Is this not the carpenter?!

Leviticus 13:1-2, 44-46
Psalm 32:1-11
1 Corinthians 10:31-11:1
Mark 1:40-45

The Circle and the Cross

Moved with pity, He stretched out his hand and touched him, ...
and said to him, "See that you say nothing to any one."

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Our readings this morning together form a meditation on community. After all, leprosy was not a medical event as we perceive nearly any pathology today. How could it be in the first century? For there was no possible cure. No, leprosy was a social event, or should I say a social catastrophe. This diagnosis meant the end of all social life, even family life. One was compelled by law to wear distinctive clothing (torn rags) and to follow a regimen of distinctive grooming (unkempt hair hanging down) in order to warn all those who approached to avoid you and certainly never to touch you. To contract leprosy was to forsake the society of other humans forever ... and the world of human love, embraces, touch, and tender kisses. Surely, the leper was the face of the blasted and the lost. And the institution of leprosy, for it was permanent, meant the permanent loss of one's place in the world at large.

The acts of Jesus in our Gospel reading this morning are also about community. We might even say they are the seminal acts of Christian community. First, we notice that Jesus touches the leper. He does not have to do this. Don't we read in the Acts of the Apostles that even the shadow of St. Peter falling upon the sick could heal them (Acts 5:15)? And we remember the clipped, concise language of a king: "I will. Be clean." This is a speech act (peculiar to people of great authority). The saying of it is the doing of it. His touch is far beyond what is necessary to heal. But He does touch the leper. And by that fact He removes Himself from the same community from which the leper had already been erased, for He has become ritually unclean. This act of self-sacrifice will, of course, be enshrined universally in the Cross, where His self-denial will redeem all humankind and will cleanse all from fatal alienation, at least those who will receive this divine fellowship.

For now, though, it is enough to say that a new community is founded in Jesus' touch: the community of self-denial and mutual love, not the hierarchical society of civil and religious authority. As keen Biblical scholars have noticed, Jesus does not act hierarchically. For example, He might have presented the leper to the priest Himself. Or, going further, He might have chosen from the beginning to be the High Priest, displaying His awesome power and Divine Identity. But He rejects all of this out of hand. He chooses, instead, not to interact with the religious hierarchy at all — only to engage their interactions with Him .... which are posed often as tests or antagonistic questions. As one scholar puts it, when it comes to civil or religious authority, Jesus is "non-cooperative," not uncooperative, but non-cooperative. Which brings us to our final point: He orders the cleansed leper to tell no one. Not only does He refuse His just claim to religious authority, but He orders the leper to conceal this imposing, even earth-shaking, claim. He cleansed a leper?! And merely with one touch?! Religious authority is simply not Jesus' goal.

A primary theme in the Gospel of St. Mark is known by scholars as the "Messianic Secret." That is, Jesus does not seek to establish an earthly hierarchy just as He chose not be born in a royal palace. Indeed, in the view of the greatest Christology scholar of our time, Fr. Roch Kereszty, O.Cist., it was precisely the desire of the people to crown Him as secular king — on the occasion of the feeding of the 5,000 — that caused Him to turn His face to Calvary, for He had ruled out any role in the civil authority just as He had ruled out any claim to being the religious authority. In other words, He could see at the end of His three-year ministry that He had failed. He had failed to set God in the midst of the people. They just did not get it. He is God, and His earthly ministry was to establish a Kingdom of God, a community of universal love, not a display of naked power nor having any role in human oppression. The vision of God is always community. God Himself is community, a Divine Society of Three Persons, and not an association of petty overlords:

"You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men
exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you; but whoever would be
great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be
your slave; even as the Son of man came not to be served but to serve, and to give
his life as a ransom for many." (Mt 20:25-28)
Then, what are we to make of the twelve thrones offered to the Twelve Disciples? (Mt 19:28), one verse earlier. In my view, we must recall the occasion of this remark, which is Peter's embarrassing question. Peter says, in effect, "Hey, I gave up everything for you?! What's in it for me?!" (Mt 19:27). And Jesus' reply to such an outlandish question should be heard as having an ironic tone, just as we hear irony when James and John press Him (in the very next verse) for the same kind of royal preferments: "Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?" When these young men reply hastily that they are able, the irony is overwhelming. And we hope that following Peter's outburst causes the Disciples, hearing Jesus speak of thrones where they might be overlords (!), to look down in silence at their shoes and in shame. For "the Son of man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many."

On the occasion of my taking Columba as my religious name, I would like to include the earliest Christian communities of Ireland in this morning's meditation. This Celtic people had come into Ireland through trade routes from Iberia, (modern-day Spain). They spoke a language closely akin to Sanskrit, which we today call Gaelic, reflecting a connection to Gaul (modern-day France). They had migrated in a westerly direction across Europe, settling during the first century in the territory called Galatia, again, reflecting their Gallic history. And it would be here where they encountered the Lord Jesus Christ through the preaching of St. Paul.

