The Faith of the Roman Centurion


A Spiritual Talk by Metropolitan Antony (Khrapovitsky)

"And when the centurion, who stood near Him, saw that He so cried out and gave up the spirit, he said, 'Truly, this man was the Son of God'." (Mark 15:39).

Thus began the faith of the centurion. It is clear that this cry of Christ expressed a treasure of moral content in a spirit which the centurion understood. Such a connection between a tormenting cry of the soul and the beginning of a new grace-filled life in one who has heard it, is found repeatedly in the Holy Scripture. We will begin a survey of these places in the Scripture with the most dramatic one, found in the Book of Esdras:

I lifted my eyes, and on my right hand I saw a woman, and behold, she mourned and wept with a loud voice, and was deeply grieved in heart, and her clothes were torn, and she had ashes upon her head.

Then I let my thoughts go and turned and said to her, "Why are you weeping? Why are you so grieved in heart?"

And she said to me, "Sir, let me alone, that I may weep for myself, and add to my sorrow, for I am greatly vexed in my spirit, and brought very low."

And I said to her, "What ails you? Tell me."

She replied: "I your servant was barren, and had no child, though I had a husband thirty years. And those thirty years I did nothing day and night and every hour, but make my prayer to the Highest. After thirty years God heard me your handmaid, looked upon my misery, considered my distress, and gave me a son. And I was glad because of him; so was my husband and all my neighbours: and we glorified the Almighty greatly. And I nourished him with great travail. So when he grew up, and came to the time that he should have a wife, I made a marriage feast.

"And it came to pass that when my son had entered into his wedding chamber, he fell down and died. Then we all extinguished the lights, and all my neighbors rose up to comfort me, and I rested until the second day at night. And when they had all ceased comforting me, so that I might have peace, I rose up by night, and fled to this field, as you see. And I do not intend to return to the city, but rather to remain here, neither eating nor drinking, but mourning and fasting until I die.

Then I left the meditations which still occupied me, and angrily spoke to her, saying, "You most foolish of women, do you not see our mourning, and what has happened to us? How Zion our mother is full of heaviness, and greatly humbled, mourning very sorely? And now, seeing we all mourn and are sad, for we are all in heaviness, are you grieved for one son? But ask the earth, and she will tell you that it is she which ought to mourn for the fall of so many that grew upon her. For out of her came everyone at the first, and out of her shall all others come, and behold, almost everyone of them passes into destruction, and a multitude of them are completely rooted out. Who then should mourn more than she, who has lost so great a multitude; and not you, who are sorry for only one? But if you say to me, "My lamentation is not like the earth's, because I have lost the fruit of my womb, which I brought forth with pains, and bore with sorrows; but the earth not so: for the multitude present in it according to the course of the earth has gone, as it came.' Then reply to you, 'As you have brought forth with labor; so has the earth also given her fruit, namely, man, ever since the beginning, to him Who made her. Now therefore keep your sorrow to yourself, and bear with a good courage that which has befallen you. For if you acknowledge the determination of God to be just, you will receive your son in time, and will be praised among women. Go, then into the city to your husband. "

And she said to me, "I will not do that: I will not go into the city, but I will die here"

So I proceeded to speak further to her, and said, "Do not do so, but be counseled by me: for how many are the adversities of Zion? Be comforted because of the sorrow of Jerusalem. For you see that our sanctuary has been laid waste, our altar broken down, our temple destroyed; our psaltery is laid on the ground, our song is put to silence, our rejoicing is at an end. The light of our candlestick is put out, the ark of our covenant is spoiled, our holy things are defiled, and the name by which we are called is almost profaned: our children have suffered abuse, our priests have been burnt, our Levites are gone into captivity, our virgins are defiled, our wives are ravished; our righteous men are carried away, our little ones destroyed, our young men are brought in bondage, and our strong men have become weak. And what is greatest of all, the seal of Zion has now lost her glory; for she has been delivered into the hands of those who hate us. And therefore, shake off your great heaviness, and put away the multitude of sorrows, that the Mighty-One may be merciful to you again, and the Most High will give you rest and ease from your labor."

And while I was talking with her, behold, her face suddenly shone exceedingly, and her countenance glistened, so that I was too frightened to approach her, and my heart was terrified, so that I wondered what it might be. And behold, suddenly she made a great and fearful cry : so that the earth shook at the noise of the woman.

And I looked, and, behold, the woman no longer appeared to me, but there was an established city and a large place appeared from the foundations: then I was afraid, and cried with a loud voice, and said, "Where is Uriel the angel, who came to me at first? For he has caused me to fall into many trances, and my end has turned into corruption, and my prayer to rebuke."

