" But we can be cleansed. The Gospel tells us it is not merely our wish but God’s will to make us whole and bring us to completion, undefiled and unstained, blazing like freshly laundered cotton sheets whipping in a July breeze. "

A leper came to Jesus and kneeling down begged him and said, “If you wish, you can make me clean.” Moved with pity, he stretched out his hand, touched him, and said to him, “I do will it. Be made clean.” (Mark 1:40-41)

I live in a university residence hall. Only three undergraduates and two other staff remained near the end of unprocessed fallout of a truncated semester. An abandoned college dorm is a most unnatural, even eerie, ghost town. There is no exuberant whooping, no chronic swirling of hormonal angst, barely a flip-flop flapping.

It was nearly as quiet in April as those weeks ensuing each December that follow the clicking into place of the crash bar on the back door and the slamming of the last car’s trunk, the mark that Christmas break has begun for those few of us who remain. Never had the hallways been this pristine in spring, so void of late teen sock sweat and moldering pizza crusts. The corridors reeked of Clorox and other sanitizers, a quite unfamiliar scent.

I hadn’t seen a student in three days, but I found myself heading down the stairwell one day tensely aware that one scrambling up — and they do tend to dash uphill quickly at that age — could easily crash into me to the consternation of us both. I tried to make it sound casual, to whistle and stomp, making a clatter, sounding a warning. I was tempted to cry out “Unclean, unclean!” I’ve thought about buying a bell.

COVID-19 is a social equalizer we never saw coming. It sounds more like a brand name for acne lotion, but still is inane yet insidious like the serpent invading the Garden. If it was ever a challenge to preach on a Gospel about lepers previously, no longer. We are all lepers now.

It is an odd way to discover our oneness with the rest of humanity, rich or poor, of any color or faith, from pole to pole, to be unclean, so quickly conditioned to turn aside from any other of our species. To St. Paul’s litany in The Letter to the Galatians, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free person, there is not male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus,” (3:28), we can now add “there is neither clean nor unclean.”

Leprosy in the time of Jesus was typically thought to be a punishment for sin. Job’s friends too insisted he must have committed some heinous blasphemy to be rendered impoverished and defiled by disease. When a Galilean leper shook his bell or shouted “Unclean, unclean!” it was a twofold declaration of woe. We might be tempted to think this pestilence is a form of divine retribution too. “Why have you made me [or us] your target?” we could ask as Job himself cried to God (Job 7:20).

But while our conditions as sinners and lepers currently coincide, they run as parallel as train tracks. One troubles us now but will fade. The other plagues us until we die. When the virus’ fury exhausts itself we will still need Jesus to make us clean because most of the time we are as dirty inside as a dorm bathroom after a three-day holiday weekend.

But we can be cleansed. The Gospel tells us it is not merely our wish but God’s will to make us whole and bring us to completion, undefiled and unstained, blazing like freshly laundered cotton sheets whipping in a July breeze. What we are typically is not what we need ultimately become.

Perhaps the jolt of being humbled by the discovery that we are lepers will make it easier to embrace the more difficult truth that sin has sunk deeper roots within us than any germ. It is so much harder to keep our souls clean than even this normally pungent box in which I live. We always need Jesus, perhaps now more than most times — to stretch out our hands to him and make our plea, “Will you do it? Will you make me clean?”

Fr. King, a member of the Congregation of Holy Cross, is a theology instructor at the University of Portland.