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Beseeching the Lord for Healing

We enjoy this year a goodly stretch of verdant Epiphanytide. Some years it is very short indeed, depending on when Easter falls. This year we get through the 3rd, 4th, and 5th Sundays after Epiphany, though not the 6th, which gives way to Septuagesima Sunday. Take note that the opening chant for Holy Mass in these last four Sundays after Epiphany, the Introit, remains the same. This repetition invites us to find a binding theme between these Epiphany Sundays. One possibility: on these Sundays Holy Church continues to underscore manifestations of the Lord’s divinity by recounting miracles He performed, though in no particular or chronological order.

This Sunday we see Christ especially as the Divine Physician.

Our context is Matthew 8. Christ has just preached the Sermon on the Mount (chapters 5-7 – parallel to the Sermon on the Plain – a level place on the mountain side – in Luke 6). Huge crowds followed the Lord down the mount. He worked miracles, two recounted in the Gospel reading today: the cleansing of the leper and the healing at a distance of the servant of the Centurion, whence come the famous words “Domine non sum dignus” we recite before Holy Communion.

To begin with, the parallel passage in Luke 5 says that the man was “pléres lépras… full of leprosy.” He must have been quite horrible to behold and dreadfully miserable. The ancient stigma of Hansen’s Disease was powerful and the Law in Leviticus about diseases was stern. It created the burden of being a social outcast, unclean, maybe even rejected by those less full of leprosy. The wretched leper sought Jesus for healing, calling Him “Lord,” not just “Rabbi.” He was a believer.

If he had not been so afflicted, would he have gone to the Lord? He might have, in a state of comfort and wellness, not made the effort. Doesn’t that describe our own tendency? Many of us are swift to turn to God in prayer when we are wretched and less likely to when we are comfortable. Comfort does not justify a vacation from prayer. Perhaps there was a grace precisely in the affliction God permitted that drove him to Christ.

Affliction and healing. Augustine of Hippo, who wrote a work On Rebuke And Grace, used medical images of his era to describe in a sermon how Christus Medicus, the divine physician, will say, “The only way you can be cured is if I tie you down, cauterize, wield the knife.” We – the wretched, agonized patient – respond, “Do what you like, only cure me!” And therefore, in those days before anesthesia, the doctor didn’t stop cutting just because the patient screamed for him to stop.

The mention of a leper recalls the famous leper of the Old Testament in 2 Kings 5, the Syrian general Naaman. Surely there is a thematic connection between the healing of leprous Naaman the military man, and of the leper and then of the servant of the Centurion. Naaman went to the King of Israel to be healed of his leprosy and, because only God could do this, the King in exasperation exclaimed, “Am I God?”. A Jew in the 1st century would likely have made this connection: Christ did in front of their eyes what the King said only God could do and what not even Elisha did for Naaman with his own hands. And Jesus touched the leper. He is more than the Messiah. He is God.

Remember that John the Baptist sent his own disciples to ask Jesus if He was the one they had waited for. Christ replied with a list of signs which only God could do. The leper was immediately healed. Imagine the impact on the crowd seeing all of that. And then Lord said: “See that you say nothing to anyone.” Yeah, right. Everyone would be talking about this. The olim-leper, on the other hand, was to show himself to the priest. In Leviticus there were laws about leprosy or skin diseases and what to do, what sacrifice and purifications were to be performed, in the case of healing. Christ was obedient to the Torah, the Law.

After the incident with the leper, Christ and the crowds arrived at Capernaum. A Roman Centurion came to Jesus to beg him to heal his paralyzed servant. In the Luke 5 parallel the Centurion sent envoys, elders of the Jews whose trust he had won. He must have been a righteous man who didn’t worship idols. In either case, the Centurion came to Christ for the sake of someone way below his own station, his servant. The Lord took his example and held it up to the Jews. Remember that one of the most important messianic signs was that the gentiles would come to the Messiah. This is also one of the few times when Jesus “marveled.”

Would that we could all repeat the words of the Centurion with as much humility as that Roman soldier had.

Dómine, non sum dignus, ut intres sub tectum meum: sed tantum dic verbo, et sanábitur puer meus.

This adapted phrase of Scripture is so familiar now. By the 11th century it was in use before Communion. It was the original moment of showing the Host to the congregation. The elevations after the consecrations came later to help combat heresy about transubstantiation in the face of the Protestant Revolt.