And as I was speaking these words, behold, he came to me, and looked at me. And, lo, I lay as one who had been dead, and my understanding was taken from me: and he took me by the right hand, and strengthened me, and set me upon my feet, and said unto me: "What ails you? And why are you so disquieted? and why is your understanding and the thoughts of your heart troubled?"

And I said, "because you have forsaken me, and yet I acted according to your words, and I went into the field, and, lo, I have seen, and yet see, that which I am not able to express."

And he said to me, "Stand up manfully, and I will advise you. "

"Now therefore I beseech you to explain this vision to your servant."

He answered me then, and said, "Hear me, and I will inform you, and tell you what is it that you are afraid of: for the Most High will reveal many secret things to you. He has seen that your way is right: for you sorrow continually for your people, and greatly lament for Zion. This, therefore, is the meaning of the vision which you just saw:

"You have just seen a woman mourning, and you began to comfort her. But now you no longer see the likeness of the woman, but an established city has appeared to you. Whereas she told you of the death of her son, this is the interpretation: This woman, whom you saw is Zion: and when she, who now appears to you as an established city, told you that she had been barren for thirty years: those are the thirty years in which there was no offering made in her. But after thirty years Solomon built the city, and offered offerings: and then the barren one bore a son. And whereas she told you that she had nourished him with labor: that was the dwelling in Jerusalem. And whereas she said to you, 'My son, on entering into his marriage chamber fell down and died,' and that misfortune had overtaken her: this was the destruction that came to Jerusalem. And behold you saw her likeness, and, because she mourned for her son, you began to comfort her over what had happened, these are to be opened to thee. For now, the Most High sees that you are truly grieved, and suffer for her with your whole heart, so He has shown you the brightness of her glory, and the loveliness of her beauty. Therefore, I told you to remain in the field where no house had been built: for I knew that the Most High would reveal this to you. Therefore I commanded you to go into the field, where no foundation of any building was. For in the place in which the Most High begins to reveal His city, no man's building is able to stand. And therefore do not be afraid, do not let your heart be troubled, but go in, and see the beauty and greatness of this building, as much as your eyes are able to see... " (2 Esdras 9:38; 10:55).

What was it that God's chosen ones, pre-eminently Christ the Saviour, were appealing to Him for when they uttered such a cry? For deliverance from death? Apostle Paul gives an answer to such a question:

"In the days of His flesh [Jesus] offered up prayers and supplications, with strong crying and tears, to Him Who was able to save him from death, and He was heard because of His reverence toward God" (Heb.5:7).

This Divine outcry created such a regenerative influence not only on the conscience of the centurion, but even on inanimate nature: "the veil of the temple was torn from top to bottom and the earth shook and rocks fell." Moreover, "tombs opened and the bodies of the reposed arose." Such were the terrible, grace-filled last sufferings and death cry of Jesus Christ. This saving cry was foreimaged by the suffering woman whom Esdras saw, and this mystical event is repeated again in the Apocalypse:

"And a sign was seen in the heavens: a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars: And she brought forth a man child who will rule all nations...and her child was caught up unto God, and to His throne. And the woman fled into the wilderness, where she has a place prepared of God..." (Rev. 12:1, 5-6).

We clearly understand that in this vision, as in Esdras' vision of the grieving woman, we find imaged the birth of the Son of God from the Most Holy Virgin, which birth, though painless, was foreordained for struggle and sufferings. Such is the factual aspect of this prophecy. This aspect is not, however, the main one and not the substance: it is only a concrete expression of a broader idea lying at the basis of these visions and prophecies. It is expressed in this broader sense in the farewell conversation of the Lord Jesus Christ: "A woman when she is in labor has sorrow, because her hour has come: but as soon as she has delivered the child, she no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a child is born into the world" (John 16:21).

This is an exposition of the closing days before Christ's sufferings and Resurrection, but more than that, it reveals that grace-filled law of spiritual life according to which a believer must suffer the torments of death, casting aside all the sinful content of the old man and opening himself to the acceptance of the new life of grace. This experience, which is both martyric, and at the same time, a joyous expectation, is amazingly united in the souls of those who are saved, as is explained in the cited Scriptural visions. This is what comprises the dogma of redemption, the mystery of the Cross and Resurrection, contrary to the theory of the juridical sentence of the threatening Roman Catholic [and evangelical Protestant] god, for this transformation in a person's heart takes place with the participation of Divine Grace.

All this is explained in detail in the book, The Moral Idea of the Dogma of Redemption, in which I strove to gather and explicate the main places of Scripture which reveal this mystery. We return to them now, desiring in particular to comprehend and clarify the meaning of that Biblical cry which Saint John Chrysostom said signified, not merely suffering, but the active striving of the soul toward God.

