19 - Talanton of the Canaanite Woman, Feb 7, 2016 (with audio)

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I Timothy 1:15-17

Matthew 15:21-28

Early in the morning, the talanton (or symandron) rings out at the monastery. The monks rise from sleep to make their way to the katholicon for the sacred services that will greet the rising sun. Like Isaiah, we have received the True Light onto our tongues in Holy Eucharist. (Isa 6:3) Like St Simeon receiving the Christ into His arms, we have received the treasure of the Heavenly Spirit into our earthen vessels. (2 Cor 4:7) This Gospel of the Canaanite woman sounds from the Ambon like the talanton, and with the prayer of St Simeon, “LORD, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in Peace,” we prepare to make our way to the sacred Gates of Great Lent. For, next Sunday is Zaccheus Sunday; and, we open the Lenten Triodion with the Gospel of the Publican and the Pharisee the Sunday after that.

Christ is our peace. (Eph 2:14) Carrying in our body the death of Jesus (2 Cor 4:10) whom we have received in the Church’s sacramental mysteries, we “depart” the Feasts of the Winter Pascha and “in Peace,” we make our way to Great Lent and into the wilderness of our soul. We take up the Great Fast as the flower that blossoms from the wood of the Cross, and the power of Christ’s Cross becomes active in us as we work to put to death what is earthly in us. (Col 3:5) In love for Christ who first loved us (I Jn 4:19), we long to become one with Him in the tomb of our heart (Rom 6:5); and, we desire His Holy Resurrection to be manifested also in our bodies. (2 Cor 4:10)

It says that the LORD departed (Mt 15:21) and that this Canaanite woman departed (v.22). Might this veil the real purpose of the LORD withdrawing into the district of Tyre and Sidon – to bring this “other sheep” not of the “fold” of Israel into the “flock” of His Kingdom? (Jn 10:16) For, she cried out to Him as to her true Shepherd: “Have mercy on me, O LORD, Son of David.”(cf. Ezek 34:23 or Eze 37:24)

She came from out of the hill country, it says. I think we can be sure that the religion of those hills was a pagan religion of idolatry, worshipping demons as “white” and “dark” gods or spirits and practicing astrology, fortune telling, charms and spells, sexual rituals of the “circle of life”, and superstitions of all kinds. I think it possible that this mother tolerated if she was not herself a devotee and practitioner of the idolatrous pagan rites, and that it was through her influence, whether active or passive, that her daughter was exposed to the dark spirits of those pagan rites until she embraced them herself and fell into their demonic power. One would expect, then, that the mother, too, even if she was not “demon-possessed,” was nonetheless in the shadow of a subtle power of darkness seated in her heart. (cf. St Macarius, Hom 32.10) Let us note from this, brothers and sisters, that how we live both in our body and in our mind and soul is not without influence or consequence on others.

I think, then, it is most significant that she “came out from the hills” and immediately, as soon as she comes into the presence of the LORD, begins to pray to Him. It means that she left father, mother, son and daughter, she forsook all for the sake of Christ. More profoundly, it means that she turned away from her idols and sought refuge, help and healing in this Jesus as the LORD, the Son of David, the Son of God who reigns forever.

Let us look to ourselves. Where do we go to find refuge from our inner emptiness? We must come out of the hills of the lusts of the flesh, the lust of the eyes and the pride of life, we must depart for the Peace of Christ who alone satisfies our longing with good things for as long as we live; but He renews our youth like the eagle’s (Ps 102:5 LXX) so that in Christ, even though we die yet shall we live. (Jn 11:25) Moreover, based on this Gospel, I would say, that our coming out of those hills is not real or finished until we have come bodily to the Church, i.e. to that Church which is truly the Body of Christ where we do not contemplate Christ as a religious idea; we stand before Him as the incarnate God who is now embodied in the liturgical rites and prayers and in the sacramental mysteries of the Church that we see with our eyes, hear with our ears, handle with our hands, even smell with our noses and taste on our tongues.

But, it says, the LORD answered her not a word. Isn’t that our experience when we get serious and in our zeal take up a discipline of prayer? We feel nothing. We may begin to question if God even exists and that we are just talking into the air. Are we not tempted to depart from this “Peace” and go back to our hills?

Listen to St Macarius the Egyptian: “When you begin to seek God, then you will find yourself at war with your own nature in its old habits and customs that you have grown up with. You discover thoughts that oppose you, and they drag you make you stray back into the material world (the hills) from which you came out.” (Hom 32.9)

I believe we may find the chief of those old habits and customs we’ve grown up with in the words of the Psalmist: they are “the scorn of those who are at ease, the contempt of the proud.” (Ps 123:4) I think we recognize them in our self-indulgence, our laziness and our feeling of entitlement, so that when we don’t get what we want right now, we get mad and go home, i.e., back to our hills and to our idols.

The Canaanite woman, then, first begins to show the greatness of her faith in her steadfast perseverance. She does not listen to the dark voices of pride whispering in her ear to turn her face away from the LORD and toward the hills (for, we walk in whatever direction our face is turned). We see that she has trained her face firmly on the LORD when it says, “She came and worshipped Him, saying, ‘LORD, help me!’” I think here we are seeing how the LORD is drawing her into the wilderness of her soul and toward the tomb of her heart, and He is able to do this because of her great faith. I.e., we see in her face that her heart is trained firmly on Him.

Listen again to St Macarius: “So, [standing firm against the temptation to go back to the hills you came from], you begin to wage conflict and battle [with yourself], and the soul is in agony of fear. For, there is revealed a certain hidden, subtle power of darkness seated in the heart. [Here is the shadow of the dark spirits of the power of the air (Eph 2:2) in our hearts from the many hidden forms of our idolatry and disobedience.] Yet, the LORD is near your soul and body, seeing your battle [and He helps you secretly]. He suffers you to be chastened for a while, and grace provides that you should come into these very afflictions; but, when you come into rest, grace makes herself known to you, and shows you that it was for your benefit that she permitted you to be exercised.” (32.10)

I think we see her coming into the tomb of her heart when she says to the LORD, in effect, “Yes, LORD I am a dog!” She has joined Abraham who saw that he was but dust and ashes (Gn 18:27); Isaiah the prophet who saw that he was a lost man of unclean lips (Isa 6:5); and St Peter who saw that he was a sinner not worthy to be in the LORD’s presence. (Lk 5:8)

Do not trust a lord who praises or coddles you! Only faith knows, for only faith has experienced how blessedly blessed it is to hear the true and living God calling you a dog! For, His Word is true, and it is spoken in the love of God unto the healing of our soul and body. It cuts through the fat of our scorn and contempt and cleans out our pride, our presumption and entitlement. It returns us to the dust where we are refashioned in the Image and Likeness of God, illumined and deified, born again from above as a child of God!

The Canaanite woman’s great faith is the template of the Lenten Fast. The Fast makes our faith great for our faith becomes real in the ascetic and physical struggle of the Lenten Fast against the habits and customs we’ve grown up with “in the hills” and against the subtle power of darkness seated in our heart. It is a great faith because it shows a divine power to save even those around us as we descend to the dust in the humility of a broken and contrite heart and make straight the paths of the LORD by which we ascend in the LORD’s Holy Pascha to the glorification of our soul and body. Amen!