One commentator describes this three-fold repetition as the priest’s attempt to cleanse his heart of the last trace of venial sin.

There are many such moments during Holy Mass that remind the priest of his flaws and the awesome mercy of God. For example, in one symbolic interpretation, at the preparation of the chalice, the priest carefully wipes away anything that shouldn’t be there in the cup, any dust or drops of water or wine in the wrong place, and, yes, the occasional insect. Others suggest that this “wiping away” symbolized the ejection from the place of anyone who doesn’t truly believe. But I digress.

Each stage of Mass provides profound preparations for that most holy moment of Communion. We repeat things. We beat our breasts. St. Augustine reports in his interjected comments during his sermons that at the mention of certain words, such as mercy, the people beat their breasts so forcefully that it sounded like there was a thunderstorm.

These things, extravagant gestures, repetitions, are good for us. Just as our interior disposition gives rise to appropriate outward expression, outward gestures help our interior disposition and even help to bring it about. Do not be sloppy with your signs of the Cross, your genuflections before the Lord, the beating of your breast, the vocalization of your responses.

Take a look in your books at the priest’s prayers before his Communion, remembering that, by your baptism, you too have been given a participation in Christ’s priesthood. You are not priests like the ordained, but your offerings are pleasing to God because of your incorporation into the High Priest’s Mystical Person. You have in the prayers of the priest’s Communion a guide for your own attitude.

Hence in the Vetus Ordo, with lavish abandon Holy Mother Church calls upon her priestly sons to beat their breasts not once, not twice, but thrice. By the pounding again and again, Christ Himself finally breaks through the door of their unworthiness, captures their whole-hearted attention, draws them beyond the distractions of the moment to the realization that they are about to consume the man-commanded, self-invited, God-granted Host.

The three-fold strike, with the knelling “Domine non sum dignus,drives home not just for Father, but for you in the pews what the Centurion also knew: the only thing your unworthy priests bring of their own, that belongs only to them, are their own sins. All the goodness is of God.

Let not the partaking of Thy Body, O Lord, Jesus Christ, which I, though unworthy, presume to receive, turn to my judgment and condemnation; but let it, through Thy mercy, become a safeguard and remedy, both for soul and body; Who with God the Father, in the unity of the Holy Ghost, livest and reignest God, world without end. Amen.

I will take the Bread of Heaven, and I will call upon the Name of the Lord.

Lord, I am not worthy that Thou shouldst enter under my roof; say but the word, and my soul shall be healed.

Lord, I am not worthy that Thou shouldst enter under my roof; say but the word, and my soul shall be healed.

Lord, I am not worthy that Thou shouldst enter under my roof; say but the word, and my soul shall be healed.

St. Augustine says that the reason Christ wanted to go to the house of the Centurion was because He wanted to go into his heart, the seat of the thought, will and love. So too, each time we beat our breast before Holy Communion: He wants to enter our unworthy hearts.

Reflecting more on the figure of the Centurion…. By the way, I like to fantasize that it was he, the same man, who had duty at Calvary on Good Friday and exclaimed, “Truly this man was the son of God,” exactly like John Wayne said it. Seriously, one gets the sense that he, being a man of discipline, would have humbly accepted from the Lord that He would not come.

In the face of that coordination of will and humility – a Roman Centurion of the occupying force begging before a wandering Jewish Rabbi for the sake of a servant – of course Christ, who willed to empty Himself taking the form of a servant (Phil 2:7), would have been ready to go. Christ marveled.

Lastly, consider the courage it took both our protagonists today to come to the Lord and to obtain their healings. In the case of the leper, because of his horrible, unclean wretched state, “full of leprosy,” every intimidating, accusatorial eye would have been on him, people perhaps shouting at him. In the case of the Centurion, being an unclean gentile and a feared military oppressor, every anxious eye would have been on him, people buzzing. These men had the courage that comes from convicted Faith, ready to act through suffering love to approach Love Himself.

Go to the Lord with the leper’s need and lowliness. Go to the Lord with the Centurion’s urgency and courage.

Pull down your dirty bandages and show yourself to Him. Beat open a door in your hearts for the Lord. Make sure there is nothing that should not be there to hinder His healing touch.

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