The House of Prayer for all Peoples

Elements of the homily for the 20th Sunday of Ordinary Time

16 August 2020

By Fr Sean Mary Britto, csj


Mass Readings : Is 56 :1.6-7 / Ps 67 :2-3,5,6,8 / Rom 11 :13-15,29-32 / Mt 15 :21-28


We begin the Homily today looking at the central theme that the liturgy is bringing us. In my opinion, it’s the theme of the « house of Prayer for all peoples ». Every time we enter this Church of St Teresa we can read on the portico at the door this statement: « My house shall be a House of prayer » Is 56:6, which is taken from today’s first reading. It reminds us that the Church is the fulfillment of this prophecy. Jesus is Himself the Temple of God, the House of Prayer for all peoples, and the Church is the Mystical Body of Christ. This House of Prayer works most impressively when His Heart is wounded for the love of all sinners. When He offers Himself as a gift for all of us He mends the wounds of division. He gathers us all to Himself. Our prayer consists of asking the Father to receive us as His Children. As true man, Jesus is the full accomplishment of the House of Prayer for all peoples. We’ve come here to be initiated into this Mystery, thanks to the Canaanite woman.

The Gospel shows us the Canaanite woman’s amazing encounter with Our Lord. What we see in this passage is a summary of the History of Salvation. Consider this: the first promise of a Savior was made to Adam and Eve (Gen 3,15), the ancestors of the entire human race. They are not exclusively the ancestors of the Jewish people! They are everyone’s Father and Mother. That says to us that the original promise of a Savior is given first, to Humankind, to all peoples, and not to a particular people. We then look at Abraham, « our father in Faith ». He’s not a jew either… He is a pagan from the land of Canaan. What makes him a Patriarch is his act of Faith, and not his belonging to a particular nation - not his parents, his race, or his connections… His access to God is provided through his response of Faith to God’s word and his famous act of obedience. The covenant God celebrated with Him was explicitly destined to all nations! « In your descendants, all the nations of the earth will find blessing » (Gen 22,16-17). So God’s plan is without a doubt a universal plan of salvation, encompassing the whole of humanity.

That being said, this universal plan of salvation, destined to all peoples, develops throughout human history (Salvation History) and it is not fulfilled right away. The universal destination of the blessing is less spoken of and becomes somewhat obscure in the measure in which the Jewish people take centre stage and discover their unique role as the People of God… Indeed, from Abraham came forth Isaac, from whom came Jacob. God gave him a new name: Israel, whose children gave rise to the twelve tribes. These tribes experienced four hundred years of slavery in Egypt and became a sizeable group of people, but only at the time of the book of Exodus will the Jewish people begin to truly exist as a nation. Through the mediation of Moses, they shall celebrate a covenant with God at the foot of Mount Sinaï and become the People of God. They’re the ones who received the Law and the Prophets and were to remain faithful to the Messiah, whose arrival was expected to accomplish definitively all of the promises of God.

That is what Jesus refers to when He says to the Samaritan woman: « Salvation is from the Jews » (Jn 4,22). Likewise, He tells the Canaanite woman: « I was sent only for the lost sheep of the house of Israel ». Sounds restrictive, doesn’t it? There is an order in His mission as Messiah. An order that He respects, as we have seen. But it’s all about to « open up » very widely, as we know! St Paul, himself a zealous Pharisee, will be the champion of the gentiles! The Church will soon discover that Her identity as the Body of Christ includes all nations, as the Kingdom expands well beyond the borders of Israel. She will also know that it is Faith and the gift of the Holy Spirit that opens the doors of God’s Kingdom to all peoples. She will soon leave Jerusalem for Rome, a sign of Her Universal mission!

So, knowing all this, we can observe in the Gospel how Jesus is revealing to us the « House of Prayer for all peoples ». The bold prophecy we read from the book of Isaiah reminds us that God aims to accept the prayers of all and so their sacrifices and holocausts will be received on his altar. How is that going to happen? And how will the Jewish people react to this?

Today’s Gospel begins with the withdrawal of Christ. He had already withdrawn two Sundays ago, upon learning of John the Baptist’s fate in prison. He was confronted then with His own fateful Hour. The birth and death of the Baptist announce His own Birth and Death. His moving away, to the other side of the lake, was then followed by an astounding effect. The greatest crowd of his apostolic ministry assembled spontaneously… It was at least, twenty thousand people. This is meant to signify the attractive power of the Cross! This crowd will not be seen in the same way at Cavalry, of course, though it was seen again at His triumphant entry into Jerusalem at the start of Holy Week. « When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all men to myself » (Jn 12:32). The crowds drawn to the Cross have taken up the size of 20 centuries of a multitude of people from all continents… countless human beings have now come to the Cross!

So how should we understand Christ’s withdrawal? This sort of withdrawal does not mean that He is absent. It is actually another way for Him to be present. One could say that He is ‘leaving room’ for us to approach Him, to seek Him, to be drawn to Him…much like what we see in the Song of Songs. There, the Beloved goes missing and cannot be found, so the lover is out looking for Him everywhere. You can see this at work with Mary Magdalene on Easter Sunday. In a sense, God the Father also withdraws, as if to highlight His Son’s Work, or as He Himself calls it, « His Hour ». It is a known property of the Three Divine Persons in the Holy Trinity, this sort of mutual deference towards each Person, a mutual self-effacement in love, called « Perichoresis ». « My God, My God, why have you abandoned me ? » would suggest otherwise, but only at a superficial level. Just go read the Psalm that is being quoted by Our Lord (Ps 22). Do it, then make up your mind. What is the meaning then of those words of Christ?

At Cana in Galilee (Jn 2), in the presence of His Mother for the first time since His public ministry began, Jesus acts like He is not aware of the shame that is about to take place at the wedding banquet. Of course, He knows and of course, He cares! But what is His intention? He wants to « open space » for Mary, whom Jesus calls « Woman », to address Him with the needs of these friends who are getting married. He wants Her to be the Intercessor that She was created to be: the New Eve, the complement of the Messiah, and the Mother of the Church. She really cares about others, and She will learn to use Her Faith to bring the needs of others to Our Lord. That is the mystical meaning of this « silence » of God. Jesus proceeds to answer in a tone that might vaguely remind us of the episode of the Canaanite woman: «Woman, how does your concern affect me? My Hour has not yet come. » The sequence of the story shows us that Mary knew very well what she was supposed to do ! (and so did the Canaanite woman…) Why? Because Mary had Faith, which in this instance is revealed as much more than simple trust. It is a certain qualitative knowledge of the goodness of Jesus as God. His Goodness is immeasurable, it is infinite and infinitely worthy to be trusted without measure. What Mary does not know is about « the Hour » that Jesus speaks of and how the only way to answer Her prayer is for Him to become the Lamb of God. Mary is unknowingly asking Her Son to offer His life for God’s people. At that « Hour » She will be present and She will have a great role to fill. The Hour when the Father seemed absent is also the Hour of the Son when His Filial devotion to His Father is in full display through his « obedience unto death and death on the Cross ». The Hour of the Son seemed to Mary and the Apostles as the great absence of the Son, for He allows Himself to be taken in and is powerless and weak in facing His enemies. It becomes the Hour of the Woman, who stands at the foot of the Cross, and from that point forward it will be the Hour of the Church, fulfilling what Christ had said « It is better for you that I go », and « You shall do greater things than these ». The Cross prepares the sending of the Spirit upon the Church, and so upon the withdrawal of the Father and of the Son, the Hour of the Church and the Holy Spirit come forth. Again, withdrawal does not mean absence at all. It is simply another way to be present while allowing the loved one to act, to take on their