In the Name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Dear ones: Happy Feast of the Precious and Life-giving Cross!
This past Wednesday we celebrated the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross and marvel at our Lord’s humility. In the words of that ancient Christian hymn in St Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians, He Who was equal with the Father in majesty, did not count that equality as anything to be grasped but emptied Himself and took the form of a servant and, ‘being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross’. That the God of Heaven and Earth would not only take upon Himself human flesh but also become subject to the mocking, humiliation and torture of the creatures He had made is quite simply mind-blowing.And this Sunday, the Sunday after the Exaltation of the Cross, we continue to reflect on the meaning of the Cross and with our readings today continue to meditate on this theme of humility. In today’s resurrectional reading from St Matthew’s Gospel we also come across a woman who demonstrated such great faith and such pure humility that it made our Lord marvel. As we shall see though, this woman was not a daughter of Israel, but a Gentile, or to use the singular term that is only used in this story, a ‘Chananaia’ a Caananite woman from the Northern region of Phoenicia, somewhere between the coastal towns of Tyre and Sidon. This area had a small Jewish population that had arisen from the time Soloman had sent Jewish men to gather wood for the construction of the Temple, but was predominantly a pagan Romanised province. To help us interpret this story of the beautiful encounter between this humble Caananite woman and our Merciful Saviour let us turn to a homily by our father amongst the saints, St Bede of Wearmouth and Jarrow.
As we have remarked many times before, when our Lord became Incarnate for our salvation and began His ministry, in general He did not communicate through large events and in keynote speeches. Although there were always crowds around Him, in general the Gospel largely records a series of unique, individual encounters and singular vignettes, where He meets and engages with a person face to face. Our reading today is no different and represents another beautiful encounter with the Lord.
And, behold, a woman of Canaan came out of the same coasts, and cried unto him, saying, Have mercy on me, O Lord, thou son of David; my daughter is grievously vexed with a devil.
St Bede, in his homily immediately draws attention to the depth of this woman’s faith. Although she was a gentile, and a pagan, she clearly knew Who our Lord was. By calling out, or shouting out – ‘Have mercy on me, O Lord, thou son of David’ she demonstrated her belief that He was both a ‘true human being’ – a descendent of the House of David and ‘true God’ – by calling Him ‘Lord’. Perceptively, St Bede also notes that she does not bring her daughter with her to be directly healed by the Lord, and also makes no request for the Lord to come to her daughter’s bedside but, like the Roman Centurian, clearly believed He was able to grant healing at a distance.
And how does our Lord respond to this bold confession of Faith. Well, not in the way that we might immediate expect. In fact, at first He says nothing –
But he answered her not a word.
And indeed, it is the disciples who speak. Not to congratulate her for her faith in Christ, or to see how our Lord could help her daughter, but instead they came to the Lord and –
… besought him, saying, Send her away; for she crieth after us.
In other words, they were a little irritated with the woman as she was bothering them by making such a loud fuss. Then our Lord responds to the woman rather distantly, reminding her that He had come only to gather ‘the lost sheep of the house of Israel’. In this distant response we can see that the Lord is gently testing her.
However, without getting angry or inpatient, and again with moving simplicity we then hear that she –
came … and worshipped him, saying, Lord, help me.
Again no vain repetition, no long soliloquy, just direct action and three short words – “Lord, help me”.
Surely this would be enough for our Lord to act and heal her daughter? But no. Our Lord seeing her great Faith and great humility, goes further to reveal its depths to all the world. Rather than answering her prayer, He actually insults the poor woman with a rather unflattering analogy –
But he answered and said, It is not meet to take the children’s bread, and to cast it to dogs.
This is a bold and blunt response. It is always good for us to place ourselves in this poor woman’s position. How do you think you would have reacted? I know that I would probably be both shocked and offended, even if I managed to prevent myself from appearing so. Yet it is important that we remember that our Lord here knew the limits as well as the depths of this remarkable woman’s faith and humility and that He is simply providing her with more opportunity to shine before His disciples as well as before us. As St Bede says,
The Lord kept her waiting for an answer not that he, the pitying physician of the pitiful, disdained her petitions … He kept her waiting for an answer in order to demonstrate to us the perseverance of this woman which we can always imitate’.
He also was aware of the constant criticism of the Jews, that band of Scribes, Pharisees and Saducees that followed Him out of sheer hatred and envy, looking for any and every opportunity to criticize Him especially if He could be perceived as prioritizing the salvation of the Gentiles over that of the Chosen People.
The Caananite woman’s response though shows no trace of shock, hurt or outrage. On the contrary she responds to our Lord’s hard saying with humour and with great grace –
And she said, Truth, Lord: yet the dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table.
As St Bede glosses –
‘Having willingly embraced the indignity she had received, she not only did not deny that she was like dogs, but even continued with a comparison of herself to young dogs’.
Such is the depth of her humility that she embraces the insult and takes it to heart not in offence but in grace. Look also at her perseverance, how she doesn’t give up or run away out of despair or anger, but rather continues to meekly beseech the Lord and knock on the door of His Heart. It is rather like our Saviour advises us to pray earlier in the Gospel, in chapter 7, verse 7 – 8 – ‘Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you’.
And it is on hearing this extraordinary and graceful reply that the Lord does indeed open the door and exclaims –
O woman, great is thy faith: be it unto thee even as thou wilt. And her daughter was made whole from that very hour.
We can see then, that the Lord’s response was not seeking to humiliate this woman or to overpower her into submission. Rather, His whole way of responding to her was to draw out the depth of her humility and her faith, not for His benefit, as He already knew this and could see it, but for the benefit of the disciples as well as for you and for me.
In the second part of his homily, St Bede then supplements the literal interpretation of the Gospel story with a more spiritualized understanding of the Gospel narrative.
‘if one of us has a conscience polluted by the stain of avarice, conceit, vain-glory, indignation, irascibility, or envy … he has a daughter badly troubled by a demon.’
Likewise if we have become ‘polluted … with the plague of false swearing, robbery, blasphemy … brawling, and also uncleaness of the body … he has a daughter disturbed by the frenzy of an unclean spirit’.
In this way we must fervently beseech the Master and the saints for our internal demonized-daughter, our passions, to be healed. St Bede then sees in the example of the Caananite’s woman’s tenacious persistence an example for the whole church in how we must pray.
‘If the Lord keeps the Church waiting for an answer as she asks in tears … it is not that she should desist from asking, seeking and knocking, nor that there should come over her a despair of having her request granted. Instead she should persevere with great earnestness’
And just as the Caananite woman compared herself with a dog,
Being submissive with due humility, [such a person] must not judge himself worthy of the company of the sheep of Israel (that is, souls that are pure), but instead he must be of the opinion that he should be compared to a dog and that he is unworthy of heavenly favours’.
Dear father, brothers and sisters, from today’s reading, and in this Afterfeast of the Cross, let us not make the Cross into an afterthought, but rather the very crux, the very centre of our lives. Let us then follow our meek and humble Lord in the way of the Cross, which is the way of humility, the crucifixion of our demonic Pride. In this extraordinary and powerful example of the nameless Caananite woman, let us learn from her spirited comparison of herself to the dogs, remembering also those words of St Xanthias, one of the desert fathers, who famously said – ‘A dog is better than I am, for he has love and does not judge.’ May her example also teach us the importance of persistence in prayer, of not giving up and continuing to knock. As St Bede ends his homily –
If, after the example of the Canaanite woman, we continue resolutely in our praying, and remain of fixed purpose, certainly the grace of our Maker will be with us to correct everything in us which is wrong, to sanctify everything unclean, and to make serene everything which is turbulent.