The Imitation of Christ
Ordinary Sunday 6: 15th February, 2015
Rev'd Dr Hugh Kempster, Vicar of St Peter's, Eastern Hill
Lev. 13.1-2, 45-46; 1 Cor. 10.23-11.1; Mark 1.40-45
"Lord, if you choose you can make me clean" the leper cries. "I do choose. Be made clean!" When travelling through India in the 1980s I visited a leper colony. The memory is still strong in my mind; the deformed hands and feet; the dejected faces. Something of a modern miracle has taken place since then. In 1985 there were an estimated 5.2 million leprosy sufferers world-wide. The drug Dapsone had been used to treat the disease since the 1940s, but the bacillus Mycobacterium leprae was starting to develop a resistance. About this time the World Health Organisation recommended a new multidrug therapy, and within 10 years the number of sufferers had dropped by 85% to 805,000. By 2012 there were only 189,000 cases worldwide, and according to the World Health Organisation leprosy has essentially been eliminated from 119 of the 122 countries where it was considered a public health problem in 1985. "I do choose. Be made clean."
As we reflect on the gospel reading this morning, three days before Ash Wednesday, it is probably a message of metaphorical cleansing that we need to hear. What are the things that eat you up, and make you feel unclean? I must say, the recent Human Rights Commission report "The Forgotten Children" makes me feel very unclean as a citizen of Australia. It brought tears to my eyes when I read the words of an Iranian girl in the Sydney Detention Centre: "We are suffocating like a fish that is kept out of water ... Our two younger brothers are detainees since birth and we have spent most our life in detentions! Only God knows when this suffering will end ... Only to make things worse for us, the Immigration department has separated us from our dad within the same detention centre for almost one [and] a half year. We have been threatened, mentally tortured, discriminated and provoked against all the time we have been in this dark cage." There are currently 211 children in detention centres in Australia and 119 children being held indefinitely on Nauru. These are perhaps the lepers of our day here in Australia, shut away and stigmatised. Their suffering is unnecessary, and indeed a sinful thing.
Lent is traditionally a time when we make an extra effort to clean ourselves up spiritually. The name Shrove Tuesday comes from the Middle English verb to "shrive" or to present oneself to a priest for confession, penance and absolution. I remember turning up a little late for Mass one morning, after the confession, and my colleague whispered to me during the passing of the peace, with a grin on his face: "Father, are you shriven?" As we prepare for Ash Wednesday and the start of Lent it is a good time to take an honest look at ourselves, and to acknowledge before God our shortcomings — personally and communally — and how we might go about putting them right.
Ethical dilemmas, even sins, are not easily put right. But we do need to struggle with them. In Paul's first letter to the Corinthians he is struggling with the question of Jewish purity laws; the question of clean and unclean foods. He concludes: "Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ" (1 Cor. 11:1). Life is complex, it is not always easy to find the right way, but a way forward is often found as we look to our spiritual mentors, and ultimately become imitators of Christ.
One of the books I am reading this Lent is De imitatione Christi "The Imitation of Christ" attributed to Thomas A'Kempis (1380-1471). I have a beautiful pocket-sized edition that was given to my grandmother by her father on the occasion of her confirmation and first communion in 1913. Although less widely read these days, for centuries it was one of the most popular Catholic devotional texts. It is made up of four books, the first two being an extended meditation on the virtues and fostering a spiritual life. The third book presents an extended dialogue between the reader and Christ, concluding with a most beautiful prayer: "Thou therefore art all that is good, the height of life, the depth of all that can be spoken ... Bless and sanctify my soul with Thy heavenly blessings, that it may become Thy holy habitation ... Protect and keep [my] soul ... and by Thy grace accompanying direct me along the way of peace to the land of everlasting light. Amen."
The fourth book of The Imitation of Christ is teaching on Holy Communion, the overall thrust of the whole book. We best imitate Christ, as we best imitate anyone, by being with him. We are given a most beautiful gift in the Mass. I love the words said by the priest at the elevation: "Behold the Lamb of God; blessed are those who are called to his supper." We are indeed blessed by this real presence, this mystery of our faith. It is a little more profane, but you know what they say: "you are what you eat." We are intimately connected with Christ and with one another in Holy Communion. It is an act of love that can cleanse and heal if we are well prepared and open to it. I often share Holy Communion with parishioners who are sick in hospital or housebound. It is sometimes very ordinary, and that's OK, but more often than not I experience a sense of Christ's presence, which is as moving as the most sublime High Mass.
I do encourage you to take Lent seriously. Prepare yourselves well. Be shriven on Tuesday and start your Lenten journey in earnest on Wednesday. Attend Mass regularly and intentionally. Come to a study group if you can. You may want to attend the "Walk for Justice for Refugees" rally on Palm Sunday. In and through it all seek with all your heart to imitate Christ. Amen.
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St Peter's Eastern Hill, Melbourne Australia.