By Micah Latimer-Dennis
“Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table” (Matthew 15:27).
At a recent service of Holy Eucharist I noticed a dog across the chancel from me. The service was small and informal, and at the peace we’d passed through the chancel gate to stand in a circle for the service of the table. I hadn’t noticed the dog during the transition. It was only midway through the Great Thanksgiving that I caught a glimpse of it across from me. The dog was wearing a small red jacket, which I took to mean it was a service dog, and it spent most of what remained of the service dozing on the ground.
As the priest made her way around the circle, communing each member of the congregation, the dog perked up a bit. It was next to a child, and as the priest stooped to the child’s eye level, she momentarily lost her balance. Some of the consecrated bread fell to the ground—at the feet of the dog. It darted toward the bread but the priest was quicker. She picked up the host and consumed it before the words from Matthew’s Gospel could be fulfilled.
The congregation was riveted. As the priest proceeded around the circle, we exchanged looks with one another. I didn’t confirm it afterward, but I expect I wasn’t the only one thinking of Jesus’ encounter with the Syrophoenician woman (Matthew 15:21-28). In that story, when the woman asks Jesus to heal her daughter, he tells her that “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” She replies that “even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” The dog in that story, of course, represents the Gentiles, and the Syrophoenician woman’s humble assent to that representation, and her dramatic re-direction of the analogy, win Jesus’ approval. He heals her daughter as she’d requested.
This memorable encounter finds an echo in a distinctive Anglican prayer. The Prayer of Humble Access, which comes just before the reception of the consecrated elements in Rite I of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, captures the theological drama of the encounter succinctly:
We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy table, but Thou art the same Lord whose property is always to have mercy.
Like the Syrophoenician woman, we affirm both our unworthiness and our trust that God desires to feed us in this prayer. It expresses humility and confidence at once, just as the Syrophoenician woman did. Yet in the original encounter, the reason for the woman’s humility was not her guilt, but her exclusion on ethnic grounds. This woman knew she was not one of God’s chosen people, and so she approached Jesus with humility.
In her recent book, The Dangers of Christian Practice, the Rev. Lauren Winner suggests that this ethnic dimension also ought to be present in the Prayer of Humble Access because of the history of the sacrament. The Eucharist has been damaged, she argues, by centuries of Christians making it the site of violence against Jews. In the Middle Ages, for example, claims that Jews had desecrated hosts became the pretext for Christians to perpetrate violence on Jewish communities.
These pogroms coincided with greater doctrinal specificity about the presence of Christ in the Eucharist, an indication of what she terms “characteristic damage,” damage intrinsic to the thing damaged. Those who attacked Jews after receiving the Jewish Body and Blood of Jesus in the Eucharist were subverting the logic of the Sacrament (20). That kind of violence is no longer routinely practiced by Christians, but it echoes into the present in our forgetfulness and outright denial of God’s promises to Israel. Supersession – the view that Christians have superseded Jews as the chosen people – is “the deformation most deeply characteristic of Christianity,” Winner says (36). And it is to this deformation that Winner believes the Prayer of Humble Access provides a partial remedy.
This prayer, she writes,
Points to something more precise than the generic impossibility of Eucharistic reception… It is a prayer first uttered by two non-Jews to Jesus [the centurion (Matthew 8:8; Luke 7:6-7) and the Syrophoenician woman (Matthew 15:27)], and when the church in turns repeats the prayer, for a moment all the supersessionism freezes, and we become again what most of us are—non-Jews, saying to Jesus that we are not worthy of the God of Israel, and that we cannot intimately commune with Israel’s God; and then, having remembered that God is merciful, we accede to God’s offer, and precisely thus commune (49).
By saying this prayer, those of us who are Gentiles become like the Syrophoenician woman. We admit we are dogs, unworthy as Gentiles and those who chronically forget God’s promises to the Jews to sit at God’s table, and yet we go on to ask for God’s food all the same, trusting that our host is merciful. It is a small act of remembering, and thus only a small act of repair to a great damage, and yet Winner’s way of praying the Prayer of Humble Access provides a resource within our liturgical life for correcting the default to supersessionism.
The dog at the service points to another. One of the functions of altar rails since at least the time of the Reformation has been to prevent dogs from getting near the consecrated elements. One Bishop Wren of Norwich insisted that the supports for altar rails must be “so thick with pillars that doggs may not gett in.” In the case of the dog I saw, the thickness of the supports was not at issue, since the Eucharist was celebrated in the chancel. But for many Episcopal parishes, it is customary to receive the Eucharist kneeling at the altar rail and the altar rail’s primary function is to enable this posture of humility. The altar rail, like the Prayer of Humble Access, might point those of us who are Gentiles toward a particular kind of humility, one which acknowledges our relation to God’s chosen people. As we kneel at the altar rail, we can imagine ourselves as the dogs these rails were intended to keep out and acknowledge that we are not “worthy of the God of Israel.” And then we can remember that God is merciful and accepts us not as dogs but as friends and “precisely thus commune.”
Micah Latimer-Dennis studies theology at Duke Divinity School. Together with his wife, he is a postulant for Holy Orders in the Anglican Church of Canada.