Recalling that St. Paul's pledge was to be all things to all people (1 Cor. 9:22) — that was the message of our Epistle reading today: that St. Paul sought to get on the wavelength of each person, to be keyed into the thought streams and sensibilities of each culture he encountered — it follows from this that the themes and contours of his letters should reflect the people to whom he is writing. And this we see in his Letter to the Galatians, or Celts. The Celtic people were an ideal audience to hear of a community of love and especially one that is more focused on the fellowship among men and women than hierarchies of power. It was not that the Celts were lacking in power. They were a fierce warrior race when their community was threatened, defeating the Roman army on several notable occasions. Indeed, it was their great heart for community and good fellowship that was the source of their power. While they were fierce in their military exploits and successful as a culture leaving behind, for example, exquisitely wrought metal work and stone sculptures, they were not interested in building towns or cities, much less empires. They lived in communities, little communities, formed in circles and in houses following the same circular pattern. And St. Paul's Letter to the Galatians reflecting ideals of hearth and home spoke deeply into their culture and especially into their family sensibility, especially when St. Paul wrote, "And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, 'Abba! Father!'" This is a family message. This is not a message for followers in a great movement, kneeling before a great power. St. Paul goes on to describe a Christian life in which we bear one other's burdens, in which we enjoy together the freedom of holy life as peers, as partners, and the the adoption by God our Father, which we have received from the hand of Jesus Christ through His Apostles.

Their Druidic religion, preceding their embrace of Christianity, was preoccupied with the circular disk of the sun, the circle of its daily journey, the circle yearly journey with the circle of the seasons. The monuments they did leave behind, such as Stonehenge, were not intended to be monuments at all but rather instruments to mark the position of the sun. Their art was also dominated by circles, spirals, and interlacing loops of serpentine forms. They lived in circles, worshiped in circles, and meditated upon circles. And St. Paul's description of Jesus as the life-giving center of a circle of life rang true to them. It rang true to them so profoundly that they carried this Christianity directly into southern and western Ireland, shying away from the hierarchical Roman world of Britain, where the Brythonic Celts had settled and where they had been Romanized.

Unlike Britain, which had followed the Roman custom of dioceses, the Gaelic-speaking Celts preferred monastic communities, whose center and life-giving nucleus was an abbot. Predictably, the settlements they built and the structures they erected were also in the circular shape in Ireland. By contrast, the Roman pattern, founded by an Emperor, was set up in large, rectangular basilicas (previously housing judicial institutions), and founded upon canon law by imperial edict. The elaborate human hierarchies should proceed from this, with popes and cardinals and myriad other functionaries, reflecting the imperial model, should not surprise us. This is a natural progression. Alternatively, the ancient Catholic Church of the East (what we today call Orthodoxy) did not follow this trajectory, but rather followed a pattern of self-governing dioceses and religious communities living in colleagueship rather than hierarchy. We should note that the present Pope's theologian, Walter Cardinal Kasper, in his book Leadership in the Church, argues in favor of the Eastern model of self-governing dioceses and against the notion of primacy or of papal power. That is the Pope's theologian speaking. And I should pause to say that the frequently misunderstood word primacy signifies the predominance of one diocese over all other dioceses and religious communities, which many today, even inside the Diocese of Rome, reject on the grounds faulty provenance, which is to say, there never was a case to be made in the first place.

Reading St. Ignatius of Antioch (b. 35 A.D.), a protegee of the Beloved Disciple, St. John, we find a model for the kind of community that would be embraced by the Celts and espoused by St. Paul and St. John. Each instance of the Church, whether a diocese of a religious community, clusters around a descendant of the Apostles, called an επισκοπος, episkopos, or bishop (1 Peter 2:25, Titus 1:7, 1 Tim. 3:2, Phil. 1:1, Acts 20:28). In the context of religious community, this would be an abbot, also descending through consecration from the Apostles. It is from the bishop or abbot that we receive the lifegiving sacraments. But this does not imply hierarchy, but rather a circle, a cell, whose nucleus is a bishop or abbot. And here another of St. Paul's images comes to mind: the Body of Christ, which is made up of all of these cells. And as St. Paul famously points out, all these little parts have need of each other.

What holds all this together if it is not hierarchy? How do we have a universal Church? The answer is communion: sharing Apostolic descent, sharing the historic Catholic faith, we are bound together in a sacred fellowship by sharing the same sacraments, especially the Blessed Sacrament. Together these cells, feeding upon the Bread of Heaven, become the Body of Christ.

The Celtic saints and their abbots and monastic communities have always embraced this original and true tradition of Christian life. It is ancient and Catholic and Apostolic and absolutely faithful to the ministry of Jesus of Nazareth. Gathering in the circle of their love of God and for one another, these Celts became the living repository for the true Gospel. While St. Patrick's mission from Rome — Patrick was himself a Roman living in Britain — continues to be honored and celebrated, his vision of dioceses and Roman imperial authority was resisted for centuries in Ireland as surely as the Roman legions were repelled, for the Romans might have conquered southeast Britain, but they never advanced beyond Hadrian's wall. Rather, the Gaelic Celts gathered in their indomitable circles of community, faithful to the Lord introduced to them in Galatia, building modest houses of prayer, and becoming the greatest center of scholarship in Europe during late Antiquity, and who saved Western Civilization during its time of greatest darkness and would later send out monks as missionaries who "single-handedly refounded European civilization throughout the continent."*

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Thomas Cahill, How the Irish Saved Civilization (New York: Anchor, 1996), 4.