By Hannah Armidon
The Old Testament was doing social distancing before it was cool. Pick up a dead animal? Forget washing your hands — take a whole bath, wash your clothes, and you’re unclean until evening. Having your period? Anything you touch without washing your hands, anything you sit on or lie on, and yourself are all unclean until you’re done. Then wash everything and you’ll be clean. Have a skin disease? Keep your distance from even your family, wear your hair unkempt, and yell “Unclean!” to anyone who approaches. When it is resolved (if it is resolved and you’re not a permanent leper), the priest will examine you, you will wash (a lot), offer a sacrifice and its blood and water will be sprinkled over you for cleansing. Only then will you be able to interact with people. No more six-foot distancing. You can rejoin your family. You can be part of the community again. You can touch and be touched. You can go to the market, you can go to worship, you can do all the normal everyday things that we are all missing right now.
What the world is experiencing right now is a version of uncleanness. We are all potentially contagious. We have to wash our hands before and after we touch everything. Our food might be contaminated. We can’t go to the store. We can’t go to worship. We can’t properly care for our dying and dead. We feel utterly cut off from one another, from God, and from our normal life. This is what happens when you are unclean.
The book of Leviticus deals with uncleanness. While it is a chore to read through, it offers a theological framework for what the world is experiencing right now. Uncleanness touches every aspect of life, encompassing birth, eating, roadkill, disease, house mold, procreation, and death. True, there are varying degrees of uncleanness, just as we now experience. Death is the most unclean. Long-term uncleannesses require more purification before one can reenter society. Some just require washing your hands. Regardless of the severity, there is a taint on every aspect of life. That taint is the taint of death. The death that God promised Adam and Eve if they ate of the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil tainted all of existence with its sting. That sting, that taint that separates us from the life of God, that is uncleanness.
Ultimately, while uncleanness isolates us from one another, that is only a symptom of the real disease: uncleanness separates us from the holy and life-giving God.
By the grace of God, there is a solution. In the Tabernacle and the Temple, the Lord offered the people of Israel a sacrificial system of cleansing. There were specific sacrifices and cleansing rites to initiate reception not only into society, but into the presence of God. To be among the people was to be one of God’s people. To be exiled due to uncleanness is to be exiled from the presence of the Holy One lest you bring the taint of death into the presence of Life. But these sacrifices and cleansing rites were only temporary. In order to reduce the isolation, an Israelite’s entire life must revolve around cleansing, remaining clean, and keeping from contamination. But avoiding uncleanness is not a cure. It is a treatment. What hope is there for the disease of uncleanness?
None. Until Jesus. Until the holy and life-giving God took on flesh and came down into the midst of our contamination. In Mark 5, Jesus takes on the forces of death that contaminate and separate his creation: he rebukes unclean spirits, he touches a dead girl and fills her with life, and a woman who has been in utter isolation for twelve years touches the hem of his garment, and she is cleansed. Instead of being contaminated by the uncleanness of the broken world around him, Jesus spreads wholeness. He removes the isolation of these people, restoring them to the fullness of health, community, and a place in the worship of God.
Even then, the taint of death is still on the world. But in Holy Week, we remember his suffering and death. We remember that moment when the Holy One of God suffered the ultimate uncleanness of not just touching but becoming a corpse. When death not only encountered Jesus, but seemed to win. However, God did not let his Holy One see corruption. He was raised from the dead — having defeated death and all the taint of uncleanness that it brought into the world. And on that day when God remakes the heavens and the earth, it will be entirely clean. There will no more be divide between people, no more isolation, no more fear, no more death. There will be no barrier that separates husband and wife, friend, neighbor, worshiper, or even God himself. We will look on His face. We will join in a throng of rejoicing in which there will be no more pain or death or separation. We will celebrate the true Easter that comes with the final destruction of death.
Right now, we are in Lent. We are living the separation of uncleanness in a way that many have not encountered previously. What we must realize is that this is the state that we are always in until God rescues us and brings us out of bondage into life.
The Rev. Hannah Mudge Armidon is a PhD student at Wycliffe College, Toronto School of Theology.