Friday, 10 February 2017 17:44

Eucharistic Spirituality

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A wise priest I know teaches that, when we do not understand a passage of the Word of God, we should suspend judgment, and pray, and wait: “Lord, I do not understand this passage of Your Revelation.

One day, perhaps, You will help me to understand it. If so, I will thank You, and if not, I surrender to Your wisdom and accept Your will in this as in all things.” There are many things we will understand only in heaven, but Jesus did tell us that the Holy Spirit would “guide us to the fullness of truth” (Jn. 16:13), and sometimes He gives us answers before we die.

The encounter between Jesus and the Canaanite woman, related in Matthew's Gospel (15:, 21-28), is a deeply disconcerting episode. Some might call it downright disturbing. The Lord compares the poor woman to a dog: “It is not right to give the children’s food to the dogs.” All she did was implore Him to liberate her daughter from a diabolical possession. Surely a legitimate prayer request!

One commentator suggests that Jesus employed such a tender tone of voice when He uttered these words that it robbed them of their sting. But how can a tone of voice, no matter how sweet and tender, take the sting out of being called a dog? Others point out that Jesus used the term for indoor dogs, household pets, as opposed to the word used for street dogs. In effect, then, Jesus is saying, “It is not right to give the children’s food to cute little puppies.” Gee, thanks. That doesn’t help matters much either. Perhaps there’s something else going on. Let’s take a closer look.

Jesus was often surrounded by great numbers of people, and it was hard to get close to Him. The Canaanite woman has had some previous experience of Jesus. She probably witnessed Him speak from a distance and was greatly impressed by what she saw and heard. Now, Jesus is alone with his disciples, and she sees her chance to get close to Him. She suffers four rejections: first, silence; then opposition from the apostles; then refusal; and finally verbal abuse.

The woman’s very first words to Jesus are an expression of faith in His identity as the Messiah and a plea for help: “Have pity on me, Lord, Son of David! My daughter is tormented by a demon.” The first rejection: “But He did not say a word to her.” She insists. Second rejection: “His disciples came and asked Him, ‘Send her away, for she keeps calling out after us.’” This is quickly followed by the third rejection: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”

Undeterred, the woman breaks through the inner circle of the disciples and throws herself to the ground before Jesus, saying, “Lord, help me.” Surely the hardest heart would melt with tenderness at such suffering and humility and perseverance. Doesn’t Jesus have a mother too? Does He have any pity? He answers: “It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.”

We cannot explain this away with distinctions between pet puppies and street dogs. A little earlier in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus says, "Blessed are those who are not scandalized by Me” (Mt. 11:6). With these words He recognizes that His behavior will sometimes at first sight seem scandalous. But those who persevere beyond the initial shock will discover meaning.

Two  black saints—Saint Martin de Porres and Saint Josephina Bakhita—help us to discover the meaning of the encounter between Jesus and the Canaanite woman. On one occasion a Dominican brother called Saint Martin a “mulatto dog” because he was displeased with the haircut Saint Martin had given him. Another brother heard Saint Martin scourging himself afterwards in his cell, saying, “It’s true, he’s right, I am a mulatto dog.” Saint Josephina Bakhita was kidnapped from her family at the age of nine, and she was bought and sold as a slave five times. When she was told about Jesus, she gave herself totally to Him, because now, as she liked to say, she had a Lord who knew what it felt like to be lashed like a slave, and to be chained and kicked like a dog. She liked to call Him “Il Padrone,” meaning the Owner, or the Boss. These saints understood they followed a Messiah who allowed himself to be treated like a dog, or worse than a dog. In Christ it was God’s wish to suffer chains and lashes, to be kicked and beaten.

The Canaanite woman had heard Jesus speak before their encounter, and she understood His words and His person in the very core of her being. Her logic, therefore, is: “This man is greater than me, He is the Messiah, the Son of David, and He has the love and goodness and power that are needed to give peace to my daughter.” This logic inspired the response that won her daughter’s liberation: “Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters.” With these words she puts herself on the same level as the Christ who will put Himself on the level of the dog. The philosopher Alasdair McIntyre has affirmed that the dominate mood of our times is indignation. Everyone is always indignant. The Canaanite woman is the very opposite. She has no thought for herself. Therein lies her greatness. When Jesus admires her faith—“Oh woman, great is your faith!”—He is effectively saying to her, "Woman, how deeply you know me! How profoundly you have penetrated My mystery!"

Directly after leaving the Canaanite woman Jesus performed the miracle of feeding the four thousand. He did it in a region populated by Gentiles, not Jews. He “threw the bread of the children to the dogs.” Is there a connection between the Canaanite woman’s faith and the feeding of the pagan multitude? Did her faith win not only the liberation of her daughter, but also the revelation of the Messiah to her people? What does she teach us with her example?

She teaches us many things about love and prayer, about Calvary and the Eucharist. The feeding of bread to the pagan multitude is a Eucharistic miracle, as we know. Bishop Fulton Sheen related how he was perplexed for a long time about why the Lord chose bread and wine as the food and drink that would represent His Presence, until finally he understood. Bread is the most simple and basic of foodstuffs, and wine “brings joy to the heart of man” (Ps. 104:15), but bread is also the food that suffers most in the process of becoming what it is, and wine is the drink that suffers most in the process of becoming what it is. Grapes are crushed, even trampled upon, to make wine. And wheat is kneaded, crushed, to make bread. Christ in His Passion was trampled upon and crushed.

Theologians speak of four dimensions in the Eucharistic Mystery: sacrifice, presence, banquet and communion. Of these four, the most primordial is sacrifice, because without sacrifice there is no presence, no banquet, no communion. It is the font from which all else flows. As the Letter to the Hebrews says, “There is no redemption without the spilling of blood” (Heb. 9:22).

The great men and women of faith like Saint Martin de Porres, Saint Josephina Bakhita and the Canaanite woman, whose name we do not know, entered the mystery of Christ’s Passion in  an extraordinary way. Some saints are so superhuman in their desire and capacity for suffering that they intimidate us. It is comforting to know that we are not always asked to imitate them in this: “Must a soul offer itself to God as a victim and formally ask God for extraordinary sufferings? Generally speaking, such requests cannot be prudently counseled” (Tanquerey, The Spiritual Life, no. 1092).

We should, however, be encouraged by these great saints to live whatever is asked of us without complaint, with joy and generosity, if, like the Canaanite woman, we wish to win the liberation of our sons and daughters from the control of the evil one.


Fr Colm PowersFr. Colum Power, born in Cork, Ireland, in 1965, is a Servant Priest of the Home of the Mother. He obtained a Master's degree in literature in 1991 and a doctorate in the History of the Church in 2013. He is author of A Touch of the Gardener's Hand, Honey from the Lion's Carcass, and James Joyce's Catholic Categories. He devotes his time to apostolic activities for the youth organized by the Servant Brothers of the Home of the Mother. Fr. Colum Power is author and editor of the FFA blog "Random Reflections".