Life on the Chrism Trail

Homily for the Twenty-fourth Week in Ordinary Time

Monday, September 13, 2021
Theological College
Washington, D.C.

1 Timothy  2:1-8
Psalm 28:2, 7, 8-9
Luke 7:1-10

The Gospel today offers us an important distinction for our reflection. It offers us the distinction between the religion born of culture and religion born of faith. First, the Gospel tells us this story, “A centurion there had a slave who was ill and about to die, and he was valuable to him. When he heard about Jesus, he sent elders of the Jews to him, asking him to come and save the life of his slave. They approached Jesus and strongly urged him to come, saying, “He deserves to have you do this for him, for he loves our nation, and he built the synagogue for us.”

The advice of the religious elders, unsolicited and freely directed to Jesus, understands the healing presence and authority of Jesus to be useful for their ends and as something that the centurion has merited by providing them with a favor. The centurion is a pagan but has politically assisted them with the financial and political support for a building project of a synagogue. The centurion is a pagan but because of his past cooperation with them he is considered by the religious leadership to be “part of the club.” The religious leadership sees the centurion as deserving the miracle that he seeks from Jesus. They understand it to be strictly transactional without spiritual or theological importance. They see Jesus as almost being obliged to perform the miracle. They see the healing that Jesus offers as a political act, useful to their ends, without any reference to conversion or to the Covenant by which God has made them His people. The disposition of the religious leadership understands the worship of God and the Covenant to be fundamentally a tribal act with a sense of community anchored in their own human initiative and structured by culture, customs, and shared interests. It is a religion born of culture.

The Gospel continues the story and further reveals through the words of the centurion conveyed by messengers to Jesus, “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you enter under my roof. Therefore, I did not consider myself worthy to come to you; but say the word and let my servant be healed. For I too am a person 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.”

The response of the centurion is different. It is a religious act born of a graced decision of faith. It is not primarily a political act. It begins with a transactional character to save a slave who is useful to him but then the centurion manifests the faith that only God can give. The centurion trusts Jesus’ power and goodness in recognizing his own powerlessness. The centurion had never previously sought, nor had he previously found, and he never had he prayed or authentically worshipped — and yet the life and experience of the centurion had brought him to the cusp of mystery, and he could see an attractive light shining from within the cloud that was obscure to him in natural sight. This disposition of willingness and humility prepared him to be evangelized by Christ Himself. With this same disposition the Holy Spirit prompts us to pray with the Church liturgically, “the ability to praise You, Lord, is itself Your gift.” So, the Gospel reveals to us and offers to us through the Roman centurion the words we address to Christ before approaching the altar and banquet table that He Himself has set. “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.”

It is Christ who sets the terms of the Eucharist of how He approaches us and enters under our roof, and of how we are to respond to His invitation to welcome and to embrace Him. If we have good sense and a healthy self-awareness of His love and of our own sinfulness and unworthiness, we will cooperate with Him and encounter Him on His terms. Considering this grace, only God can spare us of our presumption born of casual familiarity that would have us treat the Eucharist as something more about us, as a group of people who basically like each other and enjoy a unity of political opinion or social customs and come together with the vague wish that God will like us too and do what we ask. The Holy Communion offered by Christ to His Church is never merely transactional like a reciprocal contract.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that “Holy Communion separates us from sin,” since the blood that we drink is that of Christ and was shed for the forgiveness of sins. Therefore “the Eucharist cannot unite us to Christ without at the same time cleansing us from past sins and preserving us from future sins,” but this assumes that the person approaching the Eucharist is manifestly repentant and not in a state actively resisting the charity, efficaciously given and revealed by the Blood of Christ, which is what forgives sins. That is why the Catechism further teaches that “the Eucharist is not ordered to the forgiveness of mortal sins – that is proper to the sacrament of Reconciliation,” which is the sacrament that places one back in full communion with the Church, in full communion with the charity that makes the Church. We cannot make the charity on our own because we are powerless to cause the communion of the Church. Only Christ can and does offer this Communion. Like the case of the centurion in the Gospel, Jesus is not obliged to do it just because we think that we deserve it.

If the mortal sin is publicly known, there is not only the scandal associated with that sin and all sin, but the further scandal of sacrilege. It “profanes” the Eucharist in the eyes of those aware of the inconsistency, as though there were no inconsistency, as though we ourselves set the terms for what Communion is and is not, and thereby falsely teaches and witnesses that the Eucharist is less than it truly is as given by Christ. It reduces our own appreciation of the Eucharist to be something we deserve or even to be a type of talisman. This deadly effect is magnified if appropriate church authority entrusted to the successors of the Apostles seems to turn a blind eye. This makes it seem as though the love of Christ were only the moral example of a wise philosopher, and not the very love of God that holds the Church together as the Church. Accompaniment always includes an honest conversation in the truth. Without such honesty and without the truth, accompaniment devolves into loitering.

As Pope Saint John Paul II wrote in Ecclesia de Eucharistia, “The judgment of one’s state of grace obviously belongs only to the person involved, since it is a question of examining one’s conscience. However, in cases of outward conduct, which is seriously, clearly and steadfastly contrary to the moral norm, the Church, in her pastoral concern for the good order of the community and out of respect for the sacrament, cannot fail to feel directly involved.”

Yet, in order that we do not fall again into the careless reduction of this revealed truth into an ideological position of a different stripe, Saint Paul reminds us today through the words of his First Letter to Timothy: that God wills everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.   

“For there is one God.
  There is also one mediator between God and men,
  the man Christ Jesus,
  who gave himself as ransom for all.”

This understanding is a grace born of prayer and not a policy developed by casuistry or political strategy. If we pray and spend time with Christ on His terms in His Eucharistic presence that He offers us, we can be taught honestly as the Gentiles were taught by Saint Paul in faith and truth, raising our hands without anger or argument, and speak the faithful words of the Roman centurion, “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.”

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