Domine, non sum dignus: sermon on the third Sunday after Epiphany

“Amen, I say to you, I have not found so great faith in Israel.”

Today the Church sets before us a hero of the faith. As far as I am aware, tradition has not preserved his name, and so we know him simply as the centurion of Capharnaum. It is the first time in the gospel that we find our Lord speaking to a representative of the Roman empire, although from the account in St Luke, who tells the story more fully, it appears that they spoke only through intermediaries. After this, the Lord does not speak again to a Roman until He comes before Pontius Pilate.

What strikes me first about this centurion is his magnanimity. St Luke tells us that the Jewish elders of Capharnaum come to Christ to ask Him to heal the man’s servant, saying, “He is worthy that thou shouldst do this for him. For he loveth our nation; and he hath built us a synagogue.” I call this magnanimity, because it would have been easy, and in a way natural, for the representative of the great Roman empire and its army to have looked down upon the little nation of the Jews. And what was the town of Capharnaum to him, that he should have personally paid for a synagogue to be built there? After all, if he ever entered that synagogue himself, he would probably have been obliged to sit at the back, with the other pious or curious Gentiles. Yet he overcomes his natural feelings of superiority, in order to do honour to God, and for the sake of the true religion, which he can see is preserved among the Jews. This is already the mark of a great soul.

But it is especially for his faith that he is praised. It seems to me that by his faith, he resembles both Mary and Joseph. How is this? Notice the words in which he addresses our Lord: “Lord, my servant lieth at home sick of the palsy, and is grievously tormented.” That is all. He does not say, like Jairus, “Come, lay thy hand upon my daughter,” or like the royal official in St John, “Come down before that my son die.” He does not make any request at all; he simply places a need before Christ, so that Christ may respond to it as He wishes. Is this not reminiscent of how our Lady acted at Cana, when she simply said to her Son, “They have no wine”? This is the mark of a pure faith, to turn to the Lord in simplicity with one’s needs, believing that He will do whatever is best.

Next, the centurion reminds me of St Joseph. When St Joseph learned that the Blessed Virgin was with child by the Holy Ghost, his instinct was to withdraw from her, “to let her go, secretly”. He felt unworthy to dwell in the same house with her in whom so great a miracle had been worked, to remain with the new ark of the new covenant. Only the message of an angel gave him the assurance that God wished him to stay with her. The centurion, likewise, by an instinct of faith, feels unworthy that the Son of God should come even for a few moments into a house where two fallen men, himself and his servant, are living. And the Lord honours the reverential fear of the centurion by not coming to his house and rather curing the servant at a distance. This also symbolises the way in which He will heal the gentile nations at a distance, through the preaching of the apostles, after His ascension into heaven.

If the centurion’s faith reminds us of Mary and Joseph, we are perhaps no longer surprised to hear our Lord declare to the crowd who are following Him: “Amen, I say to you, I have not found so great faith in Israel.” How should we understand these words? Evidently, they cannot mean that no individual in the land of Israel has a faith equal to that of the centurion. Certainly the faith of the Blessed Virgin was incomparably greater than that of the centurion, and the faith of St Joseph and of St John the Baptist was greater also. I understand our Lord to mean that no one who officially represented Israel, as this centurion represents the Roman empire, had a faith as strong and simple as he. Some of the Jewish rulers do believe in Him, but they dare not confess Him openly. They speak obscurely, like Nicodemus, who says to the rest of the Sanhedrin, “Doth our law judge any man, unless it first hear him?” Or, like Joseph of Arimathea, they are His disciples, “but secretly, for fear of the Jews”. In a way, this centurion was more fortunate than such people, since as a gentile, he did not have to worry about being cut off from the synagogue, as they did. But fortunate or not, he made use of the grace that God offered him, and became a hero of the faith.

And because of his faith, he receives what Jesus promises elsewhere to His confessors: “a mouth and wisdom which all your adversaries shall not be able to resist.” He receives wisdom to understand something of the mystery of Christ. Life in the Roman army would have been hard and often brutal, but for the centurion, it becomes an analogy that gives him insight into the Incarnation itself. “I also am a man subject to authority, having under me soldiers; and I say to this, go, and he goeth, and to another, come, and he cometh.”He seems to recognise Christ as the Son who, in His humanity, is subject to the eternal Father, going and coming as the Father wills; and it is as if the centurion sees in his mind’s eye the multitude of disciples who will be under Christ’s own authority, all of them made soldiers of the faith by the sacrament of confirmation. 

He sees, then, that there is a kind of resemblance between himself and our Lord: both of them subject to authority, and having others under them. Yet at the same time, he subjects Himself entirely to Christ. He knows that not all authority is alike. In this way the centurion foreshadows what will happen much later in Christian history, when the Roman power, without renouncing its own rights, will subject itself to the authority of the Church. Whenever, in the past, Catholic kings and princes refused to judge bishops, it was as if they were saying to them, “I, with my merely earthly power, am not worthy to sit in judgement over you, who hold a spiritual power.”

Finally, the centurion is given a mouth to speak words that no doubt surpass his own understanding, enlightened though he was by the Holy Spirit. He had honoured the true religion and the nation of Israel, by having the synagogue built in Capharnaum. So, God will reward and honour him by using his words as a part of the religious worship of the new Israel. Throughout the world, at every Mass, Catholic priests will say like the centurion, and all the faithful with them, “Domine, non sum dignus, ut intres sub tectum meum.” And the Lord will again honour this reverential fear, but this time no longer by remaining at a distance, but rather by coming under our roof. No doubt this centurion himself, after Pentecost, was baptised and received Holy Communion. In that way, he already fulfilled the prophecy that he would sit at table “with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven”, as a part of that one Church that unites heaven and earth.