Homily for Sunday 20A, 19 August 2017, on Psalm 83 and Matthew 15:21-28

 Protector noster aspice Deus - O God our Protector, behold and consider the face of your Anointed; for one day in your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere.

Through all the many liturgical reforms of the past millennium and more, today’s Entrance Chant has survived intact. We find it heading the texts given for today’s Mass in the current Roman Missal. We find it also set out in the most ancient surviving Antiphonaries for the Mass of the Latin West, dating from the late 8th and mid 9th centuries. Those manuscripts originated from monasteries within the Carolingian Empire. We can be confident that their scribes would have inherited from much earlier sources both the selection of texts and their musical settings. Although those sources are now lost, we can presume their origin would have been Roman. In those days, and until quite recently, today was known as one of the Sundays after Pentecost. And there, set out for that Sunday, we find not only our Introit Protector noster, but also our Gradual Bonum est, and our Offertory Immitet angelus, just as we have them in the current Roman Gradual. As for the Alleluia Chant: the earliest Chant books offer a wide selection, without specifying any for a particular Sunday. Also, today’s Communion Chant is different from the one given in the early manuscripts, because it should echo the Gospel, and that changed in the post Conciliar revision of the lectionary.

The Entrance Chant which has been sung today for well over 1000 years is taken from Psalm 83. Quam dilecta tabernacula tua, Domine virtutum! - How lovely are your dwelling places, O Lord of hosts! My soul ardently desires and pines after the courts of the Lord. It’s a text which lends itself very well to the occasion of a Monastic Experience Weekend. The Old Testament Psalmist sings about pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem, where the Lord God of Israel is truly worshipped. Blessed, he cries, are those who dwell in your house! They shall be always praising you! (v.5). To dwell in God’s house, to praise him: this is to be touched by God’s own holiness, his own goodness, his beauty. This is to be truly blessed, happy; to be in the right place to receive God’s mercy and his love. Whereas, to be separated from God; to live, as the Psalmist puts in, “among the tents of the wicked” (v.11): this is to live in exile, away from our true home, unhappy, placed in the valley of bitter tears (cf. v.6).

We Christians sing this Psalm as a song of our longing for heaven. But we also sing it on entering Church for the celebration of the Holy Eucharist, because here God is made present for us; here heaven is brought down to earth; here we are brought into immediate fellowship with the Holy Angels and all the Saints, who live forever singing his praise. Surely also a monk may sing it of his monastery, and of his monastic vocation; and guests and visitors may sing it of their time at the monastery. For although of course no monastery can be quite co-terminus with heaven, nevertheless it is consecrated as a house of God; his praises are sung constantly within its walls; it at least points towards or symbolises heaven; it’s a place where all who come receive a blessing; while they in turn bless God, and call down his blessing on all whom they love.

Nowadays it’s becoming ever easier for us to identify with the Psalmist’s sentiments about the world outside the Temple; where God is not known, or loved, or worshipped; where, on the contrary, those who are faithful to him are likely to be mocked and ridiculed, or actively persecuted, legislated against, marginalised, excluded. Somehow every Christian is called to carry about with him, even amid a toxic environment, his love for God, his longing for heaven, his ceaseless prayer, his desire to be always and inseparably with Christ.

In today’s Gospel Jesus, for reasons that are not explained, steps outside Israel and into pagan territory. There he encounters a woman who is called a Canaanite. For the contemporary Jews, the very word “Canaanite” was fraught with negative resonance. Canaanites could almost be defined as enemies of God and of Israel; people polluted by the worship of idols, and child sacrifice; people who inhabited the archetypal region of darkness and of death.

Out came Jesus, says the Greek text, and out came a Canaanite woman; and they met. A pagan, an outsider, having no rights whatever among God’s holy people, she nevertheless addresses Jesus by his Messianic title, Son of David. No fewer than three times she gives him the divine title “Lord”, and she prays the prayer of the pious Jew: κύριε ἐλέησόν - Lord have mercy on me! And three times St. Matthew gives the response beginning with the Greek word οὐκ - not! Not a word did he answer; I was not sent; it’s not good to take the children’s bread.

But boldly and also humbly the woman perseveres, and she receives high praise from Jesus. As if in wonder and joy he cries out: O woman, great is your faith! We’re reminded of a similar cry when he was confronted by the faith of a pagan Centurion : I have not found such faith in all Israel! (8:10). And we, who read the story, are encouraged to persevere in our prayer, in asking God for what we need, even if at first we seem to be rebuffed, to get nowhere, to meet only discouragement and disappointment. In the context of our Monastic Experience Weekend, we monks continue with insistence to ask the Lord to send us new vocations: because our need, and the need of the whole Church, is very great.

Had she known the Psalm we sang for today’s Introit, the Canaanite woman of the Gospel would surely have said: “I had rather lie down at my master’s feet, underneath his table, eating whatever crumbs he happens to let fall, than sit in the company of Princes at their sumptuous banquets”. And we, who aspire to imitate her perseverance and her humility, and her faith, and the high favour she enjoyed with the Lord, we come now precisely as those who by baptism enjoy the status of children. We are invited to partake of more than mere crumbs thrown down; more by far than any earthly feast. No: we are offered now the Bread of Angels, the food of life, the medicine of immortality, the pledge of eternal glory. We come now to receive Jesus himself, in his Body and his Blood: given to us, in order to sustain us on our pilgrim way towards our heavenly homeland.