THE SECOND SUNDAY IN LENT – Reminiscere
Introit: (Ps. 25) Call to remembrance, O Lord, thy tender mercies, and thy loving-kindnesses, which have been ever of old: neither let our enemies triumph over us: deliver us, O God of Israel, out of all our troubles. Ps. Unto thee, O Lord, do I lift up my soul: O my God, in thee have I trusted: let me not be confounded. Glory be … Call to Remembrance …
Collect: Almighty God, who seest that we have no power of ourselves to help ourselves: Keep us both outwardly in our bodies, and inwardly in our souls; that we may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
OT Lesson: Thus saith the Lord: Cursed be the man that trusteth in man, and maketh flesh his arm, and whose heart departeth from the Lord. For he shall be like the heath in the desert, and shall not see when good cometh; but shall inhabit the parched places in the wilderness, in a salt land and not inhabited. Blessed is the man that trusteth in the Lord, and whose hope the Lord is. For he shall be as a tree planted by the waters, and that spreadeth out her roots by the river, and shall not see when heat cometh, but her leaf shall be green; and shall not be careful in the year of drought, neither shall cease from yielding fruit. The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it? I the Lord search the heart, I try the reins, even to give every man according to his ways, and according to the fruit of his doings. (Jeremiah 17.5-10)
Gradual: (Ps. 25) The sorrows of my heart are enlarged: O bring thou me out of my troubles, O Lord. V. Look upon mine adversity and misery: and forgive me all my sin.
Epistle: Brethren: We beseech you, and exhort you by the Lord Jesus, that as ye have received of us how ye ought to walk and to please God, so ye would abound more and more. For ye know what commandments we gave you by the Lord Jesus. For this is the will of God, even your sanctification, that ye should abstain from fornication: that every one of you should know how to keep his own body in holiness and honour; not in the lust of concupiscence, even as the Gentiles which know not God: that no man go beyond and defraud his brother in any matter: because that the Lord is the avenger of all such, as we also have forewarned you and testified. For God hath not called us unto uncleanness, but unto holiness: in Christ Jesus our Lord. (I Thessalonians 4.1-7)
Tract: (Ps. 106) O give thanks unto the Lord, for he is gracious: and his mercy endureth for ever. V. Who can express the noble acts of the Lord: or shew forth all his praise? V. Blessed are they that alway keep judgement: and do righteousness. V. Remember us, O Lord, according to the favour that thou bearest unto thy people: O visit us with thy salvation.
The Holy Gospel: At that time: Jesus went thence, and departed into the coasts of Tyre and Sidon. And, behold, a woman of Canaan came out of the same coasts, and cried unto him, saying, Have mercy on me, O Lord, thou son of David; my daughter is grievously vexed with a devil. But he answered her not a word. And his disciples came and besought him, saying, Send her away; for she crieth after us. But he answered and said, I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel. Then came she and worshipped him, saying, Lord, help me. But he answered and said, It is not meet to take the children’s bread, and to cast it to dogs. And she said, Truth, Lord: yet the dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table. Then Jesus answered and said unto her, O woman, great is thy faith: be it unto thee even as thou wilt. And her daughter was made whole from that very hour. (St Matthew 15.21-28)
“O woman, great is thy faith; be it unto thee even as thou wilt.”
In our Gospel lessons for these Lenten Sundays, we hear a great deal about “devils.” Last Sunday, we heard about Jesus being “led up by the spirit into the wilderness, to be tempted by the devil.” (Matt 4.1) In today’s Gospel, the Canaanite woman implores Jesus to save her daughter, who is “grievously vexed with a devil;” and in next Sunday’s Gospel, Jesus is accused of casting out devils “through Beelzebub, the prince of the devils.” (Lk 11.15) The message of Lent seems much concerned with devils, and with what can and should be done about them. So who, or what, are these devils or demons? In religious literature, both Christian and non-Christian, they seem to have a prominent place; but for many modern readers, these stories seem very strange indeed. Talk about demons seems antiquated, weird and occult—even superstitious—products of an unhealthy primitive imagination. Sensible, educated, modern people are more enlightened. We have moved beyond that, so we are not inclined to take demons very seriously.
But this is really no matter of superstition, and our Lenten Gospel lessons should remind us that it is a grave mistake to underestimate the reality and power of the devil or demons, for they are very much with us still, around us and within us—wicked and perverse spiritual powers, principles and ideals, by which we are constantly tempted, and often governed. To be “vexed by a devil” means to have one’s will fixed and focussed upon some spiritual perversion, one’s personality wholly absorbed with some worldly lust or ambition, as though it were itself divine. In short, it means to be devoted to some false god. And we know our world to be filled with plenty of those.
