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 role, and fulfill their own mission.

Having said all this let us return to the episode of the Canaanite woman. This time His withdrawal seems to « draw in » this very desperate and confident woman. The Canaanite woman seeks the Lord with a heavy heart. She comes to Him for her daughter’s sake for she is tormented by the devil. This caring mother is crying out, shouting, creating a commotion, showing us that she does not mind how she might be perceived by others and who she might be bothering… She’s got too many excellent reasons to make noise ! Jesus Himself cried out with a loud voice in many instances of His Life. His motivation was always a display of how much He cared about others. Here, in full contrast, the gospel says clearly: « But Jesus did not say a word ». What does that mean? The Father has already spoken His Word, and more than that, He has sent His Word and it is Jesus Himself. The Woman is after this spoken word! It’s crazy. In the end, that is all Jesus will have to « do » in order to send the woman home. He will have spoken to her. Recognized her great faith. Told her that she had obtained all that she wished. And after that, the woman went home with the words that she wanted to hear. That’s all that she saw or heard while with Jesus. Home, she found her daughter to be well « from that hour ». How did that all happen and what does it mean?

So first we noted that she was shouting. Second that Jesus was not saying a word. Then we saw the apostles ‘interceding’ so that Jesus might send her away… Jesus responds saying that He’s here for the lost sheep of Israel. She’s now kneeling in front of him and saying « Lord, save me ». He then responds that the bread of the children is not for the house-dogs. She accepts it and uses his choice of imagery to suggest to Him that she should still be able to receive the crumbs from the table. Jesus is astonished and speaks about her « mega » Faith and tells her that she will have all that she desired…

Jesus has just shown Himself to be the House of Prayer for all peoples. It has just taken place in an existential way through this encounter with this woman. In it, we have been shown that first, a huge question had to be resolved. A great obstacle stood in the way… How does the privilege that Israel has received (and God’s gifts are irrevocable) allow the inclusion of the non-faithful peoples to occur, those who are not Jews and who do not share in the covenant with God? Faith in Jesus is the answer. That is the new-found access to God, even for Jews…Jesus respectfully acknowledges the election of Israel, but demonstrates that the act of Faith, and not the status of a person – be it political, social, economical, historical, biological, religious, ethnic, cultural, intellectual or of any other kind – is the decisive factor in determining our access to the Lord. Faith is the ultimate equalizer. And how is Faith presented to us in this encounter with Christ? It is a quality in the heart and mind of this woman that allows her to position herself correctly in reference to the Lord. Her performance here mysteriously echoes the Virgin Mary’s attitude in her dialogue with her son in the episode of Cana. She seems to know so well the Goodness of the Lord, that she is able to correctly interpret the situation at hand, handling the apostle’s resistance, as well as making use of what the Lord is saying with such confidence and trust in Him as to become irresistible. Faith is a quality that allows her to see first and foremost who Jesus is. From that knowledge, she adjusts herself to Him, regardless of the appearances…

This story is meant to highlight the Faith of this woman. The spotlight is on her! What is being revealed here is the EXACT reason why she will be heard and her daughter will be saved from the devil. It is only her Faith in Jesus that gives her access to God. The House of Prayer is a place where God is meeting with His People and where we can come to present to Him our prayer, that is to say, primarily our petitions, for that is at the very heart of prayer. We pray because we are not self-reliant and because, poor and needy, we are looking for the Goodness of the Lord!

The Father has sent His Word into the world.

This Word was made flesh and so became the House of Prayer for all peoples.

The House of Prayer was most effective at the Cross, in the Wounded Heart of the Lamb.

It opened up to the Nations definitively at Pentecost and beyond.

The universal access to this House is through Faith in Jesus.

Faith is the only way to enter this House; Jesus wanted us to see that if one has Faith in Him one is able to experience what the Canaanite woman did and still find access and pray.

Like the Canaanite woman Jesus cares for others and prays for others; He carries them in His Heart much like this woman did her daughter. He was sent to deliver the Father’s sons and daughters from the power of darkness and of the evil one.

The Canaanite woman in many ways resembles Our Lord. She also resembles Mary somewhat. She is showing us how the power of Grace makes us conformable to Christ: caring deeply about others we approach our Lord in Faith and become like Him, a House of Prayer for all peoples. The Wounded Heart of Jesus guarantees open access to the Father everywhere and at all times. Faith brings us to the Heart of Christ whenever we decide to approach Him. The Mass gives us this opportunity all the time… The Eucharist is all of what we’ve seen here!

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