What to Do When the Mask Comes Off

(Homily for World Marriage Sunday - Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B)

In this Sunday’s bulletin I placed a Picture of Fr. Andrea Santoro. He was the Italian priest murdered last Sunday after celebrating Mass. He served as a missionary in Turkey where a young man killed him, evidently outraged at the cartoons of Mohamed published in a Danish newspaper. Before his death Fr. Santoro wrote a letter to his friends in Italy. He spoke about Christ as our Light and how we must also be light to others. A candle, he says, only gives light by being consumed. In the final sentence of his letter he wrote, “May our life be the wax that is consumed willingly.” Those are powerful words and very appropriate for what we are celebrating this Sunday. Archbishop Brunett has asked every parish to celebrate World Marriage Day on the second Sunday of February, that is, the Sunday before Valentine’s Day.

We have a quite challenging Gospel for this Sunday. As a lead into it, I would like to cite Pope Benedict’s recent words about marriage. He notes how the first chapters of the Bible describe man’s original solitude. Even though he was in a magnificent garden and had the care of animals, to whom he gave names, he still felt lonely. Therefore God cast a deep sleep over him and took out a part of him, a rib, and built it up with flesh. When the man awoke he saw the woman and cried out, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.” The Holy Father then made a surprising reference to a Greek myth found in the writings of Plato. The myth imagines that man was initially spherical (shaped like a globe or a soccer ball) but because of his pride, Zeus split him in two parts. Afterwards, the man went searching for his other self, his other half. The pope noted that man is incomplete and feels driven to communion with someone of the opposite sex. Then he quotes that verse of the Bible which is so vital for us today, “For that reason a man leaves his father and mother and cleaves to his wife and the two become one flesh.” (Gen 2:24)

Today’s Gospel also highlights man’s incompleteness. It underscores that insufficiency in a radical way: the case of man with the disease of leprosy. It is hard for us to appreciate what that meant. An early Christian writer named Gregory of Nazianzus described leprosy in vivid terms. He tells about how the disease ate away the flesh and bones of the victims to such an extent that they were unrecognizable. To identify themselves, they would say, “I am the child of that man; that one is my mother; this is my name; once upon a time you were my friend and intimate with me.” But now all that had changed. As Gregory wrote:

“They can no longer make themselves recognizable by their features, by what was formerly characteristic of their face. Gnawed by the disease, they have lost their fortune, their parents, even their bodies.”

Gregory goes on to describe the horrible smell which repels even the most compassionate person. “A mother,” he says, “would like to embrace her child, but she dreads the flesh of that child as she dreads an enemy.” Laws forbade lepers from entering cities, from traveling on public roads or from touching streams, ponds and wells.

After describing the misery and isolation of lepers, Gregory then recalls what Christ did for them. As we heard in today’s Gospel, he did not shrink from them. Rather, he touched the leper. That gesture must have amazed Jesus’ followers. It no doubt caused a chill to run down the spines of St. Gregory's congregation.

For us it is difficult to think of a comparison. Leprosy holds no terror today since we know that antibiotics can effectively treat the disease. AIDS perhaps offers a certain comparison, but no knowledgeable person fears someone with that affliction. I have HIV-positive friends with whom I spend time, hug and share a plate of food.

To find a modern analog for a leper, one would have to go to a different level. There are people we have difficulty embracing. Perhaps even in our own families, we flee from certain ones. But there is a person whom none of us really wants to approach. We have walked with that person all our lives. There are aspects of ones self that one do not want to see. We do not want to admit we are diseased.

I have read that it is common for people to lie to their doctor because they do not want their doctor find out they have some disease. If we have a hard time facing a physical disease, how much more difficult is it for us to face a spiritual illness.

A writer who noticed this tendency was Edgar Allen Poe. Many of you have read short story, The Masque of the Red Death. It is about a prince during the time of the plague, who invited people to a party where they all wore colorful masks over their faces. They ate, drank and danced, believing they were safe from the disfiguring disease which ravaged the countryside. Suddenly they noticed a man with the gruesome mask of plague victim. It disgusted the guests and when the prince approached to rip the mask from the man’s face, he fell to the carpet, deathly ill. The other guests soon followed. The plague was within the castle.

Poe had a piercing sense of how we humans can carry on, oblivious to a disease which grows inside us. There is a kind of leprosy which affects us all. Poe saw it more clearly than most men and it drove him to despair. But that need not happen. There is someone who wishes to touch, even to embrace you, despite your disfigured condition. He is the one who today stretches out his hand to the leper who cries out for help. To him he says, “I will do it. Be made clean.”

This great love of Jesus ties in with what we are observing this weekend: World Marriage Sunday. God instituted marriage as an essential part of his plan to teach us love. It is easy to love someone when they are on their best behavior, but – your married couples know much better than I – it is harder to love someone when you live with them day in and day out. The mask inevitably comes off and you see less pleasant aspects of that person. Now, I am not saying the person you married is a leper, but all of us have wounds and diseases which sometimes make it difficult for others to draw near us, to embrace us.

Married couples give us an example of that depth of love. Some of the couples here have been married for decades, fifty or sixty years. What a beautiful witness of love they give! We honor them this Sunday. We also pray for them and all married couples, especially young married couples. They face challenges they parents probably never had. And the devil seems to be working overtime to destroy young marriages and families. We need to pray for them and to support one another. This Sunday we are going to make a common Profession of Faith by renewing our baptismal promises. Then I will call the married couples forward to renew their marriage vows, followed by some special Prayers of the Faithful and a Blessing of Married Couples. (See Renewal of Vows, Prayers of Faithful and Blessing of Married Couples on World Marriage Day.)


Earlier Version

Spanish Version

From the Archives:

Sixth Sunday, Year B, 2009: The Power of Compassion
2006: He Touched the Leper
2003: Show Yourself to the Priest

Other Homilies

Seapadre Homilies: Cycle A, Cycle B, Cycle C

Bulletin (Fr. Andrea Santoro, World Marriage Sunday, Mark Shea)


Pope mourns death of Italian priest gunned down in Turkish church


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