I must keep this brief today… briefer. I hear loud shouts of joy even through my monitor. In short, “life happened” in the last couple of days. Thus, my lateness and brevity. Though it doesn’t make too much difference if you get this before or after Mass. It is a good practice to review the texts of Sunday’s Mass for the next couple days of the week before turning to preview the upcoming Sunday, all for your full, conscious and active participation, during Masses and in between. We don’t have vacations from our prayers.
On this 3rd Sunday after Epiphany our Epistle Reading in the Vetus Ordo is a continuation of Paul’s Letter to the Romans which we heard last week. It admonishes us to act charitably towards those who do us wrong: “don’t repay evil with evil”. We are to “overcome evil with good” (Rom 12:20). Paul quotes Proverbs 25:21-22, which is:
21 If your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat;
and if he is thirsty, give him water to drink;
22 for you will heap coals of fire on his head,
and the Lord will reward you.
Heaping hot coals on someone’s head doesn’t sound very charitable. What could this mean? In ancient times it was critically important to keep a fire going in the home. Great effort was made to bank coals in ashes over night and get the fire going again later. Providing food and drink and fire were ways to tend to your neighbors’ true needs. For the Romans a sentence of exile was given with a decree of aquae et ignis interdictio… privation of water and fire. You were to be denied the essentials of life precisely so that you were forced to leave the area or die. The reverse of this is how on the day of her marriage a bride would be received by her husband with fire and water, which represented that he would care for her needs. Hence, heaping coals on a person’s head is the opposite of cruelty. It is a way of waking them up to their true selves. As St. Augustine put it, your kindness will burn away your enemy’s hatred.
In the Gospel from Matthew 8:1-13, Jesus has come down the mountain after the Sermon on the Mount” and a huge crowd is still following Him. They encounter a leper who begs for healing. Already in Matthew 4 the Lord had been exorcising and healing in large numbers all manner of maladies. The parallel passage in Luke 5 says that the man was “full of leprosy”. We must conclude that he was terribly disfigured and instantly recognizable as a leper. People were probably terrified of him because contact with him made people ritually (not morally) impure and incapable of offering sacrifices, etc. Also, there were burdensome purification rites. However, they would have been afraid because of their lack of understanding that Hansen’s Disease (leprosy) is not spread easily from person to person by touch or being near. Instead it takes prolonged contact. Moreover, they didn’t know that 95% of people, at least these days, are naturally immune. In any event, this poor man, driven certainly from desperation and hope, asks Jesus to heal him, fully believing that He could do it.
Following on this encounter, another man, on the other end of the spectrum, comes to Jesus fully believing that He could work a miraculous cure. This time it is a Roman centurion. He, too, would have been a kind of leper for the Jews, for contact with him would result in ritual impurity. He was “outside”. Instead of being diseased and downtrodden, he was healthy and professional military commander rather like a modern day NCO. Ancient sources say that centurions were to be at least 30-year-old, were chosen for their size and strength, dexterity with sword, spear and shield, were able to read and write and were strict in discipline. We find several centurions in the New Testament: the centurion at the Crucifixion who in my mind’s eye will forever be John Wayne, today’s centurion at Capernaum, and Cornelius in Acts 10 whose baptism is a milestone in the history of the early Church along with the baptism of the Ethiopian eunuch. Coincidently, in Acts 10:47, we have the phrase, “Can any one forbid water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” See my comments above for forbidding or providing water and fire. Baptism and confirmation, the Holy Spirit moving on the water and descending like fire come to mind.
Getting back to the Gospel, both the leper and centurion, outsiders in different ways, are suffering. The leper suffers for himself from his disease. The centurion suffers for another’s disease, his pais in Greek, his servant’s, described in Greek as with “palsy”, paralyticos and was deinos basanizomenos … excessively or terribly tormented, the verb for the participle, basanizo used to describe torture.
Their need was great. Their need fueled their faith. Their faith brought them the grace of a miracle, one up close the present the other at a distance. It would have been easy for people and the leper himself to see his own cure. The centurion didn’t need to see it to believe it.
One might ask a question of the leper and of the centurion – and of ourselves. If they – we – had not been so afflicted, would they have sought the Lord so urgently? Would they have sought Him at all? Might they, in a state of comfort and wellness, not have made the effort? Perhaps it was precisely His affliction that drove them to Christ. It is probable. That’s how many of us are too.
How different we might be were we to pray as earnestly in comfort and peace as we do in pain and anxiety? We want Christ’s transforming graces and healing when we are down. Would we perhaps not do well to be as earnest in calm and health? Even more so perhaps because of the gratitude we should have, all that we can share more easily?
We don’t have a vacation from prayer, earnest prayer, when things are going well. We can keep close to our minds and hearts what Paul wrote to the Thessalonians, which we explored a short time ago (1 Thess 5):
14 And we exhort you, brethren, admonish the idlers, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all. 15 See that none of you repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to all. 16 Rejoice always, 17 pray constantly, 18 give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. 19 Do not quench the Spirit, 20 do not despise prophesying, 21 but test everything; hold fast what is good, 22 abstain from every form of evil.
Which very much echoes our Epistle reading from Romans.