Thursday, March 05, 2020

The Canaanite Woman in the Liturgy of Lent

Before the early eighth century, the church of Rome kept the Thursdays of Lent (with the obvious exception of Holy Thursday) and the Saturdays after Ash Wednesday and Passion Sunday as “aliturgical” days. (The term aliturgical refers, of course, only to the Eucharistic liturgy, not to the Divine Office.) This is attested in the oldest liturgical books of the Roman Rite, and in the collection of papal biographies called the Liber Pontificalis, which tells us that Pope St Gregory II (715-31) instituted the Masses of these days. This is why even in the Missal of St Pius V, the Thursdays of Lent borrow their chant parts (the introits, graduals, offertories and communions) from other Masses; the respect for the tradition codified by St Gregory the Great was such that it was deemed better not to add new pieces to the established repertoire. (The two formerly aliturgical Saturdays simply repeat the Gregorian propers from the previous day, indicating that their Masses were added by a different Pope.)

From the second post of the 2017 Roman pilgrim Lenten series, the high altar of San Lorenzo in Panisperna. The monumental fresco of the Saint’s martyrdom was painted in 1591 by Pasquale Cati.
When the Mass was instituted for today, the station was appointed, for no readily obvious reason, at a church on the Esquiline Hill dedicated to St Lawrence, traditionally said to be the very place where his martyrdom happened. To distinguish it from his many other Roman churches, it now bears the nickname “in Panisperna”, but was long known as “in Formoso”; the origin and meaning of these terms is disputed. The Introit of the Mass is therefore repeated from his feast day. “Confessio et pulchritúdo in conspectu ejus: sánctitas et magnificentia in sanctificatióne ejus. Ps. 95 Cantáte Dómino cánticum novum: cantáte Dómino, omnis terra. Gloria Patri. Sicut erat. Confessio. – Praise and beauty are before him: holiness and majesty in his sanctuary. Sing to the Lord a new song: sing to the Lord, all the earth. Glory be. As it was. Praise.”

The Epistle, Ezechiel 18, 1-9, was clearly chosen as a prequel to that of the following day, verses 20-28 of the same chapter. This refers directly to St Lawrence, whom Pope Sixtus II set in charge of the Church’s charitable activities. “If a man be just, and do judgment and justice, … (and) hath given his bread to the hungry, and hath covered the naked with a garment: hath walked in my commandments, and kept my judgments, to do truth: he is just, he shall surely live, saith the Lord God.” The words “if a man be just, and do … justice” refer to a verse of Psalm 111, “He hath distributed, he hath given to the poor: his justice remaineth for ever and ever,” which is cited by St Paul in the Epistle of St Lawrence’s feast, 2 Cor. 9, 6-10. This also looks back to the previous week’s reading from the prophet Isaiah (chap. 58, 1-9): “deal thy bread to the hungry, and bring the needy and the homeless into thy house: when thou shalt see one naked, cover him.”


The Gradual, borrowed from the Tenth Sunday after Pentecost, is taken from Psalm 16, and on this day is read as the prayer of the great martyr in the midst of his sufferings, sung by the Church on the very site where they were inflicted upon him. “Custódi me, Dómine, ut pupillam óculi: sub umbra alárum tuárum prótege me. V. De vultu tuo judícium meum pródeat: óculi tui vídeant æquitátem. – Keep me, o Lord, as the apple of Thine eye, beneath the shadow of Thy wings protect me. V. Let my judgment come forth from Thy countenance: let Thine eyes behold equity.” (Ps. 16, 8 and 2) The Gradual of his feast day, which in Rome would have been celebrated at his tomb, is taken from the same Psalm, and represents his plea to God after his sufferings had ended, and his body laid to rest. “Probasti, Dómine, cor meum, et visitasti nocte. V. Igne me examinasti, et non est inventa in me iníquitas. – Thou hast proved my heart, and visited it by night. V. Thou hast tried me by fire: and iniquity hath not been found in me.” (Ps. 16, 3)” Note the contrast between the first, which ends with the word “aequitas”, and the second, which ends with its opposite, “iniquitas.”

