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Correggio – The adoration of the infant – Uffizi Gallery, Florence.

For our Summer holiday, we stayed on an Olive Farm up the side of a hill just outside of Florence.  It was very hot and  very tempting to settle for viewing Florence from the shared swimming pool which over looked the city.  But we valiantly resisted this temptation and went to the Uffizi Gallery where we saw some fabulous art.

While gazing intently at some of the art pieces I was reminded of Bishop Stephen Croft’s call for the Church to be more contemplative.

Contemplation allows us for a few moments to push pause on our endless self-absorption as we become absorbed instead in God’s story.

Jesus was the central character is much of the art we saw.   And as is to be expected in a gospel reading, Jesus plays a central part in Matthews account of Jesus and the Canaanite woman.  However I would suggest that an artist’s impression of this story would place the Canaanite woman centre stage so to speak.  For I would suggest that in this story she is the main actor, with Jesus more like best supporting actor.

In fact I invite you to imagine the scene in the gospel reading as a small scene in a mega movie written and directed by God.   This movie is set in a time when the big religious divide is not between evangelicals and liberals within the Church of England, but between Jews and Gentiles.

The scene starts after a nasty dispute about the purification requirements of the Jewish law.  Jesus has just made a public announcement that directly contradicts received tradition, claiming it is not what people eat that defiles them but what they say.

This has antagonised some of the religious leaders but he refuses to back down.  Instead he has withdrawn from the legalism of his own people and gone instead to two notoriously ungodly cities, Tyre and Sidon.

Tyre and Sidon have for many hundreds of years formed a kind of buffer between Ancient Israel and those who have wished to contaminate her culture and invade and destroy her.   An area full of gentile dogs.   For both gentiles and dogs are deemed ritually unclean by Levitical law.

Though we can’t read their thoughts it is quite possible that at least one of the disciples is singing in his head the line from Psalm 22:16 – “For dogs are all around me; a company of evildoers encircle me!”.

As they are walking along a Canaanite woman shouts out loudly “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.”  How does this woman even know that Jesus can heal her daughter?  The writer and director of the movie does not think it is necessary for us to know this.  Instead we notice, possibly with a sense of disquiet, that Jesus ignores her.

Why Jesus, why ignore her?  We might be asking this but the disciples are not.

For Jesus is behaving as they would expect him to behave.  They’re feeling a bit worn out by the fact that he constantly does the unexpected. Like hanging out with sinners and walking on water.  Quite frankly they are beginning to feel a bit sea sick with his constant rocking of the boat.

However ignoring a loud-mouthed Canaanite woman, now that’s to be expected.

She doesn’t give up. The director of this movie doesn’t want her to give up.

In the director’s mind this scene, this small cameo part in his mega script is all about the woman.

It is all about her persistence and her faith.  In this scene she takes centre stage.

We might want to point out to the director  that calling this woman a Canaanite is rather like me calling my Norwegian friend a Viking, because the term Canaanite had dropped out of usage a long time before Jesus was born.  I think it is possible the Director might say, “good point, not relevant”.   So why does the  Director want her to be a Canaanite woman?

Joanna Collicutt McGrath, in her book, Jesus and the gospel women writes that the Canaanite woman stands for all that has for centuries been avoided and hated as godless by Jesus’ people, for all that they have defined themselves against.

The disciples ask Jesus to send her away because frankly she is making a scene.  Women after all should be seen and not heard.  Jesus does not send her away, instead he mirrors for them  their thinking , for in this scene he is providing an object lesson on what legalism and religious intolerance looks like.

Jesus exclaims: “I’ve already got my hands full dealing with the lost sheep of Israel!”

The woman comes and kneels before him and says, “Lord help me”.   I don’t know about you but at this point the suspense is killing me.  Surely Jesus will at last be moved by compassion as he always is when people ask him to help.

But the writer and director of the movie completely surprises us, perhaps even wakes some of us up,  as we hear Jesus say  the shocking words, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

We the audience are left stunned.   Have we not just heard this very same person declare in no uncertain terms, “what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles.”  And now this self-same person has just said these hurtful words.  We are left wondering if this means that his heart is defiled.

We do not know how uncomfortable this is making the disciples feel, for they have fallen silent as they contemplate this scene.

A scene in which their Lord and master in the face of a vulnerable woman, on her knees asking for help, acts completely out of character, and rejects her.

I would suggest that seeing Jesus actually voice their unspoken thoughts, going even further and actually acting out the implications of these thought,  might be making them feel very uncomfortable at this point. For Jesus is mirroring for them the state of their hearts hardened by a preoccupation with religious purity.

Thankfully the Canaanite woman comes to our rescue in the midst of our discomfort, as we begin to confront the state of our own hearts,   with a very quick witted response, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”

I can almost hear Jesus laugh with surprise and admiration.  But perhaps he sensed in his spirit all along, like he so often did, what she would say and do.  Choosing therefore to present himself as the ‘bad guy’ so she could shine all the more brightly. Giving her the space to own her story, and transform it.

