Why going to Mass is good for your health

Leviticus 13:1-2, 44-46, Mark 1:40-45 (6th Sunday of OT, year b)

Vancouverites love being healthy. We emphasize the importance of exercising, staying active and getting outside. Healthy, organic foods are popular. We pretend to like quinoa and kale. Increasingly, we are seeing the importance of promoting the health of the whole person: body, mind and spirit. Many try practices like meditation and yoga in a search for “holistic health”. The desire to be truly and fully healthy is good. Christ wants the same for all of us.

When Jesus encounters the leper in the Gospel, He heals him on three different levels. Each of these three healings could become the the basis for a homily or reflection. We could, for example, speak about the leper’s physical healing. At the time of Jesus, leprosy was a terrifying, contagious and incurable disease. Beginning with spots on the skin, the disease attacks the internal organs and later causes extremities to literally rot away. In healing the leper, Jesus freed him from a life of physical suffering. In this reflection we could speak about how Christians are called to continue Jesus’ work of ministering to the sick and suffering, a reason why the Church has always tried to open hospitals and provide medical care for all, especially the poor.

We could speak about the leper’s social healing. As the book of Leviticus demonstrates, lepers were social outcasts. They had to live apart, separated from their friends and family. They were forced to wear rags, keep their hair disheveled and shout “unclean, unclean!” whenever they moved about so that people could avoid them. When Jesus healed the leper, He reunified this isolated, ostracized man with the community. In this reflection we could talk about the people in our lives we view as “lepers”. Who do we not create space in our hearts for? We can make into lepers people of different religious, political or moral viewpoints. Even people who cheer for the wrong sports team! We can ostracize the difficult, grating person at our workplace or in our family. This reflection could talk about how progress in following Jesus involves learning to love - dare I say like - those we have labelled as outcasts.

Today what we will focus on is the leper’s religious healing. Not only were lepers excluded from the community, they were also excluded from worshiping God. Lepers were forbidden to enter the temple and therefore excluded from worship. The leper who encounters Jesus certainly suffered physically and socially. At the same time, he suffered greatly as a human being because he could not worship. Notice the first thing Jesus tells the leper to do after healing him: “go, show yourself to the priest and offer for your cleansing what Moses prescribed”. Jesus sends the man to worship.

Like the leper before his healing, many Catholics today do not worship. The overwhelming majority of baptized Catholics do not go to Mass on Sunday, which is the primary way we worship. As a rule of thumb, it is safe to say that there are over twice as many baptized Catholics who do not go to Mass on Sunday compared to those that do attend. This trend is getting worse. A 2011 study found that only one in three Canadian young adults (18-34) who attended church weekly as a child still do so today.

You might be thinking “so what?” Is it really that important that people aren't going to Mass to worship? Perhaps we have doubts about the value of worship in our own lives. In all the commitments of life, going to Mass can seem like an added burden. Is it really necessary? After healing the leper, why does Jesus send him off to worship?

Fear of God’s punishment is not the reason why we worship. Nor is it guilt. Nor is the fact that our pastor will get upset if he doesn't see our envelope in the collection basket the reason why we worship (he will be sad, but this is besides the point). We worship God because it is good for us. Over time we become similar to what we worship. As we go through life we are transformed to become more and more like our “ultimate concern”, to borrow a phrase from Paul Tillich. Our ultimate concern is the thing that we worship. If our ultimate concern is our work, then work will define who we are. If our ultimate concern is family, we will become more like the members of our family. If our ultimate concern is the Vancouver Canuck’s, our core identity will be that of a sports fan. The question is not if we worship, but what we worship. We want to become like God.

Coming to worship at Mass each Sunday gives our life order. There are many things competing to be our ultimate concern: family, work, hobbies, or studies. When we come to Mass on Sunday, we reorder our life, making God again and again our ultimate concern. When we choose to go to Mass instead of all the other things we could do (sports, shopping, resting), we send ourselves the message that God is more important than all these other things. We need to hear ourselves at Mass asking God for mercy, thanking Him for for all the good gifts He gives us and begging Him for help. We need to hear ourselves saying who our ultimate concern is.

Worship gives our souls shape and order, just as exercise gives our bodies shape and order. Like exercise, worship can be difficult and a bit of a chore. Sometimes people complain that Mass is boring or that is doesn’t speak to them. You don’t always enjoy Mass? So what?! Don’t get me wrong, we should do what we can to make Mass engaging, but we need to remember that we don’t go to Mass to be entertained. We worship because it is good for us. In life we do many things that are difficult and hard not because they are enjoyable but because they are good for us. We worship so that we can become more like God.

Staying healthy takes work. The results, however, are worth the effort. Want to be truly healthy? Eat a healthy diet. Exercise. Get plenty of rest. Most importantly, worship God.