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Sunday, January 24th, 2021

‘Extendens Iesus manum’: a Homily for the Third Sunday after Epiphany

And Jesus, stretching forth his hand, touched him, saying: I will. Be thou made clean (Matthew ch 8).

In today’s Mass, there are three references to the hand of God. They tell us much. 

First, the collect. Two second person singular imperative verbs govern this oration: respice and extende. Thus we begin with a declaration of our weakness, coupled with an appeal to God’s might—which is, we might say, the fundamental movement of all liturgical action and indeed of the whole spiritual life, in some measure. The sacred liturgy is the meeting par excellence of human weakness with divine power. That is why our worship and Sacraments are as important to us as they are.  

As a kind of aside, it is a remarkable thing to notice that we sing of this mystery. There is no poem or symphony nearly as grand as when we are able to sing the Holy Mass, however humble our circumstances may be. Naturally speaking, you would think that we would want to cover over and hide the fact of our weakness, to pretend as if it did not exist. But that is not what Catholics do; we sing of it. And what did we sing just now? [I]nfirmitatem nostram propitius respice: . . . dexteram tuæ maiestatis extende. Out of an excess of need and love, we sing to God, imploring his aid. 

And our cry today is little more than an echo of what we hear in today’s Gospel, where we find the second reference to God’s hand. Our Blessed Lord stretches out his hand and touches the suppliant leper, who is instantly healed. He does this in reply to the leper’s reverent request: ecce leprosus veniens adorabat eum dicens . . . We do this at every Mass: venientes adoramus eum. And here at Mass, we meet with Christ’s saving hand. 

So, once again, we see Christ the Physician at work. But it is important that this healing is joined to the healing which immediately follows in St Matthew’s account. A certain gnostic or occult way of thinking might see Christ the Magician at work.[1] But the manner in which Christ heals the centurion’s servant puts any such distortions to rest. For when it comes to the centurion’s sick servant, Christ does not heal with his hand, but his very word; that is, he heals with the same word that brought creation into being from nothing. The centurion recognized this clearly, and his faith prefigures the faith of all the gentiles to follow him, unto our very selves. Is it too far fetched to say that the faith of all Roman Catholics was in some ways prefigured in that pious centurion?  

Finally, a third reference to the hand of God is found in the offertory. Dextera Domini fecit virtutum: dextera Domini exaltavit me. Here, the Church makes the voice of the leper and the centurion’s servant to be our voice. Non moriar, sed vivam. And it is essential to note that that the text is being sung while the priest is busy at work preparing the sacrifice with this hands—the very work for which his hands were anointed on the day of his ordination.  

But that brings us to ourselves. As the priest prepares today’s sacrifice, we ought to let our prayer return to those times that we have received the action of Christ’s hand in our lives. For we have all been leprous and paralyzed in the spiritual life at one time or another.—Anytime the priest has raised his hand in absolution over us or anointed us in illness; when that hand poured out the waters of Baptism on us and chrismated our heads; when we have received the Church’s instruction and counsel; and most certainly when we eat of the Sacrament of the Altar. At all such times it was appropriate for us to say, Dextera Domini fecit virtutum! 

By way of conclusion, then, I propose the following. Today’s Mass reminds us that the activity of Christ’s saving hand is still at work, especially in the sacred liturgy—and Catholics become fearless to the extent they remember this.  And thus, each Mass must be something of a memorial for each of us: a remembrance of how we have been healed and saved. This kind of remembrance will inspire us to keep close to the sacred liturgy, where we will continue to receive the grace of Christ’s hand.      

Dear friends, remember what you already have been saved from; and then perhaps the unknown difficulties of tomorrow will not appear so terrible.  

 

 


[1] It is not out of place to say as much: for there are countless distortions of Christ’s identity current today, and Gnosticism is not dead and buried. Perennialism and a certain New Age thinking is, at times, joined within the thought and writing of some  traditionally-minded Catholics. Cf “Observations on Influence of the Occult in Traditional Catholic Discourse,” https://justacatholic.medium.com/observations-on-the-influence-of-the-occult-in-traditional-catholic-discourse-2d798e5ba51c ; accessed 24 January 2021. 

{Art Credit: detail, Christ Blessing (‘The Savior of the World’) 1600, El Greco; Scottish National Gallery}

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