Let us return to the maxims of the Scripture. This expression, "to cry out," "cry," is met most frequently in the Psalms - the most elevated book of the Old Testament. Its superiority is understandable: man praying to God converses with Him and becomes a participant of the Divine Nature [the doctrine of theosis] as the prayer in the appendix, of the Psalter declares, and in accord with the words of Apostles Peter and Paul (compare 2Peter 1:4 and Heb. 3:14; 6:4). This is why the greatest revelations are sent from God to His chosen ones mainly during prayer. The highest degree of tension of the spirit in one praying is expressed in Scripture by such words as "to cry," "to cry out," "lament."

There are many passages about this in the Bible, just as there are about the Lord accepting to His heart such prayerful lamentations, even when a person has seemingly fallen into a hopeless situation.

The most literal meaning of the word notwithstanding, such a grace-filled cry or lamentation is sometimes expressed with no sound at all. Such was the prayer of Moses before the crossing of the Red Sea. Moses' prayer was soundless, yet the Lord said to him, "Why do you cry to me? speak to the children of Israel and let them proceed'" (Ex. 14:15). Such was also the prayer of Prophetess Hannah, the mother of Prophet Samuel: "She spoke in her heart: only her lips moved, but her voice was not heard" (1Kings 1:13).

She later changed this to a thankful glorification of God, which entered the Divine Services among the eight Old Testament hymns which comprise the eight daily key hymns (irmoi) of matins. And so this mortal lamentation of the soul, later replaced by a triumphant doxology and thanksgiving, is like a foreimage or foretelling of that death lamentation of Christ on Golgotha, which was, after Christ's Resurrection, seen to be the beginning of the resurrection "of many bodies of reposed saints"(Matt. 27:52).

Now we can more clearly see how closely united are this seemingly despondent, prayerful death cry and the subsequent outpouring of divine power - that foreimage of resurrection which was revealed in the resurrection of many saints at the moment of Christ's death on the cross. Many are the passages in the psalms about the death cry of sufferers, and their salvation sent from God. We shall cite only some of them. Before us is the book of the Prophet Jonah. Here, in the whale's belly, he is near death but the cry of his departing soul unites with an unwavering faith in God's mercy and in His victory over death. Remarkable is the assuredness of salvation united in the heart of the prophet who is already separating from earthly life: "And he said, 'In my affliction, I cried out to the Lord my God, and he heard me...For Thou didst cast me into the depth of the seas; and the waves surrounded me. All Thy billows and Thy waves passed over me. Then I said, I am cast out of Thy sight; yet I shall look again toward Thy holy temple'" (Jonah 2:2-4).

The hymn of Prophet Jonah, as the songs of Sts Moses and Hannah, is repeated daily at matins. It is especially worth remarking that Jonah, who is praying here, is not limited to a confession of personal feelings before God, but appeals to all mankind with instruction, comfort, and enlightenment: "Those who follow vanities and lies have forsaken mercy for themselves. But I will sacrifice to Thee with the voice of praise and thanksgiving: I will pay that which I have vowed. My salvation is of the Lord" (vs 8-10, Orthodox Bible). This is even more clearly and instructively presented to us when we read in the Psalms about a similar conversion from sin to repentance, from death to life of a whole nation, of a whole multitude. This conversion, this change or rebirth, is also expressed in and accompanied by a deathly cry. Testing one's own inner strength, such a lamentation of even the Lord Himself compels one to come to the help of the one crying out and to comfort him in his suffering.

Pay attention to the oft-repeated expressions in the Psalms: "They cried unto the Lord in their grief, and He saved them from their woes" (106:19). And also about the nation: "Their heart was brought low with troubles; they were weak and there was no one to help. Then they cried unto the Lord in their affliction, and He saved them from their distress" (106:12-13; cf. 119; 137:3).

If the Lord does not respond immediately to a voice crying to Him, then man will come near to despondency or grumbling, but he pours out his lamentation again before God. Such is the content of Psalm 21 (cp. Ps. 87:2), and also the book of Job, who lamented over earthly injustice (19:7), and the other prophets who lamented about the same (Lam. 2:28). Thus did the Holy Scripture prepare the nation to understand the suffering pre-death cry of the Redeemer, and behold, the Roman centurion understood what Christ's cry signified. It is unknown whether he had read the cited passages of Holy Scripture, but it is clear that he understood the connection between the death cry of a righteous one and of heavenly help and salvation from God. We already had occasion to write that this salvation is not the fate only of the most elevated sufferer, but of those whom He places in His soul (compare words of Apostle Paul, "death works in us, but life in you" (2Cor. 4:12).





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