I so admire the Canaanite woman. I always look forward to hearing her strong voice calling out to Jesus and the disciples (Matthew 15:21-28). She was crippled in fear because of her daughter’s illness. She desired the healing touch of Jesus even though she was not a lost sheep of the house of Israel. The strong-voiced mother clamored at Jesus’ side to change his mind about who could receive his love.
We enter into this courageous story again on the Twentieth Sunday of Ordinary Time (August 14). This nameless woman’s voice bellows out to us from long ago and it is still not silent. From her suffering comes a profound model of persistence and hope. Her love for her daughter was not going to be neglected, put aside or buried in society’s rules. Her voice rings out to Jesus’ ear and across the generations to our day and time.
This persistence and patience rises from deep faith. Her determination was fueled by the fact that she was out of the bounds of Jesus’ love because of her heritage and background. I am so intrigued that someone from the margins of Christ’s care teaches the rest of us how to pray tirelessly and how to bring our deepest suffering to the person of Christ. This woman, like so many women, teaches us how to believe and how to come to God with profound honesty.
I am reminded now of my dear friend, the Canaanite woman, because a year ago we welcomed a new pastor to the Downtown Chapel. His installation as pastor took place during our Saturday Vigil Mass. Parishioners presented him with the Gospel Book, the Sacramentary, a green stole, the Oil of the Sick and the collection basket. At the exact same time, a group of prostitutes were meeting in the basement directly below the chapel. I kept hearing people enter the building from the side entrance. I wondered if our new pastor really understood where those liturgical symbols were going to lead him if he accepted them with his whole heart. The voices of women caught in human trafficking were right under our feet. All during the liturgy, my mind kept going downstairs, deep into the darkness of the building where the women in need were stirring. Our parish hosts this group every Saturday evening. On that evening I really heard the voices calling out for new life, change and healing.
The Canaanite woman’s persistence celebrates for me the many voices of women who beg us for acceptance, healing and belonging. I see this persistence in our chapel, our basement and in every part of our parish community. A group of retired women nurses wash feet, cut curly-long toenails and offer advice for caring for diabetes every Wednesday morning, also in the basement. These women act out the Scriptures, speak up about people’s needs and offer prayer for people in profound need. This hidden, often silent action of our community helps us all transform our indifference into genuine prayer and concern.
I pray I never become deaf to the cry of the Canaanite woman. As I hear the prayers from a homeless mother whose child needs diapers, medical care and shelter, I know I cannot rest. I must continue to work to bridge the lives of suffering people into the mission of the Church. I hear the cries of tireless immigrant mothers having to leave their children back in the home country. I cannot turn a deaf ear to a middle-aged child who has to leave behind her aging mother in a nursing home in another state because she has to care for her fatherless children. I must open my ears, heart and prayer to the woman who struggles for food, rent assistance and education for her children. The strong voices calling out for new life are all around us, even in the basement.
Our ministry among God’s people surviving poverty encounters much resistance. We struggle with health care, other people’s prejudice, indifference and apathy. However, I take great consolation from a woman who had no power, authority and voice in the culture of Jesus’ time. In the midst of her powerlessness, she changed Jesus’ mind. She told him that even dogs receive table scraps. Her faith saved her and healed her daughter.
I cling to the fact that there are enough scraps from our common altars to feed the needs of all people. There is enough love from us, the Body of Christ, to hear the voices of people calling out in need well beyond our common sanctuary steps. From the basement to hospital beds, from migrant worker camps to the suburban poor, we must all have the courage to help change the mind of Christ by our faithful and humble prayer.