fear of offending?
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The Leper on seeing the Christ, comes to Him, falls to his knees in an act of profound worship, and in humility cries out; “Lord, if you wish, you can make me clean.” (Matthew 8:2 NABRE) With these words, the Leper proclaims to all, Jesus is God! He does not say, “if you ask God …” He clearly affirms that Jesus alone can make Him clean. Again, this is an icon of our own need for cleansing and our reliance on the relentless love of God. The Leper, in the Gospel, knelt before Jesus, in all humility and trust, begging to be made clean. The Leper, despite all the barriers that the culture presented, has the courage, the fortitude, to proclaim that Jesus is God and trust that He will heal him.
Jesus is with us now in the same way, especially in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Like the Leper, if we “show ourselves” to His Priest who stands in the person of Christ, persona Christi, asking to be cleansed of the leprosy of sin, we can be sure that He will do it. He will cure the wretchedness of our souls. We should often pray the prayer borrowed from the Leper: “Lord, if you wish, you can make me clean.” It is then that we can hear the Lord’s response; “I will do it. Be made clean.” (Matthew 8:3 NABRE) That is love.
The Gospel today is an icon of the truth that God will descend to the lowest places to heal us and raise us up to heavenly heights. In love, He respects our freedom. Sinners, we must come to Him. It is then that He will open the gates of grace in an unstoppable torrent, an unrelenting fountain of love. Come to Him praying the prayer of the Leper, “Lord if you wish, you can make me clean.” Then, await the miracle.
“Blessed are all who fear the LORD, and who walk in his ways.” (Psalm 128:1 NABRE)
New American Bible. Revised Edition. Washington, DC: The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2011. Print.
Unknown Artist. “Christ Cleans Leper Man.” Wikimedia Commons, commons.adversity...org/wiki/File:Christ_cleans_leper_man.jpg. Accessed 27 June 2023.
Ware, Kallistos. “Praying with Icons.” Word and Icon: Exploring the New Testament with Christian Art, Iconography, Commentary and Prayer. Ed. Pablo Argarate. Toronto, ON: The Committee for Ukrainian Education, 2013. xii. Print.