“Speak the word only”
There is a wonderful richness to the Epiphany season. Everything is “charged with the grandeur of God” ,it seems; “signs and wonders” abound. Epiphany is the season of miracles and in today’s gospel we are given a richness of miracles, not just one but two miracles, a double healing, the healing of the leper and the healing of the centurion’s servant. Jesus “puts forth his hand”. Jesus speaks. He is the healer.
Epiphany season abounds in miracles. They belong to the larger purpose of the Epiphany season as the season of teaching. In other words, the miracles of Jesus teach us something about God and something about the divine will and purpose for our humanity. The miracles belong to the making visible of the glory of God. They are not for our entertainment but for our enlightenment.
A miracle is, of course, a sign and a wonder. The healing miracles are a wonder. They awaken awe and wonder in us. Consider what we see in the miracles of healing. Simply the signs of the glory of God in the effects of what is said and done. Notice, too, the close connection between word and deed, between what is said and what is done. The miracles of the gospel are all about the word in action, the word of Christ written in the very fabric of our humanity, redeemed and restored to wholeness. The wonder, really, is the wonder of Christ, the wonder of God with us.
Christ heals a leper. Christ heals the paralyzed servant of the centurion. Christ speaks and Christ acts. There is healing. And important things are being taught to us about Jesus as God and about the nature of human redemption. These two healings, so closely juxtaposed, are within and beyond the spiritual boundaries of Israel, we might say. Through the history and meaning of Israel, the glory of God is not only made known to the world but is shown to be for the world. The leper, on the one hand, is healed within the context of the religious culture of Israel and is held to the requirements of the Law. “Go thy way, show thyself to the priest, and offer the gift that Moses commanded, for a testimony unto them.”
The centurion, on the other hand, is from outside Israel. But Jesus responds to his request, saying “I will come and heal him”. But his own amazement to the centurion’s simple and direct response, “speak the word only”, shows us something more. Here is the wonder of faith which coming out of Israel transcends Israel. “I have not found”, Jesus says, “so great faith, no not in Israel”. And for both the leper and the centurion, Christ is the wonder. There is an epiphany and in the wonder of Christ we see something greater, namely God’s delight in us through our taking hold of his word.
Christ is the wonder before he puts forth his hand, before he speaks. Yet, the healing miracles are, surprisingly, only part of the glory. They are the making visible of the glory that is present in Jesus Christ. He is the glory. And he is the glory that is somehow made known not just in his effects but in his person.
The leper came and worshipped him, saying, “Lord, if thou wilt, thou canst make me clean”. It is a petition, though expressed almost in the form of an imperious demand. It is a petition which finds its deeper heart of meaning in things like “thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven”, and, “if it be possible, let this cup pass from me, nevertheless, not my will but thine be done”. These are the words of the one who says “I have come to do the will of him who sent me”. Such words carry us into the glory of the Son with the Father in the bond of the Holy Spirit. The leper somehow knows the presence of the glory of God in Christ Jesus. His petition is his response to what he knows. The healing act which follows both confirms and illumines the glory. “Jesus put forth his hand and touched him saying, ‘I will, be thou clean’”. A window in Israel is opened to behold the glory of heaven on earth.
The glory is made visible in the will that has declared itself. That will is the love that made the heaven and the earth and all that therein is, “the love that moves the sun and the other stars” ,as Dante puts it.
The centurion also came and besought him with the simple statement about his servant’s condition. It, too, is a petition, straightforward and direct, though far less imperious. He, too, senses and knows something of the glory of Christ even before Jesus speaks and acts. The brief dialogue between Jesus and the centurion illumines that glory. Jesus says, “I will come and heal him”. But the centurion immediately replies with the most amazing and exquisite words of humility and faith imaginable, “Lord, I am not worthy that thou shouldest come under my roof; but speak the word only and my servant shall be healed”. Such is the light of the glory of Christ shining in us and shining out into the world!
But the glory is made visible not just in the healing but in the words which precede it. “If thou wilt”, the leper says. “Speak the word only”, the centurion says. Jesus says to the leper, “I will; be thou clean”. Jesus says to the centurion,“I will come and heal him”, before being ‘blown away’ with amazement at the man’s statement of faith that is far more than anything that he has found in Israel. Vistas of glory in these simple scenes. Vistas of glory simply in what is said.
The Gospels do not show us the process by which the leper and the centurion come to such an insight into the presence of God’s glory in Jesus Christ. It is, of course, an operation of grace. They show us, perhaps, how as Evangelists, they have come to such a knowledge through the recollection of these events. They show us these things so that we, too, may come to know and grow into the greater knowledge of the glory of the Lord. Such is the mission of the Epiphany.
But something first has to be made known. It is made known in Christ. The light that irradiates the world illumines the souls of those seeking grace. It is there in the idea of the reality of Jesus Christ, God’s Word and Son, made known and proclaimed. Such is the mission of the Church, here and everywhere and at all times.
The light of Epiphany opens us out to the glory of God in Jesus Christ. The hand that is “put forth” is the hand of glory; the voice that speaks is the voice of glory. It goes forth to effect our healing, our salvation. But our healing, our salvation, is about nothing more than the effect of God’s glory upon our lives. Christ is the glory. He puts forth his hand; he speaks his word and only so are we healed. We enter into the glory of his presence, here and now, in the Word proclaimed and the Sacraments celebrated. “Lord, I am not worthy that thou shouldest come under my roof; but speak the word only and my servant shall be healed”.
Such words evoke Christ’s wonder but as well his judgment, a judgment upon Israel and upon us, for if we do not receive the word that is spoken in our midst then we are like “the children of the kingdom” who are “cast out into outer darkness” because we have ignored and denied the light of the word spoken.
The centurion’s words are words of “great faith” and words that challenge us. They have their application for us as a prayer, especially at the time of receiving communion: “Lord, I am not worthy that thou shouldest come under my roof, but speak the word only and my soul shall be healed”. The glory is present and proclaimed. It has only to be received in us. “Speak the word only” is the condition of our participation in Christ’s glory.
“Speak the word only”
Father Ed Bakker