St. Maximilian Kolbe was a Polish Franciscan priest who was a prisoner of the Nazis in the concentration camp at Auschwitz. One night, a prisoner escaped. When the Nazi guards learned of this, they decided that 10 other prisoners would be executed as a warning to anyone else who might be thinking of escaping. And they started to count off those who would die. 1... 2... 3...
One of the men they counted off, Franciszek Gajowniczek, (Fran-she-sheck Guy-yov-nee-check) began to weep bitterly. He cried out, “My wife! My children!” knowing he would never see them again. Hearing this, Fr. Kolbe stepped forward and volunteered to take his place. Fr. Kolbe gave his life so that Franciszek Gajowniczek would live. He did live. He survived the war. He saw his wife again. And in 1992, he was a guest of Blessed Pope John Paul II at the canonization of St. Maximilian Kolbe at St. Peter’s in Rome.
Franciszek and the Franciscan traded places. Their roles were reversed. In our readings today, we hear of two other men following suit.
In the first reading we hear of the horrible plight of lepers. Not only did they suffer from a terrible disease that would cause the skin to ulcerate, resulting in oozing sores, disfigurement, loss of limbs and occasional blindness; they were also ostracized, cut off from the community. The Law of Moses stated that they had to “dwell apart, making [their] abode outside the camp.” Which meant not only that they were deprived of contact with other humans in a village community, they were also deprived of contact with the divine as they could not enter the community of worship such as the temple or a synagogue.
However, Jesus trades places with the leper. Their roles are reversed. Jesus did the unthinkable - “Moved with pity” the Gospel states, “he stretched out his hand, [and] touched him.”
Then we hear, that word of this quickly spreads making it “impossible for Jesus to enter a town openly.” It was the case that anyone who came into contact with a leper was also considered unclean. Now whether Jesus was unable to enter the town for this reason or if was because his fame was so great that he was mobbed whenever he approached a town, the Gospel doesn’t specify. However, either way, the Gospel shows us the love Christ has for humanity in his willingness to reach out and touch and heal the leper. And in doing so, the leper returned to the worshipping community, while Jesus “remained outside in deserted places.”
Jesus trades places with the leper. Their roles are reversed.
But before Jesus leaves for the deserted places outside the community, he reinserts the newly cured leper into the worshipping the community. “Go, show yourself to the priest,” Jesus says, “and offer for your cleansing what Moses prescribed.” The leper is able to rejoin the worshipping community and offer a sacrifice of thanksgiving to God.
What did this sacrifice consist of? It’s given in the Law of Moses. In the 14th chapter of Leviticus, we read that if someone has been cleansed of leprosy, two live birds should be obtained for him. The first bird is slaughtered. The second bird is then dipped in the blood of the first, slaughtered bird and set free. One bird dies while another lives. Much as St. Maximilian Kolbe did for Franciszek Gajowniczek. Just as Jesus does for us.
Jesus trades places with us. Our roles are reversed.
He gives his life so we might live. He takes on our sin so we might be freed from sin’s grasp. St. Paul writes in his Second Letter to the Corinthians, “He who did not know sin, became sin, so we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” (2 Cor 5:21)
Christ did this from His Cross. And He does this in this Mass. His one sacrifice of Calvary is re-presented on this altar. The Lamb of God gives his life for us. And like the second bird, we are, in a sense, dipped in His Blood, are we not, through this Eucharist. Dipped in His blood so we might be set free.
And in addition to being saved by the Blood of His Cross, Jesus knew we would require ongoing maintenance as it were. So, on the day of His resurrection, He shared His authority to forgive sins with the Apostles. “He breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them...’” (Jn 20:22-23)
This gift of Jesus, the Sacrament of Healing, comes through the Apostles to you and I to this day. As you know, Lent is just around the corner. Ash Wednesday is only a week away from this Wednesday. I want to urge each of us to receive this healing gift of Christ through Confession. We hear Confessions every Wednesday at 4:30 and every Saturday morning at 8:30. And our Parish Lenten Penance Service is March 26th - a Monday night. Before you go to bed tonight, go to your calendar, and circle either a Wednesday, a Saturday, or March 26th sometime between now and Easter, which is April 8th this year. Circle one of those dates as the day you will come to Jesus and ask for His healing grace in confession. And if you can't make one of those dates, know that you can always call a priest here at St. Vincent's and make an appointment to go to Confession.
Every single one of us, myself included, has a leprous side. Those blemishes or blotches of sin. Those wounds which need healing. Jesus desperately wants to heal us of our wounds. Like the leper, we have to approach Him and ask to be made clean. And Jesus will respond to us just as he did the leper. He will be moved with pity, he will stretch out his hand, he will touch us, and he will say, “I do will it. Be made clean.” He will restore us to our former selves and reintegrate us into the worshipping community. He will take our sin upon Himself.
He will trade places with us. Our roles will be reversed.