Almighty and eternal God, mercifully look upon our infirmity, and stretch forth the right hand of Thy majesty to help and defend us.
– From the Collect for the Third Sunday After Epiphany
As the Church moves through Epiphanytide, we can think of this season as the third act of the three-act Christmas cycle:
The first act of the cycle develops throughout the four weeks of Advent, when in types and prophetic sayings is shown forth to us the great dogma of a God made man. In the second act, which, throughout Christmastide, includes all the mysteries of our Lord’s childhood, we are made to see with our eyes and handle with our hands the Word of life which was with the Father and hath appeared to us, that we may have fellowship with the Father and His Son Jesus Christ and that our joy may be full. The third act which is unfolded during the time after Epiphany is an extension of Christmastide, in which our Lord’s divinity continues to be affirmed.
St. Andrew Daily Missal, pp. 209-210
This Sunday’s Gospel tells of Christ’s healing of a leper and a centurion’s servant. The healing of the centurion’s servant is particularly instructive, as this healing not only reveals Christ’s divinity to the Gentiles, but also the centurion’s attitude toward Christ reveals how we are to approach that divinity.
The centurion was an officer of Rome and therefore a Gentile. Members of the Roman military were famous for their loyalty and devotion; Rome was only able to conquer the known world because it had such an elite and dedicated fighting force. This centurion, then, knew what it was to follow—and give—orders. Because of this, it is easy today to see these soldiers as little more than robots, doing their job without emotion or humanity. Yet this story in Matthew’s Gospel reveals that they were as human as the rest of us—and most importantly to Matthew’s original Jewish Christian audience—they were as human, and therefore as in need of salvation, as the Jews.
How is the centurion’s humanity revealed? He shows that most human of emotions: compassion. He is concerned for his servant, who is sick at home. It’s likely the centurion has done all he can for this valued servant, for he has now reached a point of desperation: asking for a miracle from a Jewish preacher. When Jesus agrees to go to his home, the centurion gives his famous response, which should be familiar to all Catholics: “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof; but only say the word, and my servant shall be healed.” Even 2,000 years later the faith of that statement is astonishing. Jesus himself “marvelled” at the man’s faith, and praised him as having greater faith than anyone in Israel (one of the very few times in the Gospels that Jesus praises someone).
This healing fits perfectly in Epiphanytide, as can be seen by Christ’s words, “Many shall come from the east and the west, and shall sit down with Abraham, and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven.” When Christ came, revealing his divinity, his primary focus was on the house of Israel (cf. Mt 15:24), but at the same time his ultimate goal was the salvation of the whole world. The Lord’s interaction with the Roman centurion, who represents the great faith the Gentile world would eventually place in Jesus as Lord, prefigures the fulfillment of that goal.
At Mass this Sunday, we will repeat the words of the centurion, Domine, non sum dignus, ut intres sub tectum meum: sed tantum dic verbo, et sanabitur anima mea, signifying our own unworthiness to receive the Lord. But as St. Augustine preached about the centurion: “By viewing himself as unworthy, he showed himself worthy for Christ to come not merely into his house but also into his heart” (Sermon 62.1). Let us remember that we too are unworthy to receive the Lord, but in our recognition of our unworthiness, Christ comes down to unite ourselves to him.
Eric Sammons is the Executive Director of Crisis Publications. He is the author of eight books, including Deadly Indifference: How the Church Lost Her Mission and How We Can Reclaim It.