Thursday, February 18, 2010

Thursday after Ash Wednesday

Isaiah 38:1-6 / Matthew 8:5-13

What do you call your parents? Not when introducing them to others, mind you, but when speaking to them face to face, talking on the phone, or writing a letter? If you are an English-speaker, there is a range of possibilities: Mother, Mom, Mommy, Mum, Father, Dad, Daddy, Pop or Pops. Odds are, however, that there are two options you do not take. Most people will not refer to their parents by their given, Christian name. In the same way, I know of no one who calls their parents Mr. N or Mrs. N.

Why not? If parents are related to us intimately, and we show the growth of intimacy in a relationship generally by familiarity, through the use of a given name rather than a title, would it not make more sense to address Tom or Connie than Mr. or Mrs. Thomas Wood? Or, if respect is due our elders, wouldn't the full title be preferred to the possibly functional, relational category, that is Mr. Wood over Dad or Father?

Our native intuitions, however, are correct here. We must never be so familiar with our parents that we forget who they are for us, that we owe them, in justice as much as in love, a level of respect granted to no one else in our life, the kind of foundational piety we owe only to our greatest benefactors — parents, nation, God. To be intimate with such as these is laudable, and with parents and God essential, but always an intimacy girt round with piety. To do otherwise is to fail to know, fail to honor, fail to love. While our respect should never hold those we love at bay, neither should it dull our real and necessary awareness of their goodness and the honor it demands of us.

In our Gospel, the centurion approaches Jesus, begs him the grace of healing for his servant, but bids him not to enter his house. Domine, non sum dignus ut intres sub tectum meum. This pagan, who is in crucial ways misguided about what it means to be divine, nonetheless knows that true divinity can be approached, must be approached. At the same time, he knows that one cannot be too familiar, too chummy with God. Entreating God's healing power is not like inviting a stranger for a beer at the corner bar. To know oneself and to know God means to recognize that there is a proper stance, a proper sense of respect, a matter of justice the centurion would know as Roman pietas, the pagan echo of Christian piety.

Chances are, we have fallen short one way or the other, been too familiar with God or held ourselves too far back. Neither will do, and both are destructive in the long run. This Lent, we can allow our every act of communion to be a healing of this breach of piety. Every time we are at Mass, we can hear from the lips of the priest, and perhaps of our own, but certainly in the lips of our heart, the protestation of the centurion: Domine, non sum dignus ut intres sub tectum meum. Having made our proper expression of piety, having honored the Lord who is worthier of better temples than we have made of our lives, we can then let him enter in. Then we will discover that in that hour our souls have been healed.

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