The Gospel, Matthew 15, 21-28, is the story of the Canaanite woman who comes to the Lord to plead for the healing of her daughter, who is possessed by a devil. The Lord at first appears to reject Her with the words, often so sadly misrepresented, “It is not good to take the bread of the children, and to cast it to the dogs”, but at her reply, “ ‘Yea, Lord; for the whelps also eat of the crumbs that fall from the table of their masters’, Jesus answering, said to her, ‘O woman, great is thy faith: be it done to thee as thou wilt’ and her daughter was cured from that hour.”

Christ and the Canaanite Woman, by Pieter Lastman (Dutch, 1583-1633), 1617
For the Fathers of the Church, this episode represents the conversion of the nations, an important theme in Lent, the season of baptismal preparation. In the first commentary on the Gospel of St Matthew by a Latin Father, St Hilary of Poitier explains that the Canaanite woman, who had “gone forth from the regions (of Tyre and Sidon)” represents the proselytes, the pagans who had “passed from the nations unto the works of the Law… She herself now needs no healing, who confesses Christ to be the Lord and the Son of David.” Her possessed daughter represents the unconverted: “but she asks for help for her daughter, that is, for the people of the nations, seized by the dominion of unclean spirits.”

“And so that we might understand that the Lord’s silence came because He chose when to speak, and not from any difficulty in His will, He added ‘O woman, great is thy faith’, so that she, now certain of her salvation, may also trust in the gathering (into the Church) of the nations, who, believing in that time, just like the girl, will be delivered from the rule of unclean spirits. … For after the people of the nations were prefigured in the daughter of the Canaanite woman, immediately, those who were taken by various kinds of illness are offered to the Lord upon the mountain (verses 29 and 30), which is to say, unbelievers and the sick are instructed by the faithful to worship and fall down (before the Lord), even they to whom health is restored, and all the powers of their mind and body are remade, so that they may hear, and behold, and praise and follow God.” (Commentary on Matthew 15, PL IX, 1004C sqq.)

A statue of St Hilary of Poitiers by Franz Anton Koch (1742) in the church of St Michael in Mondsee, Austria. The serpents at his feet represent the heresies which he fought and defeated with his writings. (Image from Wikimedia Commons by Wolfgang Sauber, CC BY-SA 3.0)
An interesting theme runs through this Mass, in which “bread” is mentioned in both readings: in the Epistle, “if a man be just, and do judgment and justice, … (and) hath given his bread to the hungry”, and in the Gospel, “It is not good to take the bread of the children, and to cast it to the dogs.” The Communion is taken from the 15th Sunday after Pentecost: “The bread that I will give is my flesh, for the life of the world.” (John 6, 52. Incidentally, in the Gospel of this Sunday, Luke 7, 11-16, Christ also performs a miracle on behalf of a mother, the widow of Naim.) The Offertory is taken from the Sunday before that, and refers to eating. “The angel of the Lord shall encamp round about them that fear him: and shall deliver them. O taste, and see that the Lord is sweet.” (Psalm 33, 8-9)

It seems possible that this theme was chosen to encourage observance of what was originally a liturgical novelty, the celebration, and therefore also the reception, of the Eucharist on a Thursday in Lent. On the following Thursday, the Communion is that of the Ninth Sunday after Pentecost, also taken from John 6, “He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, abideth in me, and I in him, saith the Lord.” (verse 57)

In the current arrangement of the Roman Breviary, this feria also has a responsory which makes reference to the Canaanite woman, and is used only on this day. (In some other Uses of the Roman Rite, the responsories of the first week of Lent are ordered differently, and this one is used more often.) Palestrina really outdid himself when he set it as a motet in 1572.


R. Tribulárer, si nescírem misericordias tuas, Dómine; tu dixisti: Nolo mortem peccatóris, sed ut magis convertátur et vivat: * Qui Chananaeam et publicánum vocasti ad poenitentiam. V. Secundum multitúdinem dolórum meórum in corde meo, consolatiónes tuae laetificavérunt ánimam meam. Qui Chananaeam.

R. Troubled had I been, but that I knew Thy mercies, o Lord; Thou didst say, “I will not the death of the sinner, but rather that he turn from his way and live”, * Thou, Who didst call the Canaanite woman and the publican unto repentance! V. According to the multitude of the sorrows within my heart, thy consolation have given joy to my soul. Thou, Who didst call…

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