I made my first confession last month, and it was easier than I expected. Not that I enjoyed recalling misdeeds from 2010, or that I wasn’t nervous when I stepped away from the parishioners in the middle of Mass that morning in St. Vincent Ferrer and entered the dark quiet of the confessional. But the prerequisite of the sacrament, the mark of penitence, felt natural and right. I know that because if the priest had concluded, “No, sorry, you are not forgiven,” I would have returned to the pew respecting the wisdom of the Church and thought, “Well, maybe next time.” The following Sunday I would have joined in chanting, “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof,” and lined up, crossed my arms, and given thanks for the blessing I would receive a few moments later.
Those of us firm in our unworthiness have a role model for this: the Canaanite woman. In all the Gospels, she’s got to be the most composed and persistent figure Jesus meets in his ministry. To be told by the Lord in whom you believe that you’re no better than a dog, to gaze upon his face and see disdain, well, any person of ordinary bearing would melt with abjection. But not she.
There is no apparent reason for her self-assurance. She isn’t rich, learned, or highborn. Like others who beseech him, she is in need. “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David,” she pleads; “my daughter is severely possessed by a demon.” That puts her in a long train of faithful, agonized souls that Jesus restores. Those who come to him so devoutly earn his love and walk away mended. Only the unbelievers are denied, the “evil and adulterous generation” mentioned a few verses later, to whom “no sign shall be given.”
There is more to her than misery and faith, however, more force. “And behold,” Matthew begins, “a Canaanite woman came out and cried, ‘Have mercy on me . . .’” She sounds imposing, a little pushy, with none of the deferential air of the centurion and other seekers. You can imagine her nudging other people aside and butting in line to reach the healer first.