Sunday, January 29, 2017: Sunday of the Canaanite Woman; Removal of the Relics of Ignatius the God-bearer, Laurence the Recluse of the Kiev Caves, Ignatius and Nicandrus of Sinai
Epistle: 2 Corinthians 6:16-18; 7:1
Gospel: Matthew 15:21-28
The word for church in Greek is ecclesia. It means the gathered. From before the last words of the New Testament were written, this idea of the Church as those called out from the world and gathered together into Christ, had a Eucharistic meaning. We read, for example, in the Didache, “…as this broken bread was scattered over the hills, and was gathered together and became one, so let Your Church be gathered together from the ends of the earth into Your kingdom” (¶ 9; compare, Romans 12:3-8, 1 Corinthians 12:12-31, Ephesians 4:4-6).
Thank about this for a moment. How do we get bread?
Wheat is planted and cultivated, it harvested and threshed, it made into flour, then mixed with water and yeast and finally baked. From the scattering of the seed to the breaking of the bread, there is a multi-step process. And of course, before all this, the ground needs to be prepared.
The point is that wheat doesn’t just become bread any more than grapes just become wine. Both require that human labor and ingenuity be mixed with divine grace. It only then that bread and wine can become through prayer and the invocation of the Holy Spirit the Body and Blood of our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ. While there are differences to be sure, the bread and wine on our tables and the Body and Blood of Christ on the Altar, are both the fruit of human labor and divine grace.
And the Church is like this as well.
The Church is the fruit of divine grace mixed with human labor and ingenuity. This is why the fathers call the Church a theandric community. Like our Lord Jesus Christ, the Church is both divine and human. Divorce one from the other and whatever you have, it isn’t the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.
Seeing the evidence of human labor and ingenuity in the Church is easy. Walk into almost any Orthodox church and you are overwhelmed by its beauty. Icons, vestments, incense and singing all combine to glorify God.
If we take a step back, we realize that the church we are standing in was designed and built by human hands even as it was financed and paid for by human labor.
All of this testifies not only to the potential of human labor but also to the heights of human dignity. We are created in God’s image and called to glorify Him in our lives. The latter is done as much in the myriad actions that make up our everyday lives as in the liturgical worship of the Church. Both are needed.
But why, if what we do every day is so important, are we called out of the world? Shouldn’t we be called to the world? No. We are called out because the world is fallen, marred by human sin. It has become, in Paul’s phrase “unclean.”
The uncleanness of the world is this: through human sinfulness, through my sinfulness, creation is deformed and is an instrument of human rebellion. King David says in the Psalms of our tendency to sin: “Their idols are silver and gold, the work of men’s hands (115:4, NKJV). The Prophet Isaiah makes the same diagnosis. Reflecting on Israel when it abandoned God he says that “Their land is also full of idols; they worship the work of their own hands, that which their own fingers have made” (2:8, NKJV).
Christ calls us out from the world—and to purified—because we have fallen horribly in love with our own abilities.
Tragically, we hear the echo of this even among Orthodox Christians. How easily we fall in love with “our church,” or our position in the parish, or even the pew in which we sit or the place where we stand. This why St Paul tells that, having received the promise of salvation through the Gospel of Jesus Christ, “let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, and make holiness perfect in the fear of God.”
We can find no better example of what this means than the Canaanite woman in today’s Gospel.
One of the fathers said that in coming to Tyre and Sidon, Jesus left the unbelief of the Jews in search of faith among the Gentiles. In like fashion, the Canaanite woman “left behind idolatry and an impious life” in search of Jesus (Epiphanius the Latin, “Interpretation of the Gospel,” 58 in ACCS, NT vol Ib: Matthew 14-28, p. 27). St Augustine says this woman is “a figure of the Church” and an icon of humility. “The more humble a person,” he says, the more “receptive and full he becomes” of divine grace, mercy and love (“Sermon,” 77.11-12, in ACCS, NT vol Ib: Matthew 14-28, p. 31).
St John Chrysostom goes right to the heart of the matter. So deep is her humility and faith that when Jesus calls the Jews “children,” she calls them “master.” Such is her wisdom, the saint says, that she doesn’t say “a word against anyone else. She was not stung to see others praised, nor was she indignant to be reproached.” All she wants is for her daughter to be “made whole.”
It is because of her faith, humility and wisdom that the woman “contributed not a little to the healing of her daughter” (“The Gospel of Matthew,” Homily 52.3 in ACCS, NT vol Ib: Matthew 14-28, p. 30).
All that we do in the Church, the whole of our labor and creativity, has the same goal as the Canaanite woman. We are called aside by God and purified by His grace, in order that—with Him—we can “contribute not a little” to the healing of others.
Our task is first and foremost to stand before the Altar of God and intercede on behalf of not only the Church but the whole world. This is why, in the Great Litany and again in the Anaphora, we pray for bishops, priests, deacons, monastic and indeed to all the faithful in all the Churches of God. In these prayers, we also pray for the President of the United States, all civil authorities and the armed forces.
And our prayer isn’t a vague, humanistic sentiment; we don’t just wish people well or have good thoughts for them or send them good energy. No, we prayer that all the members of the Church grow in their faith and come to love Jesus Christ and their neighbor more fully.
And to this prayer, we add our fervent request that the whole world—including the civil authorities—come to that same great faith in Jesus Christ that we saw in the Canaanite woman.
My brothers and sisters in Christ!
We have been called by God to imitate the example of the Canaanite woman. Everything we do in the service of the Gospel begins here, in our fidelity to the example this unnamed woman. We are called, like her, to contribute “not a little” to the healing of others.
Let us begin!