The Great Fire (Astonishing to God)


Sermon preached by Fr. Antony Hughes on Sunday, July 5, 2020

I search for inspiration everywhere and find it everywhere. All we have to do to see it is to be open and receptive. The wind of the Spirit is always blowing. We just have to raise our sails. I remember my homiletics teacher who taught us one significant thing that I have never forgotten: to develop what he called “homiletical eyes.” Simply put that meant to keep our minds open and our senses focused on what is around us in view of our vocation as preachers. I have always remembered that.

Actually, as I have studied the subjects of spirituality and prayer over the years, I found that practice at the very center of it all. Other words for it are nepsis from the Greek, mindfulness, vigilance, watchfulness.

Now, you may be asking, what this has to do with the Centurion and his servant's healing. I believe the answer to that lies in the extraordinary nature of the Centurion's faith. He could see things no one else could see; namely what Isaiah the prophet saw, the Lord high and lifted up in the flesh before him. His faith was so extraordinary, in fact, that the Lord was astonished by it. That alone makes it worthy of our mindful attention.

My “homiletical eyes" opened wide when I read a short line from the religious scholar and teacher Eknath Eswaran's book WORDS TO LIVE BY, a beautiful collection of inspirational quotes from the world's great religions and other literature with short commentaries. Speaking of the path to truth and enlightenment taken by countless people the world over, he writes that in them “All lesser desires have been consumed in the great fire of love for God.”

That is what I see in the Centurion. His faith in God was so finely honed that it cut like a knife through the thick fog of social norms and the prevailing myth of the supreme power of the macho male so destructive to the soul. The Centurion had discovered instead the truly supreme power of the Lord, of love and humility.

I am reminded here of the words of St. Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” (II Cor. 12:9)

It was not the norm for a Roman centurion to bow to a Rabbi and in public. It was not the norm for a Roman centurion to have or display such a depth of compassion for a servant or slave who were, after all, considered to be disposable property. It was not the norm for a Roman centurion to display emotion which his whole demeanor suggests he did, again, in public. It was absolutely not the norm for a Roman centurion to admit the superior authority of a Jewish itinerant preacher and healer.

His reply when Jesus offered to go to his house to heal his servant is so profound, creative, and courageous that it found its way into the Roman Mass as the people recite right before receiving Holy Communion, “Lord, I am not worthy that you should come under the roof of my house, but say the word only and I shall be healed.”

Again, I wish we knew more about the Centurion. How did he evolve from a warrior of aggression to a warrior of love, a phrase I heard with my homiletical ears from Dr. Cornel West on Friday morning. How is it that he was able to shed the “lesser desires" like a butterfly emerging from its cocoon to manifest such sublime faith? We know nothing about what God he worshipped or what religion he observed in his heart. As a Roman Centurion he would have to ascribe to the cult of the Emperor. All we really know is what we read and observe in the Gospel. This man was one of the few people we know of in scripture who actually astonished our Lord.

Perhaps it is the end result of a life well lived that we also become astonishing to God. Perhaps this is what the Lord’s words, “Well done good and faithful servant” indicate.

Look deeply. This little window into the life of the Centurion reveals its riches the more time we spend with it in contemplation. We need to sit with it in the silence of our hearts. I recommend not thinking too much when we do.

One of my dearest spiritual sons texted me a quote from Albert Einstein that speaks of contemplation as the prime way of understanding. It is particularly powerful because it comes from such a great scientific mind. “I think 99 times and find nothing. I stop thinking, swim in silence, and the truth comes to me.” If, as St. John Climacus wrote in THE LADDER, “prayer is the laying aside of thoughts,” I believe that Einstein was actually saying the same thing as the ascetic of Sinai. He simply used different words.

“What we take in by contemplation, “ writes Meister Eckhart, “ that we pour out in love.” Loves goes in and love goes put. According to the life and teachings of Christ, there is only one question that matters in the end. Did we love much? The Centurion most certainly did.