The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still.
And Jesus went with them,
but when he was only a short distance from the house,
the centurion sent friends to tell him,
“Lord, do not trouble yourself,
for I am not worthy to have you enter under my roof.
Therefore, I did not consider myself worthy to come to you;
but say the word and let my servant be healed.”
Many of you have probably seen Christine Horner’s opinion piece that ran in the Huffington Post in July about this line of Luke’s Gospel, which we repeat at every Mass just before receiving the Eucharist. When we say these words, we declare ourselves unworthy to receive God and then invite Him in anyway, acknowledging that in His great mercy, He will heal us. Horner reacts strongly against this, saying: “Dialogue and constructs that perpetuate ‘I am not worthy’ are the root of all evil behavior.” In reading this line, she perceives it only as a guilt trip and an expression of self-hatred, not as a statement of humility.
But humility is a fundamental element of our Christian faith. Without perceiving our own littleness, we cannot marvel at His greatness. True humility does both these things—we must keep our own egos in check, but we cannot stop there. Perhaps this is what Horner was trying to get us to avoid, a fixation on our unworthiness without looking upward to find its cure. True humility is not self-denigration or despair, it is not a feeling of helplessness or powerlessness. True humility sees that we are small in comparison to One much greater, who will protect us and care for us. True humility sets aside all worry about our own faults and mistakes, knowing that He will cover us with His grace, no matter how many times we stumble. And this is only possible when we perceive our unworthiness and ask to be healed.
The words of the centurion are uttered right before we’re being offered the most priceless gift: Christ Himself, present in the Eucharist. Who are we to think ourselves worthy that the Lord would stoop down and join us in our daily sufferings and joys, in every facet of the human experience, again, after He already did so for us, after He died on a cross for us and offered His body for us, after He deigns to appear before us as Bread? We are kneeling before Bread when we say those words, before the Bread who is the Creator of the Universe, One who loves us beyond measure. There is no way we could merit such a gift, and that is the beauty of it. If someone were to offer you a gift that is just so far beyond what is necessary, if a friend presented you with a lovingly wrapped package containing a diamond bracelet, and you responded, “Thanks, I deserve that”—that would just be obnoxious. You don’t deserve it, that’s what makes it such a beautiful gesture. It’s not about you and whether or not you are worthy; it’s about the generosity of the giver. For us to declare ourselves unworthy is not to draw attention to ourselves but to draw attention toward Him, who gives without reserve.
Being unworthy does not mean we are worthless. To approach this line and see it as a declaration of our worthlessness is to view it through a self-centered lens. It’s not about us; it’s about Him and what He gives us. It’s about recognizing His greatness in light of our smallness and rejoicing in that. If we presume ourselves worthy, we will become bitter and resentful of all the things we lack in comparison to others. We will be more envious and less forgiving of others’ faults. If we believe that the world owes us something, we will surely be disappointed—and we will miss out on a greater, more beautiful truth.
In reality, we don’t actually deserve anything: all is gift. In order to cultivate gratitude, we must be aware of our unworthiness. If we are aware that we did not earn the blessings in our lives, we will be more grateful for them. Instead of comparing ourselves to others, trying to even out the scales, we can recognize that none of us are truly deserving of what we are given, but for the grace of God. This allows us to rejoice more fully in the wonder and excitement of others’ joys and weep in sympathy for their sorrows, knowing that we all share in the mysteries of Christ through these experiences. When we see how God’s mercy has thrown off the scales entirely, we stop keeping score. This knowledge frees us from jealousy of the good fortune of others and from arrogance in our own good fortune.
Self-loathing is itself a form of arrogance. It despairs of our pitiful human condition but disregards the immense love of our Savior, which redeems us. We must not only acknowledge our smallness; we must also claim the greatness of God our Advocate, who rescues us from all our sins. If we believe our situation to be helpless, if we doubt His ability to bring good out of all things, then we equate Him with ourselves and imagine Him to have human limitations. But He is so much greater, so much more worthy than we, so much more loving and forgiving of our weaknesses. Why should we despair of our faults? He created us, and He doesn’t make mistakes.
Whether we puff ourselves up and think ourselves all-powerful gods, or whether we resent our human limitations and begrudge our inferiority and dependence upon God, it is all arrogance. It all denies the truth that He is our rightful King and we His beloved creatures, and that He has a loving plan for our salvation. We needn’t fret over our shortcomings; instead, we can cultivate a sense of awe and joy at the goodness of a God who can take such measly offerings and work wonders.
If we do not acknowledge our need for God’s mercy, we cannot receive it. If we think we are already worthy, then what is the point of inviting Him in? He does His greatest work in us when we kneel at His feet, embrace our dependence upon Him, and allow Him to use us as His instruments—not when we rely on our own plans, our own skills, our own cleverness; not when we fight tooth and nail for our own autonomy. He will let us fight, He will let us flounder until we fall again at His feet. And then, when we rest in Him, He will fight for us—we need only to be still.
1. James Tissot, The Confession of the Centurion / PD-US
2. Photo by Erin Cain
3. Photo by Megan Cain