20 - The Canaanite Woman, Jan 22, 2012

I Timothy 1:15-17

Matthew 15:21-28

“Dear woman; great is your faith,” the Lord says to the Canaanite woman. “Let it be done for you as you wish.”

Our Mother, the Church, with loving urgency sets before us this beautiful and tender story of the Canaanite woman to call us into the sanctuary of our heart and into the saving presence of the all-compassionate Savior in preparation for the sacred stillness of Great Lent, to give to us, who have grown insensitive and hardened by our worldliness to the pathos of our soul, even a glimpse of the inexpressible tenderness of the Lord, so that we will begin to long eagerly for the coming of Great Lent, wanting to prostrate ourselves at the feet of Jesus and call out to Him in the prayer of the Canaanite woman, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of David, Son of God, have mercy on us!”

It may surprise you to hear this Gospel story of the Canaanite woman described as one of tenderness and beauty, when the Savior at first appears cold and indifferent to the Canaanite woman; and, when He does speak to her, He insults her, calling her, in effect, a dog. But I think the behavior and words of the Canaanite woman are like the curtains of the Royal Doors. They reveal even as they conceal what is happening in the inner sanctuary of the Canaanite woman’s heart when she draws near to the Savior in her prayer. For, from the very moment that she first approaches Him and cries out to Him in anguish and sorrow over the evil fate of her daughter, I think we are seeing the behavior and words of the soul in prayer when she finally lays “aside every excuse” and descends into the tomb of her heart – spiritually dead because of her sins and transgressions – and beholds there in the darkness the crucified Lord, shining in the darkness in the Light of His Holy Resurrection that the darkness cannot put out.

When one finally lays aside every excuse and stands in prayer before the Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, in one’s heart, all sense of entitlement vanishes like smoke. Not a trace of smugness or self-satisfaction or self-righteousness remains. The soul does not so much see as she feels palpably the holiness of the Lord in whose presence she is standing. And, as in this Gospel of the Canaanite woman, He says not a word. In the stillness of His silence the soul sees how beastly she has become. She has defiled herself with wicked thoughts. She has murdered both her loved ones and enemies with angry, hateful thoughts. She has coveted and envied, she has given herself to impure sexual lust, to adultery, to pornography, all the dark fruits of the pride, arrogance, conceit, and vanity that she has served all her life. In the sacred stillness of the Lord’s silence, the veil covering the sanctuary of your heart is lifted, and it reveals what until now was covered by the curtains of your egotism: a soul that has become beastly, deformed, ugly, darkened and evil. And, just as the Canaanite woman did, one falls to the ground in that moment at the feet of the silent Savior in grief and sorrow because of the foolish pride that has been one’s god one’s life-long.

So that, when the Lord finally does speak and says, “It is not right that the bread of the Master’s table should be given to the dogs,” He is simply putting into words the ghastly truth the soul has already seen about herself; and the soul cries out like the Canaanite woman in sorrow and grief: “Yes, Lord. I am a dog; I have become a beast, a monster. I have done nothing good on the earth. I know my transgressions. My sin is ever before me. Against Thee, Thee only have I sinned and done that which is evil in Thy sight, so that Thou art justified in Thy sentence and blameless in Thy judgment. Too long has my soul been darkened and sated with the scorn of those who are at ease, the contempt of the proud.”

But there are these words, too, of the Canaanite woman. She says: “Yet, even the dogs eat from the scraps that fall from the Master’s table.” I think we are hearing in these words, too, what the soul feels when she stands in her heart before the Lord in prayer: “Lord, I have nothing good to offer you, no virtue that would render me worthy to sit at your table, or that would justify you even to speak to me, let alone that you would want to help me. This only have I to offer you: it is the desire of my heart that you would purge me with hyssop, that you would wash me that I may be whiter than snow; that you would create in me a clean heart and put a new and right spirit within me. Fill me with joy and gladness that the bones you have broken may rejoice. Cast me not away from Thy presence, and take not Thy Holy Spirit from me. I want to be light. I want to be clean. I don’t want to be dark anymore. I want to live in you.”  

Do you begin to see the great faith of the Canaanite woman? From her, we see that faith is the absence of pride and self-righteousness; it is the absence of any sense of entitlement, as though God owes us something. It is, rather, the soul confessing her sins, her darkness, her evil. It is the soul accepting God’s judgment against her, because she knows that God does not judge her to condemn her and destroy her by His judgment, but so that she can be saved and made whole by it, so that she can be delivered from the dark bitterness of the evil spirits that have stripped her of her divinely woven Robe of Light and beaten her, leaving her half-dead by the side of the road. Faith is the eyes of the soul illumined in the radiant light of Christ’s Holy Resurrection to see how ardently she loves Him, how ardently she yearns to be one with Him, for He is the Image of God in whom she was made. He is full of grace and truth. He is the only Lover of Mankind, the Greatly Compassionate One. He is the Heavenly Bridegroom who comes at Midnight to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow and region of death. He comes to them in the joy and radiance, the glory and divine life of His Glorious and All-Holy Resurrection, to lead them into His Kingdom of Light in the victory of His Cross.

I believe this experience of the soul in the prayer of the Church is what we are seeing behind the veil of this Gospel story of the Canaanite woman. The Canaanite woman’s behavior and words reflect, from beginning to end and in every detail, exactly what the soul experiences in true prayer. It is the experience of “great faith” that renders the sacrament of confession into a cleansing, a rolling away of the stone that covers the tomb of our heart, a warming of the heart that floods it with the joy of heaven, that brings it back to life, raising it up in the joy of the Lord’s Holy Resurrection.

In loving urgency, the Church presents this Gospel story to us to get us in the mind of Great Lent. She wants us to taste and see how good the Lord is. With tender urgency she directs us to lay aside all excuse. Lay aside all vanity, all sense of entitlement, all egotism that hides and makes its lair in our heart to darken the eyes of our soul even when we stand before the Lord in prayer so that we never see or experience the sweetness of His beauty.

In the fear of God, with faith and love, take up the prayers of the Church and make them your own. Take up the Church’s ascetic disciplines as your cross, the fasting, the prayers, the increased number of services. Let these prayers crucify your egotism, your vanity, and your pride so that you come to the sacrament of confession not with your lips only, while your heart is still in the darkness of the world far away from the God who clothes Himself with light as with a garment, but that you come to the sacrament of confession in the “great faith” of the Canaanite woman, that you may hear the Lord saying to you as He said to her: “Be it done to you as you wish. You are washed, you are sanctified, you are illumined: enter into the Kingdom of Light as a child of light and taste and see in the Joy of Pascha how good the Lord is. Amen.