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The election of the gentiles

August 17, 2017
Father Joseph Previtali

The election of the Gentiles is one of the great mysteries of Divine Providence in the economy of salvation. Jesus proclaims in our Gospel for this Sunday: “I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Further, he declares: “It is not good to take the bread of the children (the Jews), and to cast it to the dogs (the Gentiles).”

St. Jerome tells us that “the Gentiles are called dogs because of their idolatry; who, given to the eating of blood, and dead bodies, turn to madness.” And St. Anselm explains further, “The Jews were born sons, and brought up by the Law in the worship of one God. The bread is the Gospel, its miracles and other things which pertain to our salvation. It is not then meet that these should be taken from the children and given to the Gentiles, who are dogs, till the Jews refuse them.”

And yet Our Lord chooses to work the miracle of salvation for the Gentile woman. In this way, having been rejected by the Jews in the persons of the Scribes and Pharisees, Christ then turns to the Gentiles in the person of the Canaanite woman. St. Paul explains this mystery to us in his Letter to the Romans: “For if the loss of (the Jews) be the reconciliation of the world, what shall the receiving of them be, but life from the dead?” Notice the detail that the belief of the Jews in Christ will bring about the general resurrection at the end of the world! St. Paul continues: “For the gifts and the calling of God are without repentance. For as you also in times past did not believe God, but now have obtained mercy, through their unbelief: So these also now have believed, for your mercy, that they also may obtain mercy.” The Gentiles receive the joy of the Gospel because the Jews have rejected it. This is a great mystery: the Gentiles, to use another image from Paul, are a foreign branch grafted on to the Tree of Salvation. And yet, the Holy Spirit teaches us, in the end the Jews will accept Christ!

This dynamic of proclamation from Jews to Gentiles and finally back to the Jews is symbolized in the ritual of the traditional Roman Liturgy, as interpreted in the beautiful liturgical commentary of St. Albert the Great, the teacher of St. Thomas Aquinas. The Mass begins with the Missal on the “Epistle side” of the altar. The singing of the Epistle by the subdeacon, facing the altar, “towards the east,” facing Jerusalem to the east of Rome, symbolizes the preaching of the prophets, and especially St. John the Baptist, who proclaimed Christ to the Jews.

Then the Missal is moved to the “Gospel side” of the altar and the deacon sings the Gospel facing the side wall of the church, “towards the north,” facing the pagan Gentiles to the north of Rome. This action symbolizes the proclamation of the Gospel by the Church to the Gentiles. The Missal stays on the “Gentile side” for almost the whole Mass, but at the end it returns to the side of the Jews, to symbolize what St. Paul prophesies in our second reading: their final acceptance of Christ at the end of the world!

The Canaanite woman in our Gospel is a true model, then, for how we are to approach Jesus Christ and His preaching. “Wonderful are shown the faith, patience, and humility of this woman,” writes St. Jerome, “faith, that she believed that her daughter could be healed; patience, that so many times overlooked, she yet perseveres in her prayers; humility, that she compares herself not to the dogs, but to the whelps.” We must especially imitate her profound humility. St. John Chrysostom marvels at her humility: “He calls the Jews children, she calls them masters; He called her a dog, she accepts the office of a dog; as if she had said, I cannot leave the table of my Lord.” Her great faith, patience, and humility wins for her the Heart of Jesus Christ, Who was moving her secretly by His grace: “O woman, great is thy faith: be it done to thee as thou wilt.”

Remigianus unfolds for us the full symbolism, then, of this event: “This woman figures the Holy Church gathered out of the Gentiles. The Lord leaves the Scribes and Pharisees, and comes into the parts of Tyre and Sidon; this figures His leaving the Jews and going over to the Gentiles. This woman came out of her own country, because the Holy Church departed from former errors and sins.” In order to be saved, we also must imitate this Canaanite woman, going out from the errors of our thoughts and deeds, and approaching the Bread of Life with faith, patience, and humility, accepting with full confidence all the teachings of Our Holy Mother, the Catholic Church.

Previtali_Fr. Joseph - web 100x125Father Previtali is enrolled in doctoral studies in sacred theology at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas-Angelicum, Rome.

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