Sunday, August 20, 2017

Canaanite Woman

                                    20th Sunday in Ordinary Time

It is very clear from all three readings today that the Church wishes to impart the message that the Word of God is for all, irrespective of race, nation, gender, social status, or even religious belief. In the first reading from the Book of Isaiah, written 700 years before the birth of Jesus, the prophet exclaims that foreigners “who join themselves to the Lord” will be welcome and that the Lord’s house “shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.”

Today’s gospel passage from the fifteenth chapter of St. Matthew highlights one foreigner in particular, the Canaanite woman. Let’s put the encounter of Jesus with this woman into context. Two Sunday’s ago we heard the account of the miracle of the feeding of the multitude that had followed Jesus into a deserted place. Following that significant event we heard last week of the storm on the Sea of Galilee where Jesus appeared to the disciples walking on the water. In that storm we remember that Peter had faltered until our Lord had saved him. Jesus said to Peter, “Why did you falter, you of little faith?”

Following these two great manifestations of power, Matthew tells us that Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon, a land foreign to the Jews. It is the home of the Canaanites, longtime enemies of the Jews. However, Matthew tells us that Jesus was approached by a Canaanite woman who implored his assistance for her daughter who was possessed by demons. She called out,

Have pity on me, Lord, Son of David!
My daughter is tormented by a demon.

We are told that Jesus did not answer her request. But the Apostles step in and ask him to send her away. He seems to ignore their request and says, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Before anyone has a chance to act, the woman speaks up a second time. She does homage to Jesus and exclaims, “Lord, help me.” The reply of Jesus seems so uncharacteristic:

It is not right to take the food of the children And throw it to the dogs.

It is hard to hear Jesus speak in such a harsh, and seemingly insulting manner. We would like to think that it is just a figure of speech. Dogs was the common word used by the Jews to describe Gentiles or unbelievers. We remember at the wedding feast of Cana that Jesus did seem to speak harshly even to his own Mother. When Mary mentioned that the wine had run out, he said, Woman, what would you have me do? My hour has not yet come.

What is more serious than the words used by Jesus are his actions. At Cana, he did accede to his Mother’s request but in the presence of the Canaanite woman, he seems to be thinking it over. Maybe dog is a harsh word but how could he help this woman and her poor daughter possessed by demons? By this time he had already helped or cured thousands of people but he insisted that it was their faith that saved them. How could this woman have faith? She did not know Moses and the Prophets. She had no knowledge of Jewish law or tradition. She probably even worshipped idols.

Nevertheless, the woman refuses to take no for an answer and responds to the words of Jesus:

Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters.

She does have faith. She does believe that He can help her daughter and her persistence is rewarded.

Then Jesus said to her in reply:

‘O woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.’

So many people in the bible are rewarded for their persistence. We think of the woman bothering the judge until he rules in her favor; the man waking his neighbor asking for food in the middle of the night; and the poor crippled beggar who had waited at the pool of Siloam for years to be healed. Persistence is not one of the great virtues but without it none of them would be possible.

The plight of the Canaanite woman brings to mind the plight of so many today who have children or relatives suffering from mental illness. Doctors can prescribe medication and treatment but that is often a hit or miss proposition. Often the only thing we can do is hope and pray, and persist in faith, hope, and charity toward those who are suffering.

In today’s second reading from the letter to the Romans, St. Paul says that “the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable.” It is a little hard to follow his line of reasoning but he is saying that when some reject the call, it will go to others, but that the others will then have the duty to reach out to those who have gone astray.


Reading 1. Isaiah 56: 1, 6-7
Reading II. Romans 11: 13-15, 29-32
Gospel. Matthew 15: 21-28 (Canaanite Woman)

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

The Assumption of Mary

                                    Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Titian: Assunta
Friar, Venice

In 1950 when the world was still recovering from the ravages of the Second World War, Pope Pius XII promulgated the doctrine of the Assumption of Mary into Heaven. Now Catholics didn't start believing in the Assumption only in 1950. Think of how many churches were constructed before 1950 dedicated to Our Lady of the Assumption. Belief in Mary's Assumption can be found in the writings of the early Church Fathers and for centuries artists have delighted in rendering the scene of Mary being taken up into Heaven.

Of course, Catholics have always loved images of Mary. In the first reading from the Mass of the Assumption, we have the famous image from the Book of Revelation of "the woman clothed with the sun" who was about to give birth to a son, "destined to rule all the nations." In tthe gospel of the day we have St. Luke's account of the Visitation. Almost immediately after the Annunciation, Mary embarks on a journey to visit her cousin, Elizabeth, who is herself expecting. Artists have loved to portray this tender scene of the meeting of the two women. The young Mary, barely pregnant, greets her elder cousin whose pregnancy is well advanced.

St. Luke is the only evangelist to describe this meeting but, of course, he wasn't present. How did he get his information? It's possible that he was merely relating an earlier oral tradition and giving us an account of what the early Church believed Mary would have said on this occasion. Perhaps he talked with the Blessed Mother herself after the death and resurrection of her Son. In that event, this passage would represent her profound recollection of the Visitation in the light of everything that came after.

