Reading: Saint Matthew 15 v21
“O woman, great is thy faith: be it unto thee even as thou wilt.”
You get what you want sometimes, it seems. Let us hope that we really know what it is that we want. Let us hope that what we want is what is right and good for us, that what we want is, ultimately, what God wants for us. But is that all that is required for us to get what we want, namely, a certain clarity about our desires and wishes? No. There is something more than mere clarity about the desires of our hearts, the collection of whims and fancies that belong to the restlessness of our hearts.
Lent seeks the clarification of our minds and the purification of our wills. Purgation and illumination are fundamental features of the classical understanding of Christian pilgrimage, a pilgrimage that is concentrated for us in the season of Lent, but which is really the pilgrimage of our souls to God. The third part of the classical understanding of Christian pilgrimage has to do with the perfection and unity of our wills with God. Purgation, illumination and perfection or unity. For all three of these classical aspects of pilgrimage – the Trinitarian principles of our journeying to God – there is a necessary prerequisite. It is the note sounded in our liturgy in what is called The Prayer of Humble Access, the note beautifully and powerfully signified in today’s gospel.
The Prayer of Humble Access is familiar to you all, I am sure. At once poetic and theological, it speaks directly to the nature of our engagement with all things divine, especially the Sacrament of Holy Communion.
“We do not presume to come to this thy table, O merciful Lord; Trusting in our own righteousness, But in thy manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy So much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table. But thou art the same Lord, Whose property is always to have mercy...”
We pray this as a necessary and critical part of our preparation and approach to the Sacrament of the altar. The prayer echoes explicitly the Gospel for this day - the story of the Canaanite woman who approaches Jesus so resolutely and yet so humbly.
There are two words which stand here in a complementary relation. They are the words ‘humble’ and ‘access’. Humility is the condition of our access to God. What the prayer expresses is a fundamental attitude of Faith. It is not our presumption - our “trusting in our own righteousness” - but our humility - our trusting in “the manifold and great mercies of God” that is altogether crucial. Against all that is thrown at her, this woman has a hold of this one thing - the mercies of God in Jesus Christ. To have a hold of that is humility - she presumes upon nothing else - and it is this that gains her access to the heart of Christ. Humility gains access.
Humility is not the same thing as low self-esteem. It is not the whinge of “I can’t do that” which really means “I won’t even try”. It is not the whine of the “poor-me’s” which is really our grovelling for attention, in other words our self-centered pride. Humility is not grovelling self-pity. For such things are really our presumption. We demand all the attention as if we were the centre of everything. We aren’t. Humility is the recognition that Jesus is the centre and that we can have access to him – on his conditions, not ours.
“Then came she and knelt before him, saying, Lord, help me”. There is an encounter and an engagement with Jesus. The dialogue is quite intense - even frighteningly so. But her kneeling down is not manipulation. It is not grovelling self-abasement. It is, instead, the attitude and posture of Faith. It says, in effect, that God is God and we are not. Such is humility. It is the condition of our access to God. The woman does not presume to be the centre of attention. For all her persistence, what is constant is her focus on Jesus. He has her undivided attention. She sees in him the mercies of God which she seeks. “Lord, help me”.
It is not a plaintive cry. It is the prayer of Faith. The strong sense of the mercy of God is the counter to our self-presumption and self-preoccupation.
She seeks a healing mercy from Jesus not for herself but for her daughter. A mother’s love is a strong and compelling motive. The sickness of a child or some other crisis in our lives will often bring us to our knees. We are rendered helpless. “We have no power of ourselves to help ourselves”. It would be foolish to deny this.
But the point of this Gospel really is not that we should wait for some emergency to bring us on our knees before God. No. The point of the Gospel is seen in its application as expressed in The Prayer of Humble Access. “Lord, help me” is a constant prayer, a daily prayer. It belongs to the constantly recurring theme of our liturgy: “Lord, have mercy upon us”. It belongs, in other words, to the maturity of our faith, the faith that holds onto the mercy of God and will not let go.
Humility ever looks to Christ. It is our openness to him as the centre of our lives. It is the condition of our access to him. When we are presumptuous we are full of ourselves. There is no room for God. We presume to be the centre which we are not. Humility opens us out to the mercies of God in Jesus Christ. “O Saviour of the world, who by thy Cross and precious Blood hast redeemed us; Save us, and help us, we humbly beseech thee, O Lord”.
The humility of Christ is the hope of our exaltation. He lifts us up. Humility is not only the condition of our access to God; it is also our exaltation. For in our humility our wills are one with God’s will. We are open to what he wants for us.
“O woman, great is thy faith: be it unto thee even as thou wilt”.
Father Ed Bakker,
Anglican Catholic Church / Original Province,
Mission of Saint Aidan of Lindisfarne,