Of course, we all make mistakes and are troubled by all sorts of problems in the ordinary course of life in the natural world. But to be possessed by an unclean spirit is something quite different. Spiritual perversion is not just a mistake; it is a delusion, and the willing of a lie. And he who wills a lie is possessed, consumed and incapacitated, both mentally and physically. Every one of us is vulnerable to such pretense, in many more or less subtle forms.
The traditionally appointed seasonal Gospels, when taken as a series, present in an orderly and logical fashion, the message of Lent, which is reformation—our reformation through the power and presence of God in Christ, triumphing over our sin and wilfulness (that is to say, our demons), and giving us new life through His Word. In today’s Gospel, we read the account of the Canaanite [or “Syrophoenician” (Mk 7.26)] woman who begs Jesus to deliver her daughter, who is “grievously vexed by a devil.” Remember that Our Lord’s miracles, like His parables, are always signs, pointing to some greater and deeper truth. Sometimes Jesus explains a parable, and sometimes he explains a miracle (for instance the Feeding of the Multitude), but just because He does not explain it, does not mean that there is no deeper or spiritual significance.
In the Gospels, details are always significant, and here it is of particular significance that the petitioner is a Canaanite. The Canaanites were the ancient pagan inhabitants of Palestine, whom the Israelites sought to expel when they took possession of their Promised Land. Those who remained were despised outcasts. Thus, this Canaanitish woman is about as far removed as possible from having any claim upon the “children’s bread.” But she comes, nevertheless, in humility and trust: “Even pet dogs,” she says, “may eat the crumbs which fall from their master’s table.” She is a foreigner, alien from the people of God. In this, she represents us in our natural state. Because of our sin, we too are aliens and foreigners. We have no claim on God’s favour or blessing. And the acknowledgement of this fact is the first step along the journey to reformation. But it is a very difficult step to take, and perhaps even more so in our current society, where we are taught to feel “entitled” to anything and everything we want. Thus to come to the realisation that we are “dogs,” and “not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under [God’s] table,” (BCP p. 83f), shatters our reality and turns our world upside down.
But with humility and trust, this Gentile woman sees the grace of God in Christ, and comes to share in the blessings of His Kingdom, as His grace, unmerited by any natural claims, is not withheld: “O woman, great is thy faith; be it unto thee even as thou wilt.” Note that it is only in relation to faith that His grace of healing comes. That is to say, it is only in the recognition of the true and living God that we are delivered from our false gods, those delusions which are our demons. We can perhaps cast out one in favour of another, but that is no deliverance, as next Sunday’s Gospel explains: “When the unclean spirit is gone out of a man, he walketh through dry places, seeking rest; and finding none, he saith, I will return unto my house whence I came out; and when he cometh, he findeth it swept and garnished; then goeth he and taketh to him seven other spirits more wicked than himself, and they enter in and dwell there; and the last state of that man is worse than the first.” (Lk 11.24-26)
The struggle is hard but necessary—necessary for faith, necessary for a true understanding of God and of ourselves. The operative factor here is not just an insistence upon what we want, as if our desires were justified simply by virtue of the strength of our intention, trusting in the perceived rightness of our position. The lesson here is not that the more you squawk the more likely you’ll get what you want, but the truth that what we want and all that is ever to be wanted is to be found only in Jesus Christ. What ultimately triumphs here is her faith in Christ. Thus this Canaanite woman is the symbol of us all, who have no natural claims upon God’s favour; and Our Lord’s gift to her for the free, unmerited grace of God.
She doesn’t come waving the Charter of Rights, with a mob bearing placards, or a gaggle of lawyers seeking to indict God for injustices to humanity. She comes seeking mercy, and with every rebuff her faith is increased. And her humility results in her exaltation. “God resisteth the proud, but giveth grace unto the humble.” (Prov 3.34; Jas 4.6; I Pet 5.5) She breaks into the Kingdom of God, into the heart of Jesus, because she has been drawn out. Her faith has been challenged, brought out into the open, and increased. Ultimately, she receives Jesus’ attention because He has her attention—her complete and undivided attention. She attends to His every word. Against all that is thrown at her, this woman grasps hold of this one thing: the mercies of God in Jesus Christ. And this humility of faith is what gains her access to the heart of Christ. She presumes upon nothing else.
