The season of Advent grows in significance in my spiritual life with each passing year. I first discovered Advent as a ministerial student at Asbury Theological Seminary. There I was introduced to liturgy and the whole concept of the year being expressed by liturgical seasons: Advent, Christmas, Lent, Easter, and Ordinary Time.
I write on this Monday of the first week of Advent; the Gospel reading is taken from Matthew 8:5–13—Jesus and his encounter with the Roman Centurion who requests healing for his servant.
As he entered Caper′na-um, a centurion came forward to him, begging him and saying, “Lord, my servant is lying paralyzed at home, in terrible distress.” And he said to him, “I will come and heal him.” But the centurion answered him, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; but only say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I am a man under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.” When Jesus heard him, he marveled, and said to those who followed him, “Truly, I say to you, not even in Israel have I found such faith. I tell you, many will come from east and west and sit at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness; there men will weep and gnash their teeth.” And to the centurion Jesus said, “Go; be it done for you as you have believed.” And the servant was healed at that very moment. (RSV)
This morning before Mass, I sat down to pray this passage using Lectio Divina. After an initial prayer, asking God to speak to me through the Gospel, I read it carefully and three words jumped out at me: centurion, begging, and Lord.
The man who approached Jesus that day in Capernaum was a Roman centurion. A centurion was not a Jew, he was as I have already mentioned Roman, and commanded a “centuria” or century, that from 200 to 1000 legionaries. A centurion was a symbol of the oppression the Jewish population endured under Roman rule. His presence instilled fear, order and obedience, no matter how reluctant. As this centurion himself says, “For I am a man under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.”
So here we have this powerful, brave and influential man coming to Jesus and begging him on behalf of a sick servant: “…my servant is lying paralyzed at home, in terrible distress.” The centurion in his position with Rome could have ordered Jesus, a Jew, to come to his house and take care of his need. Instead we see the centurion in a posture of a mendicant, a beggar, not unlike others we see in Scripture, e.g. blind Bartimaeus. The posture of begging strips the centurion of his armor, his sword, his Roman swagger and his menacing demeanor. He comes to Jesus as we all must: nothing to brag about, nothing to hold on to, nothing to cling to. As the old hymn “Rock of Ages” says:
Nothing in my hand I bring,
Simply to Thy cross I cling;
Naked, come to Thee for dress;
Helpless, look to Thee for grace;
Foul, I to the fountain fly;
Wash me, Savior, or I die.
The final word is Lord. The centurion says to Jesus begging: “Lord, my servant is lying paralyzed at home, in terrible distress.” And later he says, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; but only say the word, and my servant will be healed.” Maybe, like me, you’ve read that story so many times or as a Catholic, repeated those powerful words in the Mass: “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.” For the centurion to call Jesus “Lord” was no small thing. For the centurion and all Romans of his time, Caesar was Lord. To call Jesus Lord was not only novel, it was blasphemous, dangerous and treasonous. Yet somehow the centurion recognized Jesus for who he was: Lord! Jesus is Lord! That became the creed of the early Christians: Jesus is Lord! not Caesar! Many of them gave up their lives for that affirmation of faith.
Where does that leave you and me? Time for confession, my confession. I tend to come to Jesus putting my best foot forward. That can look different at different times and places. I read the Bible thinking about all the times I’ve already read this passage instead of thinking about the fresh thing our Lord wants to say to me through it—like this morning! I start praying and present my list of petitions with the fixes I’m sure would make everyone and everything better, instead of quieting myself before our Lord and letting Him tell me how He wants to change me, which will change how I see the people and the things I want Him to fix. And even when I go to Confession, if I try to put my sins in the best possible light, instead of agreeing with the centurion that I am not worthy, no real forgiveness and cleansing can take place.
Lord, like the centurion, I put aside my perceived merits. I beg of you to hear my plea. I acknowledge that you are Lord and nothing in my life or in my world can compete with that, nor will you accept it. Lord, only say the word and my soul shall be healed. Amen.