FIRST MONDAY OF ADVENT
SCRIPTURE: MATTHEW 8:5-11
When Jesus entered Capernaum,
a centurion approached him and appealed to him, saying,
"Lord, my servant is lying at home paralyzed, suffering dreadfully."
He said to him, "I will come and cure him."
The centurion said in reply,
"Lord, I am not worthy to have you enter under my roof;
only say the word and my servant will be healed.
For I too am a man subject to authority,
with soldiers subject to me.
And I say to one, 'Go,' and he goes;
and to another, 'Come here,' and he comes;
and to my slave, 'Do this,' and he does it."
When Jesus heard this, he was amazed and said to those following him,
"Amen, I say to you, in no one in Israel have I found such faith.
I say to you, many will come from the east and the west,
and will recline with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob
at the banquet in the Kingdom of heaven."
Sometimes we encounter faith where we least expect it. Actually, because it is unexpected, our experiences of faith in people and places outside of the normal religious contexts are far more impactful than those from within. Jesus encountered faith outside of religious contexts more often than he did within them. This gospel story is one of those encounters, and one that Catholics are reminded of at each celebration of the Eucharist.
Since the revision of the Roman Missal (introduced to the Catholic Church in the United States in 2011), the words of this unnamed centurion from the Gospel have been given a lot more attention. He asks Jesus to heal his servant, but insists that he must do so by word, rather than in person, because he is unworthy to have Jesus “under his roof”. Expressing our unworthiness before God, prior to the reception of the Eucharist, is not new. The newest missal translation simply recovers the scriptural basis of the phrase. Since this has become our primary point of reference to this gospel story, it is easy to miss the second half, and what might be the more important theme, of the story. The centurion reaches across a significant social divide and personally connects with Jesus. He recognizes Jesus as spiritual authority, which he relates to his own experiences of societal authority. He acknowledges this authority in Jesus as the basis of his conviction that Jesus will undoubtedly be able to heal his servant. Jesus is “amazed” by his faith, the likes of which he has not seen from within “Israel”.
We quote this unnamed man of the Gospel as we prepare ourselves to unite with Christ in the most intimate way that we are able. We unite across another divide – human and divine – in sacrament, to be sacrament. These words of conviction, expressing our faith that Jesus can indeed heal across any divide, are the most appropriate words we can utter at such a time. It should then call us to consider what other divides might we be empowered by faith to overcome.
In this time of divisions, we should remember this man who reached across a divide, to connect in an act of faith. Divisions have the power to make us feel all kinds of negative emotions that keep us from connection, community, communion. We feel unworthy, ashamed, guilty, anxious and fearful. This centurion teaches us that we cannot let that stop us from acting in faith, seeking connection and striving for unity.
I have mostly thought that the words uttered before receiving communion were simply the reminder of my own unworthiness before God. Reflecting on the whole of this story, I realize the primacy of the next step, the conviction that the divisions that cause such judgments of worth are overcome through faith, and the realization that those divisions cannot be a reality within the unity of the Divine.
Our sacramental encounter, that bridges the divide between the human and divine, reminds us that in all places, with all people, we ought to be more open, interested, and able, to bridge all divides. We ought to be empowered in faith to reach across them, to connect, to embody the divine within us, and to become a force of unity.
Which divisions that exist in the world today do you find most disturbing?
What divides do you feel too ashamed, guilty, anxious, or scared to overcome?
Knowing that in God there is no division, how can faith empower you to reach across a divide? What can you do to bring unity there?
Mary Gentile is the Associate Director of hte St. Clare Center for Catholic Life at Cardinal Stritch University. She was previously a Theology Teacher at Catholic Memorial High School in Waukesha