Humility is not the same thing as low self-esteem or grovelling. It is not the whine of “poor me,” or “I’m not very good at… ,” which is really just a clambering for attention or ego-stroking, a type of false humility rooted in self-centred pride. True humility, as demonstrated in this Gospel, is the recognition that God is God, and we are not. Jesus is the centre, and we have access to Him upon His own terms and conditions, not ours. The constant in this story is the woman’s focus on Jesus. She sees in Him alone the source of the healing mercy which she seeks for her daughter. “Have mercy upon me, O Lord, thou Son of David.” “Kyrie, eleison.” “Lord, help me.” It is the prayer of faith. This overwhelming sense of the mercy of God is the counter to our self-presumption and self-preoccupation. “We have no power of ourselves to help ourselves,” as we are reminded in the Collect. Humility ever looks to Christ. It is our openness to Him as the centre of our lives, and the condition of our access to Him. When we are full of ourselves, we are possessed of a demon. We presume to be that centre which we are not, leaving no room for God. It is only faith, only the recognition of and submission to the true and living God, which brings deliverance. Simply to cast out one false god, is to invite another in. Disillusionment with one set of lies or false gods is not enough.The empty soul only invites other unclean spirits to come and take up residence. Deliverance comes only as our souls are filled and our minds renewed with God.
“Kyrie eleison” is a constant prayer, a perpetual prayer. We come continually seeking God’s healing, mercy, and grace. The Litany is effectively one long “Lord, have mercy.” We pray in the honest humility of our faith, seeking from God what He wills to give us. It is the heartbeat of our Liturgy: “Lord, have mercy.” It is the essence of our faith, a faith that clings to the mercy of God and will not let go. Humility opens us to the mercies of God in Jesus Christ.
God does not meet us half-way, because He, too, goes the whole way. The Word of God was silenced on the cross—through our refusal of His will for us. And yet, at that moment of His utter humiliation and shame, there arises from the lips of another “Gentile dog,” the Roman centurion, those quiet words of faith: “truly this was the Son of God.” It is only through Christ’s humiliation that there can be any hope of our exaltation. He allowed Himself to be lifted up upon the cross, that He might lift us up to the heights of heaven. Humility is the condition of our access to God, for in our humility our wills are one with God’s will. We are open to what He wants for us. “Great is thy faith; be it unto thee even as thou wilt.”
Our Lord’s healing miracles are often subject to literalistic misunderstanding. People sometimes think they mean that, if you have the right amount of faith, you should not get sick, or that all worldly ills should be done away. But that is not the point at all. Rather, the miracles of healing are signs of God’s power to make us truly whole, to rebuke the demons of our stubborn wills, and cast them out. The wholeness of body, mind and spirit brings the wisdom to accept God’s will, and gives us victory over the evils of this world. The physical healings in the Gospel miracles are signs of that grace of God which makes us whole, which uplifts the spirit to see the gracious purposes of God in all our circumstances.
“Keep us both outwardly in our bodies, and inwardly in our souls.” As the Gospel deals primarily with those forces that assault the soul, the Epistle deals with our outward actions, and those sins which afflict the body. Lent is a season of renewal and reformation: “Be not conformed to this present age, but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind.” (Rom 12.2) It is a time for the casting out of devils, the unmasking of the perversions of our spirits, a time for the nurturing of our souls by the Word of God revealed in Christ our Lord, through prayer and Scripture reading; and for the mortifying of our bodies through fasting, abstinence, and almsgiving, freeing them from the sins which beset us, preoccupy us, and take the place of God in our lives. Lent is a time of death and resurrection.
We come as the Canaanite woman came, without any particular merit, without any natural claim upon the grace of God, but welcomed, nonetheless, with faith and hope in the abundant charity of that grace. Perhaps a crumb is all we seek; but Our Lord calls us to share the rich banquet of His Kingdom.
“For God hath not called us unto uncleanness, but unto holiness, in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Collect: O God, whose nature and property is ever to have mercy and to forgive: Receive our humble petitions; and though we be tied and bound with the chains of our sins, yet let the pitifulness of thy great mercy loose us; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Prayer Over the People: We beseech thee, O Lord, mercifully to hear our prayers: that, the infirmities of our souls being healed, we may obtain of thee the remission of all our sins, and evermore rejoice in thy heavenly benediction; through Christ our Lord. Amen.
May the Lord bless us and keep us.