Nevertheless, what image does St. Luke give us of Mary? We certainly can't take from his account that Mary was a bewildered, frightened teenager. The very name, Mary or Miriam, means "the exalted one." Scholars tell us that the expression "leaped for joy" is only used in the Bible when one is in the presence of the Almighty, such as the time King David danced in front of the Ark of the Covenant. Elizabeth's greeting,

            Blessed are you among women,
            and blessed is the fruit of your womb...

which we repeat every day in the "Hail Mary," proclaims that from Mary will come the Savior of the world.

The beautiful prayer of Mary which we call the Magnificat is a collection of verses from many sources in the Hebrew scriptures, especially the Psalms, those beautiful hymns of praise. We all know the beginning,

            My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord;
            my spirit rejoices in God my Savior
            for he has looked upon his lowly servant.
            From this day all generations will call me blessed:

This is the song of a great Queen who has accepted a great mission.

In artistic renderings of the Immaculate Conception Mary is portrayed as the woman clothed with the Sun, with the Moon at her feet, and stars in her crown. Her dress is white but she is covered with a blue mantle. Ordinarily, she is pictured with a red dress covered with the blue mantle. Now "red" is the symbol of earth or humanity but "blue" is the symbol of divinity. The artists follow the teaching of the Church. Mary is human but she has been cloaked with immortality. In the vigil Mass for today's feast, the words of St. Paul apply not only to Mary but to any who put on the mantle of her Son.

            When that which is mortal clothes itself with immortality,
            then the word that is written shall come about:
            'Death is swallowed up in victory.
            Where, O death, is your victory?
            Where, O death, is your sting?


Sunday, August 13, 2017

The Storm at Sea

                                    19th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Storm at Sea
Stained Glass Window
Assumption church
Fairfield, CT*

Today’s first reading is from the first Book of Kings and deals with an episode from the life of the prophet Elijah, the greatest of all the Prophets in the Hebrew Scriptures. Elijah  had been fleeing from enemies who sought to kill him, and finally had found refuge in a cave on Mt. Horeb. He feels alone and abandoned but then hears a voice. He is told to go to the entrance of the cave and wait for the Lord.

Immediately, he encounters a strong wind with hurricane like force, then an earthquake, and then fire. But the Lord was not in these terrible forces of nature. Finally, Elijah heard a “tiny whispering sound” and knew that the Lord was present. Like all Jews and unlike the gentiles Elijah knew that God was not a God of earthquake, wind, or fire. Actually, by the time of Jesus most educated Greeks and Romans had ceased to believe in the gods of nature. Their philosophers and poets had even begun to laugh at them. One Roman poet named Lucretius, who died only 50 years before the birth of Jesus, insisted that things like earthquakes and storms had natural causes, and were not caused by angry gods.

In today’s Gospel Jesus seems equally unconcerned with the forces of nature. Matthew relates that a strong wind had come up in the middle of the night that prevented the disciples’ boat from making any progress. Then, Jesus, who had stayed behind to pray,  comes to them walking on the water. It was this apparition that really frightened them for they thought it was a ghost. Jesus tried to calm them:

Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid.

Finding it hard to believe, Peter responds, “Lord, if it is you command me to come to you on the water.” Jesus responds, “Come”.

The rest of the story is familiar. Peter starts out, but then, like all of us, he doubts and starts to sink. Fortunately, he cries out, “Lord, save me,” and Jesus gives him His hand and says the famous words, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” Then they both get into the boat and the wind dies down. 

How can we not sympathize with St. Peter here? How many of us have taken the plunge only to falter on the way and let our doubts overcome us? How can we not see that our Lord’s words are addressed to us all as we go through the storms of life? For some the story of the storm at sea is a great and awesome miracle. For others, it is a sign of something else, like the way Jesus comes to us in the Eucharist. But for me it is a simple human story of belief, doubt, and then rescue. Rather than castigate St. Peter for his doubt, the Church has always held him up as a model for us.

In a way, this message is reflected in today’s second reading from St. Paul’s letter to the Romans. Paul is so distraught by the fact that many of his Jewish brethren cannot follow Christ. He glories in his Jewish heritage.

They are Israelites;
Theirs the adoption, the glory, the covenants,
The giving of the law, the worship and the promises;
Theirs the patriarchs, and from them,
According to the flesh, is the Christ…

He says that he would be willing to give up everything for their sake. We should not take Paul’s words as just applying to Jews 2000 years ago. For him, Israel was his family, his history, his culture, and his whole life. How many of us have family and friends who have lost their faith, their culture, and rich history and tradition? What are we to do? We can only reach out our hands to them. We can only be willing to give up everything for their sake.


* Image by Melissa DeStefano. Click on image to enlarge. Our Lord reaches his hand to Peter who is sinking into the turbulent waves. Notice the lightning and the wind-blown sails in the background.

Reading 1. I Kings 19: 9a, 11-13a
Reading II. Romans 9: 1-5
Gospel. Matthew 14: 22-33 (Why did you doubt?)