One thing we can be sure of, the writer and director of this scene most certainly knew what she would do.

The scene ends with Jesus praising the woman’s faith and healing her daughter. “Woman great is your faith!”  And so Jesus claims none of the glory in this scene.  It has nothing to do with his great compassion.  Instead it is all about the persistence and faith of a Canaanite woman, an ungodly, ritually unclean outsider.

And so we are left contemplating a scene which starts with Jesus refusing to back down in the face of opposition from the religious leaders, and ends with him backing down instead in the face of the faith of a Canaanite woman.  The question we are left with therefore at the end of this   “What were God’s purposes in getting Jesus to back down in this way?”

Could it be I wonder that in this scene of Jesus and the Canaanite woman, Jesus reveals to his disciples, and to us, and to all would be religious supremacists, for all time, the truth that God so loved THE WORLD, (meaning everyone, absolutely everyone, no matter how inappropriate we the religious insiders might view them to be) that he gave his only son, that WHO SO EVER (meaning everyone, even the greatest git on the planet), WHO SO EVER  believes in him shall not perish but have everlasting life.  For every life matters.

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“When thanksgiving hits a tipping point, it becomes thanksliving and catapults us straight into the will of Christ”  Ann Voskamp

Last weekend the sun came out and spring was in the air and I reclaimed my favourite seat in the conservatory,  and drank in the only view in our home where the surrounding houses don’t eyeball you.  I could feel petals unfurling somewhere deep within.

Richard was about to return home after 12 days away in the Congo.  And a lovely, long week of half-term holiday stretched ahead.

Today, a week later,  it is snowing and the temperature is doing a ‘sit-in’ on zero degrees.  The conservatory is a freezer once again. Yesterday we went for a walk in a forest and froze alongside the frozen pools of water. I got bone cold. Nevertheless I did experience the exhileration of the ‘green shoots’ of new friendships, as we walked with a group of  Mum’s-with-their-children.

Throughout, despite the wayward weather, I’ve been counting gifts.  I started counting three gifts a day at the start of 2013, a new years resolution.  Now it’s come to the point where by 11.00am the gifts are falling fast and furious.

Today’s Gifts:

Benjamin’s goodmorning sleepy hug.  Our bedroom is always his first port of call.  Today he enters with a lively “Bonjour”, in an attempt to shrug off the tendrils of sleep.  “Have you heard of Voodoo?” he asks.  “Voodoo, ‘you do’, voo means you’ in French”.  “Not spelt the same”,  my noncommittal sleepy response”.  Later I smile deep as I recall this.  Ahh my idiocentric son who keeps mining his mum’s heart, uncovering new seams of love.

Richard brings me a hot drink of water with ginger and almond nuts.  Don’t ask!  He started the day with a jog-about-the-block for the third time in a row.

Joanna decides to recreate her room, the furniture is moved about with the help of Dad, and now  visitors to her room  no longer have to wade through a swamp of discarded clothes.  She’s pleased with herself.

Two overipe bananas sit, waiting,  with eyebrows arched, on the kitchen counter. After a bit of a rummage through a variety of ‘worse-for-wear’ recipe books I finally find a banana muffin recipe that only needs two bananas, courtesy of Joannas after school cooking club.   It requires chocolate chips (we have cooking chocolate) instead of nuts (the cupboard only has almonds).  A green flag is waved for a bit of baking.

There are three small pots of primulas on the kitchen window sill.  Yellow, orange and purple.  No longer on deaths door.  All they needed was some water.

Richard helps clean the one long, narrow  diningroom and sittingroom.

Benjamin gets an e-mail from the first-friend-he-ever-made in the UK.  He goes to a different school now but he tells Benjamin he might be going to the same secondary school as Benjamin.

I forget to put the chocolate chips, so effeciently created by Joanna with the help of a plastic bag and rolling pin, in the muffin mix.   I have a mini tantrum in the kitchen stomping my feet up and down in quick succession. I imagine probably very like my two year old self was prevented from doing.   It’s my kitchen now, I’ll stomp my feet if I want to!   The baking has lost its bonhomie.   Do I scratch it from my list of gifts?

12 banana muffins and a thin banana loaf sit on my sideboard minus their chocolate chips.  My tummy rumbles.  It’s lent and I’ve given up sugar in all its many forms.  My echo of hunger  reminds me of the ‘tempo de forme’ (time of hunger) in rural Mozambique.  I remember the shock when I first heard a Mozambican refer to it as a matter of fact one January, as an aside almost.  Like the fact that for two months people are hungry, as their food stocks are running out, eaten by people, rats and weavels, and the harvest is not yet in, is just some kind of freak side-show, best ignored.

Perhaps this is the origin of Lent.  When people lived off the land, food reserves at this time of year, as winter drags on and spring fights valiantly to take center stage, would have been very low.  Best to offer this gnawing hunger as a gift of thanks for the greatest of all gifts.

I relook at the banana-without-the-chocolate-chip muffins with eyes that see. I’m humbled, palms open in thanksgiving.

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