It feels entirely too early to be thinking about Christmas, but everybody is. Even those of us who are convinced that we need Advent before we can begin to taste Christmas. Christmas has us pretty much surrounded already, one way or another. The shops, of course, and decorations around the city. There’s a Christmas tree already decked in lights set up in front of the grocery store around the corner. The calendar is filling up and, as one of the other moms from Beangirl’s school informed me this weekend, the Season has started.
So, I’m glad that we get Hannah this week in lectionary. It’s a story that holds Christmas at bay a little. And it also honours our almost-there already impatience about the whole thing.
The people of God have been a waiting people – they have known waiting deeply. Waiting is often born of deep longing. There’s a feeling that something isn’t right with the way things are. Something else should be happening, shouldn’t it? Maybe that discontent means that God is at work somewhere in all this, we think, we hope, but we’re not sure. Is that being faithful or just awkward? Sometimes, it all feels like absence. But still we wait and want. And wait.
That’s where Hannah’s story begins – in waiting mode. She wants a baby, and she’s heavy with grief and longing. Her husband understands this. He makes regular offerings at the Shiloh, and brings her a double portion, comfort for her grief. But that isn’t enough. She doesn’t want religious culture. She wants to feel blessed. She wants to know God’s work in her life. So she takes it to God.
It’s a raw picture – Hannah praying so fervently that Eli thinks she is drunk. But when he confronts her, she’s honest with him, too.
I am a woman deeply troubled; I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I have been pouring out my soul before the Lord.
Our deepest longings often reflect the upside-down kingdom that God has in mind. Not that Hannah’s baby was the key to everything, but that with a bit of divine translation and midwifery, Hannah’s faithful longing could birth a new voice of faith to guide God’s people. The kind of deep longing that brings our brave and honest prayers to the surface has roots in the depths of God’s kingdom. God uses our passions to build anew.
In due time, Hannah conceived and bore a son. She named him Samuel, for she said, I have asked him of the Lord.
Hannah longed for God’s work in her life, and through her, the nation was blessed. The son she birthed was Samuel – the boy who learned to listen to God in the night, the prophet who anointed David. He was, as promised, a faithful man of God.
After Samuel’s birth, Elkanah wanted to honour the vow right away and bring the infant to Eli. But Hannah said no. She had been made a mother, and she needed to mother. She’d honour her vow once the child was weaned. She’d been childless for so long and now she wasn’t going to let her child go into the world unmothered. I am so glad that the scripture writer included this detail. Our human relationships are the location of our honouring God. Hannah would not have been faithful if she had too quickly handed her son to Eli. Samuel needed to know something of a mother’s love – something about trust and patience and deep abiding love – if he was to faithfully listen to the call of God in the midst of a noisy, broken world.
My heart exults in the Lord; my strength is exalted in my God. My mouth derides my enemies, because I rejoice in my victory. There is no Holy One like the Lord, no one besides you; there is no Rock like our God.
I hear other songs in her words. I hear her older sister Miriam sing of victory and a delivering God who leads people to freedom through the waters. I hear Esther who sings in courage, and Ruth who sings commitment. I hear Elizabeth who also longed for a child, and birthed John the wild prophet in her old age. And Anna who had served in the temple for many years, longing for the redemption of Israel and singing God’s praise when she saw Mary’s child. And of course, Mary herself, who’s hard yes birthed the Christ.
My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour.
These are Hannah’s sisters, women of longing and song.
So for Hannah, another song. This poem by Wendell Berry sings out in this season of longing. It sings of the work of faithful longing and the deeper work of the loving God who shapes all things. I think she’d like it.
X by Wendell Berry
Whatever is foreseen in joy
Must be lived out from day to day.
Vision held open in the dark
By our ten thousand days of work.
Harvest will fill the barn; for that
The hand must ache, the face must sweat.
And yet no leaf or grain is filled
By work of ours; the field is tilled
And left to grace. That we may reap,
Great work is done while we’re asleep.
When we work well, a Sabbath mood
Rests on our day, and finds it good.
from A Timbered Choir. © Counterpoint, 1998.