*The allusions I make in the first half this piece are the product of theological and historical reflection, while the latter portion is a composite character of actual service members I know personally. My interest in writing this piece is, I imagine, similar to Mark Twain’s War Prayer, which I encourage you to read if you have not already. The elements of this piece are deeply Roman Catholic, but hopefully not exclusively so; the idea originated in the middle of Mass one Sunday, which is likely why it is so integrally Catholic.
For those that don’t know, the very last thing a priest says before consuming Holy Eucharist in the Roman Catholic Church comes from the Centurion of Great Faith in Matthew 8 & Luke 7. The martial fraternity spans the length of human history; let the ancient centurion & contemporary soldier bleed together…
The centurion had heard about a local healer who could work miracles. He had been told that a few of his men had stolen away one day to witness an odd Jewish ceremony at the river called “Jordan.” The legionaries even claimed to have heard a voice from the clouds call the man “son,” a sacrilegious claim, since Caesar was the only son of Zeus.
The young troopers told the military police that later apprehended them that another camelskin-clad Jew had instructed them to not lie or steal, to not grasp at prestige or cut people down in pursuit of rank. Though the charge of absenteeism and blasphemy was harsh, the centurion gave them a slap on the wrist, since it seemed the lunatic had spoken a word of sense to them.
He could have been much harsher, but the centurion cared for his men more than other commanders, he called his subordinates “brother” and his servants “son”. When they were resupplied from Rome, he made sure his soldiers ate their fill before he would serve himself. His servants spoke highly of him to others, as he never beat them or split up their families.
He was a good man, better than most in his position. His unit’s assignment to the occupied eastern territories had been rough; insurrectionists had tested their patience and resolve every day. Stealthy sicarii left bodies for them to police up all over Jerusalem, the provincial capitol of his area of operations. In bouts of street fighting, civilians would be caught up in the melee, so his men began bringing daggers within their uniforms to place next to the bodies, the only way he knew of to protect his soldiers from the wrath of the mob that would quickly form.
Tensions only grew every day. Running out of ways to glean information from locals, he and his men would be forced to use disputed interrogation measures, bringing locals to the brink of death just for a name, a location, anything. Their hands weren’t always so steady, and more than once the swords that they pressed upon the Jews’ necks slipped and their blood spilled upon the ground. The daggers would drop from their hidden places, and the soldiers would move on. Another day, other destructive mistake.
This healer he’d heard of was an oddity. He didn’t preach retaliation to the crowds that followed him, but redemption. On more than one occasion, the centurion was sure he heard a tongue-in-cheek reference to his countrymen, but he couldn’t be certain. All he knew was that the man touched the sick and did not succumb to the lesions marking their faces. Legions of Jews and others would call him Lord, a title the legionnaire knew well, since it was reserved for Caesar.
Try as he might, he could not escape the stories circulating about this man, Jesus, that they called Lord. Particularly lately, since one of his servants had taken ill, and death seemed immanent. He had ordered men left and right, he told some “come” and they come, and others “go” and they go. But he could not order away the demon that possessed his favored servant, the one that was causing the sickness. Maybe this Jesus was a good man like he was, maybe he could bring healing to the centurion’s house.
Near the end of his deployment, he learned that Jesus would be passing through the area where his unit was stationed. He would try to procure healing for his servant, but he felt awkward. The locals held the healer in such high esteem, that crowds would surround him wherever he went, not even the respect the centurion had from the local religious leaders would guarantee him a chance to have a word with Jesus. Instead, he would go to Jesus without the protection and esteem his military uniform provided, just another man in the crowd.
The crowd was even worse than he expected. Jesus was in the middle of a large throng coming from Capernaum. The centurion hustled to keep up with the crowd, poking his head above the mass, waiting for the best time to try to get closer. How would he address him? Other centurions might hear him if he called out “Lord, Lord” and report him to others, perhaps gaining favor from their superiors for pointing out his treasonous titling – only Caesar could be Lord. But the crowd was growing; he might not get any other chance. He didn’t have time to go back and forth – he cupped his hands around his mouth and shouted as loud as he could;
“LORD! I am not worthy to receive you, but….
… only say the word, and I shall be healed.”
The catholic priest then put the elements to his lips, paused for one last, silent prayer, and then consumed the Host.
A war-weary captain sat in the back of the church, his chest quaking with a mixture of guilt and PTSD. He hadn’t been to church in many years, not since his first deployment to the Middle East. He had been a devout church-goer, but the Church had been ill-equipped to exorcise the demons of war he carried back with him. Years ago, in the confessional, he had spoken of what he had seen and done. The awkward pause was heart breaking, and the stammered response did nothing to put the pieces back together. That was the last time the long shadow of his past fell upon the altar.
He couldn’t be sure why he came back after all these years. Entering the church, he instinctively went to cross himself at the font, but staring back at him from the holy water was the image of the publican, another public servant that found little respite from the harrowing of a conscience too late crystallized. Like Pilate, he couldn’t wash the blood from his hands, no matter how hard he tried. His soul was tormented, ripped between faith and service. He fell so short of one and had so excelled at the other.
He had numerous combat decorations. Citations sang his praises for deeds he’d done overseas. Every one of his men came home, not one had been killed in the many deployments he oversaw. His men were like family, and he defended them vigorously. He had even gone the extra mile of learning Arabic and Pashto, so the locals knew they could trust him. But he had to make sacrifices he regretted; they sent one man accused of insurgency to a “black site.” The family never stopped asking where the young man went and when he would come home. He never did, but they continued to ask. They never stopped asking, even in the dreams that wracked his dreams most nights.
The time away from home had taken its toll. He was divorced and had lost custody of his children. Others in his unit fared even worse. One sergeant was committed to a mental hospital, another attempted suicide three times before he finally got it right. A lot of his men got into car wrecks or started on drugs. Maybe there were spiritual stowaways they wrestled with too, he couldn’t be sure. Trying to reconnect with them was too hard. It had been years between conversations with some of them. Broken and beaten, they all reflected the mark of Cain more than they did the likeness of God.
Watching from the back of the church, he wrestled with whether or not to go forward for Eucharist. Something held him back, but something else beckoned him forward. The voice of the publican echoed in his ears; “God have mercy on me, a sinner!” It was all he could hear some days. Would the Church express the soft, still whisper of God, or the deafening thunderclap of despair?