As the Church looks at time, we are approaching the midpoint between the end of the Easter season and the beginning of Advent. That usually falls on Sept. 24th, the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, which is probably less deliberate than fortuitous. But as the liturgical year draws to a close, the selected readings sometimes appear random, if not haphazard. This Sunday is a good example, although there is a subtle thread that connects them… not least with the times we live in. After all, the world has been living in the shadow if the Covid-19 crisis for about eight months and it’s not showing much inclination to wind down. For many of us, we are living in a world significantly different from the one we knew a year ago.
We have already learned a valuable lesson, although one we should have mastered ages ago. To disregard the health, safety, and welfare of our neighbor is an invitation to eventual disaster. I can’t help thinking of Edgar Allan Poe’s great if scary short story, “The Masque of the Red Death.” If you have not read it recently, look it up.
In the meantime, there is much to learn from these readings. They are, first of all, about inclusivity, to use the current term. And they are also about faith, persistence, and healing. [Isaiah 56:1,6-7, Rom 11:13-15,29-32, Mat 15:21-28.]
Isaiah looks forward to a period of welcome to all people in God’s house, not only the faithful Jews: “Do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say, ‘The Lord will surely separate me from his people’; and do not let the eunuch say, ‘I am just a dry tree.’…” He continues, in a beautiful passage slightly trimmed in the reading, “And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord, and to be his servants, all who keep the sabbath, and do not profane it, and hold fast my covenant– these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples. Thus says the Lord God, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, I will gather others to them besides those already gathered” (Isaiah 56-58).
In this section of his letter to the Christians of Rome, St. Paul shows to what lengths he would go to ensure the salvation of all, a gift ultimately of God’s mercy but made effective by the ministry of reconciliation. We are all one. The time for distinctions, prejudice, and discrimination on whatever grounds is past.
The point is driven home effectively by the account of Jesus’ healing of the daughter of the Syrophoenician women he encounters on one of visits outside Palestine, today’s Lebanon. She is a Canaanite, who were hereditary enemies of the Jews and by then considered pariah. But she has heard of Jesus and throws herself on his mercy, literally at his feet, for the sake of her daughter. (A shorter and slightly warmer version of this encounter is found in Mark 7:24-30, which seems to be Matthew’s source.) “Woman,” Jesus says, “great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly” (Mat 15:28).
Obviously, God has little regard for the racial, geographical, religious, ethnic, or national excuses people invent to disparage and torment each other. We are all God’s children. To treat one of them as any less is to distance oneself from the mercy and justice of God. Another way of putting it, here following one of the greatest Christians of all,
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace:
where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy.
O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.
Amen. (St. Francis of Assisi)