“Oh Lord, I Am Not Worthy” — that is the beginning of an old a popular hymn that we’ve been singing in church for years. It is also a part of the Mass that we pray just before receiving Our Divine Lord in Holy Communion. And today, in the gospel of our Mass for this first Monday of Advent, we come to the source of that prayer and hymn. Surprisingly, it goes back to a Roman soldier in the time of Christ. Although he was a Roman and a pagan, he was evidently well-disposed toward the Jews of the Holy Land at the time, because he had even helped them build their synagogue in Caparnaum. Now, one of his valued servants is seriously ill, and he sends word to Jesus, whom he knows to be a wonder-worker, hoping that Jesus will heal the servant. Jesus says, “I will come and cure him.” But the soldier says, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you enter under my roof. Just say the word and my servant will be healed.”
There is more to this than meets the eye of those of us who don’t know Jewish culture in those days. A practicing Jew who entered the home of a pagan gentile incurred ritual impurity according to the Jewish religious regulations of the time. The centurion knew this, and did not want to cause Our Lord to violate his own Jewish way of life. That, plus the fact that he didn’t want to cause Our Lord to make the trip to his house when in fact the cure could be worked at a distance, caused him to say to Jesus: I am not worthy. Our Lord marvels that a pagan gentile would have enough faith in his power to cure that he could ask Jesus to heal the servant from a distance. Even among the religious Jewish people, Jesus says, he has not found this kind of faith. And so the servant was instantly cured. And now, the faith-filled statement of the Roman centurion has become a Christian prayer repeated countless millions of times since then, for we say it at every Mass. And the Church chooses this particular passage of the gospel to be read on this first Monday of Advent. We are preparing to celebrate the coming of Christ into our world, our history, our human race on that first Christmas 2000 years ago. And what we are saying to him, in effect, is: Lord, we are not worthy that God should become a man, that the Creator should become one of us creatures; that the Almighty should become a helpless baby. It is true: we certainly are NOT worthy of these tremendous gifts of God, but we are also certainly happy that he is such a gracious, generous God, and has done all this for us. Lord, we are not essentially worthy, but we rejoice that your love makes you consider us worthy of all this effort on your part. Thank you for seeking God’s truth. God bless you. Father Victor Brown, O.P.
Note: This message was composed some years ago.