Justa and Berenice


Sermon preached by Fr. Antony Hughes on Sunday, February 14, 2021

It took me a little while to find this. I went looking for the names of the Syro-Phoenician Woman and her daughter. It showed up in one of the Pseudo-Clementine sermons from the third century. Have you looked at those recently? The Syro-Phoenician Woman’s name was Justa and Berenice was her daughter.

I’ll bet most of you didn’t know that. I find it strange that her name isn’t better known because, to my mind, there are few more wondrous pericopes in all of the New Testament, and few greater persons on the pages of the Gospels than her. Perhaps it is well and good her name is not better known. “The first shall be last and the last shall be first,” right? Her anonymity is a kind of testament to her amazing humility. St. Justa wears her humility to this very day like a crown.

The story of Christ and the Syrophoenician Woman is recounted in both Matthew and Mark's Gospels. In Mark, right before she appears, Jesus is seen criticizing the Pharisees for their judgmentalism and hypocrisy (the 2 things that most annoyed our Lord, I think) against those who did not follow their interpretation of the law. The Lord does so with a quote from Isaiah 29:13:

"These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me." 

Quite naturally then comes today's remarkable reading as if Jesus was demonstrating in real time what Isaiah had said so long ago. In one striking moment the disciples both honor the Lord with their lips, calling him “Master,” and reveal how far their hearts are from him by dishonoring the Woman. Their actions reveal the hidden darkness of their hearts drawing from their traditional biases and the systemic racism built into their culture. “Master, send her away for she is calling after us!” reveals that they do not yet know who it is they are following.

There is a line from our own Stephani Colby’s book WALKING WITH THE INEFFABLE that seems to fit here. It reads like this, “How little we know of the dark chasms, the shadowy caves of resistance, in our own souls!” It is hard to see how anyone could turn away from someone crying out so piteously for the sake of her suffering child. And yet they do. The darkness often rises from those chasms and shadowy caves.

Carol and I watched “The Killing Fields” last night. It is a movie about the horrible atrocities the Khmer Rouge visited upon their own people. How could anyone do such horrible things to other human beings? I do not know, but there are so many examples in history where the “dark chasms” and “shadowy caves of resistance” in men’s souls claim dominance. I include in that list the January 6th assault on the US Capital. Lies led to mass hysteria which led to violence as it so often does and did on that fateful day. I often recall the words of Anthony DeMello who pointed out that most of our suffering comes from the fact that we have come to believe lies. I also often say that since Christ is the Truth, if he didn’t say it, do it, or teach it, then we have every reason to question it.

What lies in those chasms and caves Stephani writes about? Are we aware of what we harbor in those forgotten places? I love this quote from Jack Kornfield, whom I think must have been quoting Carl Jung, “Pain that isn’t processed is passed on.” The same is true of everything that is hidden in our souls. As Christ said, “The secret things will be shouted from the housetops.” Exposed to the Light of Day, the eternal light of Christ. The process of deification will root out of us and transfigure all that is hidden. And all will be made new. It takes great courage to travel from the head to the heart. It is a short distance and a long, often perilous, journey.

From the Woman’s great suffering for her child was revealed a great enlightened faith, humility, compassion and courage. From the disciples, the very opposite. And Christ stood in the breech. With his very person he created a miracle that touched everyone where they needed to be touched. It is He who holds everything together “by the word of his power.”

The Woman’s unforgettable reply to the Lord’s remark that it would not be fair to take the children’s bread and give it to the “little dogs,” was, “Yes, Lord, but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their Master’s table.” That is simply and utterly sublime. And his to her, “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” That must be one of the greatest dialogues in all the world’s spiritual literature. The Light of the World who also called us “the light of the world” today met a foreigner, a pagan, and a Woman who was herself already filled with grace.

She is an example of a truly enlightened human being. She it was whose lips honored the Lord and whose heart was one with his. When Jesus met people like that, so rare in fact, sparks flew and a fire was lit that warmed all who drew near. She is one to be admired, one to honor and imitate as a true follower and saint of God.

It is perhaps more astonishing that she was not part of the Chosen People which bears testimony to the fact that grace cannot be bound, contained, or limited by anything. As Jesus said to Nicodemus about the Holy Spirit, “the wind blows where it wills. The Spirit does what it wants, when it wants and how it wants. Who in their right mind would attempt to limit the Limitless Power of God?  If we try to do that, we will miss the Very One whose glory fills the whole universe.