First Martyrs of the Church of Rome

Lam 2:2,10-14,18,19; Ps 74:1-7,20-21; Mt 8:5-17
“May the afflicted and the poor praise your name.”

Only the poor in spirit can pray. Only those who have nothing can ask for everything. The poor and neglected are the special choice of the LORD. Those neglected by everyone and by every system can rely upon the LORD who as a divine preference for the poor. Our responsorial psalm today brings us back to the days of invasion and the beginning of exile for the people of Israel. We hear in the echoes of this psalm the hearts of those who felt completely abandoned by the LORD. Even today many poor and neglected cry out, “Why, O God, have you cast us off forever? Why does your anger smolder against the sheep of your pasture?” These are less complaints then lamentations. Sometimes our own hearts share in such a prayer. We know that the LORD has called us to be the sheep of his flock; we remember that he has called us his inheritance. We recall with great tenderness that he has taken up his abode among us. Yet, we summon the LORD to turn his steps toward the utter ruins we call home; we plead for him to behold the damage our enemy has done to the sanctuary. Indeed, the foes of the LORD roar triumphantly in his shrine; they have forced upon us the tokens of their victory over us. Like lumbermen swing their axes to a clump of trees, these enemies destroy all we held sacred. With chisel, hammer, pickaxe, and fire they raze and profane the house of the LORD. Even the places we used for shelter are full of treachery; our hiding places are exposing us to danger. Violence abounds in our cities and in our hearts. We have no place to find security or peace. After all our lamentation, we dare to whisper this petition, “May the humble not retire in confusion; may the afflicted and poor praise your name.” The book of Lamentations continues the theme of this psalm. In it we can meditate upon the mystery of misery. The persistent mystery of suffering is confronted by the persistent mystery of healing and love that comes to us from the one who came to take away the power of suffering to destroy and discourage human life upon the face of the earth. In the prayer of the centurion our liturgy finds expression for the hope that continues to abound in the human heart.

With unhesitating honesty and painful accusation the book of Lamentation calls us to recognize and have solidarity with all who continue to suffer chronic pain and life-threatening injury. With courageous faith our ancestors pondered the destruction of their world and their journey into exile. Indeed, they identify the enemy’s violence with the LORD’s wrath. It is the LORD who has consumed them without pity and torn them down in his great anger. Even ancient men strew dust upon their heads and wraped themselves with sackcloth. All the young and beautiful wear out their eyes from weeping. The infants and children drop down to the ground in from weakness. Greater that the surging of the sea is the pulsing anguish that overwhelms, the virgin daughter Zion is in boundless grief. False prophets have abounded only to proclaim misleading portents. These lying prophets have tried to make you feel good about your sins. They have given prophecy only to make you like them and their message. These messages held no warning and you were only led to wallow in your wickedness. What else can you do people of God, abandoned and afflicted? What else can you do but pour out your heart like water in the presence of the Merciful and Compassionate LORD? Lift up your hands for those who no longer have strength to lift up hands or hearts to the only LORD who can hear you in the pain of your questioning and doubting him and his love. Such is the amazing grace that abounds in faith even in the midst of unspeakable suffering. Such is the faith of those who love the LORD and seeks him even when he hides his face.

The great and public outcry in the first reading becomes the urgent request of an officer in the Oppressor’s Army in today’s gospel. The Lord Jesus is approached and appealed to by a centurion who is pleading for his suffering servant at home paralyzed and suffering dreadfully. Perhaps the Lord Jesus was delighted that a powerful centurion was compassionate enough to notice his servant’s plight and humble enough to seek help from a traveling preacher. However, we can be sure that the Lord Jesus was impressed with the faith of this Roman army officer. His praise for the centurion’s faith is echoed each time we pray before holy communion, “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.” His healing ministry continues in the house of Saint Peter; his mother-in-law receives his healing touch. She immediately arose from her bed of pain and delighted to serve her son-in-law’s guest. Indeed, all night long the ministry continued and the town was full of the cries of despair from demons and the cries of delight from the liberated and healed. In this ministry we behold the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy, “He took away our infirmities and bore our diseases.” As the gospel goes on to proclaim, the Lord Jesus bore all our illness, even the sickness of sin and evil within our hearts. Indeed by his wounds, we are all healed.