“Ten were cleansed, were they not? Where are the other nine? Has none but this foreigner returned to give thanks to God?”
What is it that makes this one leper thankful, while the others take our Lord’s healing for granted? The key to understanding this passage is in one simple word, “foreigner.” The leper who returned to thank the Lord was a foreigner.
You’re probably familiar with the phrase, “familiarity breeds contempt.” In the case of our relationship with the Lord we might want to offer some nuance – “familiarity breeds indifference” – but the truth of the expression remains. The more familiar we are with something or someone, the more likely we are to take it or him for granted.
The foreigner is different, though. Those of you have traveled abroad, or even just to another, less familiar part of our own country, will recall the distinguishing mark between tourists and natives: The tourists walk around looking up; the natives walk around looking down. Foreign tourists – if they are visiting a beautiful city – are enthralled with what is around them. They move slowly, taking everything in, appreciating the beauty. But the native residents are just going about their daily work, walking quickly and face-down. They take the beauty that surrounds them for granted.
Foreigners also notice things that we do not. They frequently have insights into the ways that the locals behave and about customs that have become second nature to us. And anyone who has become lost while visiting another country, state, or even just another city can tell you about how much it means when a local helps them out with directions or advice. Those feelings of thankfulness and relief are magnified by the experience of being in a foreign place. (Unfortunately, technology has greatly reduced this sense of reliance on other people since we frequently can just solve these dilemmas with the help of the internet rather than relying on other people – which shows the frequently de-humanizing role that technology has.)
So it is particularly the foreigner who appreciates the Lord’s miraculous cure of his leprosy because he seems the least entitled to our Lord’s attentions and mercy, which shows us how we ought to place ourselves before the Lord. Too often, we have become too comfortable with and too accustomed to Jesus.
The Gospel today suggests that we need to become like foreigners before Christ. We need to regain the fascination of those who walk with heads turned up, marveling at the beauty of Christ’s Gospel and at the majesty of God, rather than being like the complacent locals who just stare at the ground and focus on their daily routine. If we look at the Lord with this sense of fascination and wonder, we will be much more likely to be like the leper who returned to thank the Lord.
This sense of wonder and awe in God’s presence that moves the heart to thank the Lord is a manifestation of the gift of the Holy Spirit known as fear of the Lord. This gift does not mean that we are afraid of God in the way that we are afraid of someone who might punish us, but rather that we regard the Lord with the wonder and awe that befit His sovereign majesty, that we recognize that He is truly the Lord of heaven and earth – our creator.
It is often easy for us to forget just how great the Lord is, and part of this is because we live in a city filled with light pollution. When was the last time you were out in the country, away from all the city lights, and took the time to gaze at the stars in the sky? Or maybe you can remember the thrill of looking out over the side of a mountain or off a cliff, or the beauty of a sky lit up with purples and oranges at the sunset. The almost tangible feelings of God’s grandeur that fill our hearts at such an encounter with the beauty of His creation is the same sense we ought to have when we enter His home on earth – any Catholic church in which He dwells in the Blessed Sacrament – and especially when we approach His throne to receive the most precious Body and Blood of His Son in Holy Communion.
If you do not feel this way when you enter church, then I would like to offer the following suggestions for how you can make the gift of the fear of the Lord more active in your own heart: First, when you enter your pew, make your genuflection with true care and reverence, not a quick gesture that resembles a slight bob and a hurried sign of the cross. And if you are a parent, make sure that your children do the same, because they are in need not only of your good example, but also of your instruction. God has given us a body and made us truly physical beings, so the physical things we do have the power to form the way we think and believe.
Next, make attending Holy Mass truly a time devoted to the Lord by avoiding all distractions possible. I realize that this is very difficult for families with small children – and believe me, I have nothing but great admiration for the many families in our parish who make the extraordinary effort to bring their young children to Mass each and every Sunday – but sometimes we distract ourselves willfully but messing with cell phones or standing around the back of the church rather than joining our brothers and sisters in Christ in the pews and really engaging with the Mass. Again, I am not speaking about parents or families that have to their young children. But when we give in to willful distractions and do not really engage in Mass, it becomes much more difficult for us to recognize the Lord’s work, and then we can become like the nine lepers who fail to thank Him for their healing.
How we receive a gift is indicative of our thankfulness for that gift. When you give someone a gift and they look at it with an expression of indifference and quickly set it aside, the words they use to tell us “thank you,” or even the nicest, most considerate thank you note, cannot make up for the fact that the recipient evidently was not interested in the gift. On the other hand, when we give someone a gift and she intently examines it was a big smile on her face, maybe tries it on, etc., and immediately begins to put it to use, the “thank you” that comes with a sincere spirit of joy brings great joy to the heart of the giver. At Holy Mass we are given the gift of being able to come into the Lord’s presence and to be nourished by the proclamation of His holy Word and even more importantly, by His most holy Body and Blood. How do we receive that gift? Do we take it up with enthusiasm – paying attention to the readings, trying them on for size, considering the ways that they call us to be better followers and friends of Christ, enthusiastically participating in the responses and hymns like the thankful leper who returned praising God in a loud voice? At the junior high Mass each week for the school children we bribe the students to participate in Mass by rewarding the class with the best participation with donuts. Sometimes I wonder if we ought to do the same thing with the Sunday Masses – though I think the 11:00 Mass would win each time and I would need a lot more Dunkin Donuts scrip to make that happen.
Lastly, the thankful leper returned to the Lord to thank Him for the gift of his healing. How much more, then, should we return to the Lord to thank Him for the even greater gift that He gives us – His Body and Blood in Holy Communion? Staying after Mass for a few minutes to offer a prayer of thanksgiving is an excellent way to do that – and maintaining quiet in church so that those who choose to do so may have this opportunity will increase our love for the Lord and desire to thank Him for His many blessings that we receive each day. If we do not thank Him for this greater gift, how can we expect to thank Him for His other gifts? On the contrary, idle chatter in church following Mass leads us to disregard the Lord’s presence in the Blessed Sacrament and makes us indifferent to His real presence in the tabernacle. Visiting with your fellow parishioners after Holy Mass is a very good thing and I do not want to discourage it at all, but the most appropriate place to do so is our beautiful new gathering space, which I highly encourage you to use to visit with your fellow parishioners following Mass.
My brothers and sisters in Christ, just like the one leper who was healed, we are truly foreigners in this world, and we must be ready to see Christ with fresh and new eyes. He has done so much for us – He has given us new life in Baptism, forgiven our sins countless times, and fed us not with the food of this world that will pass away and leave us hungry again, but with His very own Body and Blood. In return for this gift, we should desire to thank Him at all times, and to marvel at the presence of Almighty God dwelling with us in His house, the Church.
At this and every Mass, we offer Him the greatest thanks that we can – not anything that we have to give of our own, but with His very Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity, which we offer to God the Father in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Before this great and unfathomable mystery, we should tremble with awe.
This past week we celebrated the Feast of St. Francis, and so I will leave you with the words that he directed to all the members of the Church, seeking to inspire them to live out the gift of the fear of the Lord:
“Let the entire man be seized with fear; let the whole world tremble; let heaven exult when Christ the Son of the Living God is on the altar in the hands of the priest. O admirable height and stupendous condescension! O humble sublimity! O sublime humility! That the Lord of the universe, God and the Son of God, so humbles Himself that for our salvation He hides Himself under a morsel of bread.”
Before such a mystery, we should never fail to tremble and to give thanks.
The Rev Royce V Gregerson
Parish Church of St Charles Borromeo, Ft Wayne
Sunday XXVIII through the year, A.D. MMXVI