Few stories in Holy Scripture inspire as much pathos as the story of Hannah. She emerges very vividly from the pages of 1 Samuel. She remains a figure with which many women, in particular, can strongly identify. There is perhaps no longing so pure, so holy, and so God-given as the longing for a child; but, whether the causes are environmental or genetic, thousands of couples struggle with the inability to conceive and carry a child to term. Problems with infertility can be very lonely and heart wrenching, and can often be a severe test of one’s faith.
Hannah is just one of many biblical figures who struggled with infertility. Abraham and Sarah were well into their old age before they could conceive the child God promised, Rachel grieved many years unable to have a child, and Elizabeth and Zacharias (the parents of John the Baptist) also didn’t conceive until old age. These are just a few examples.
The burden of infertility often falls disproportionately on women. Especially in the ancient world of the Bible, the self-worth and identity of women was intimately bound with their ability to bear offspring. Infertile women suffered reproach and despair.
In tribal and agrarian societies like Israel, fertility in one form or another-- whether in children or in crops -- was an all-consuming preoccupation. The survival of the family and nation depended on it.
This is one reason why God’s people were continually tempted to adopt the pagan practices of their neighbors. During the days of Hannah, the Canaanite fertility goddess Asherah was worshiped alongside of Yahweh by many in Israel. She was appealed to with sacrifice in the hopes that she would bless the people with fertility and abundance. The same anxiety about fertility also lay behind the practice of polygamy that was widespread at that time and place. Polygamy was just as much a failure to trust God as the worship of idols.
Hannah was probably Elkanah’s first wife, and we know that he loved her most, but he felt he needed to take a second wife, Peninnah, in order to produce heirs. Peninnah bore many children with him; and she never let poor Hannah forget it either. Despite appearances, however, it was Hannah and not Peninnah that God had set aside for greatness. God was moved by her tears and heard the sound of her prayer.
Far from being forsaken, Hannah and the many other women who struggle with infertility in the Bible are the special instruments of God’s mission of salvation. Why is this such a prominent pattern throughout the Scriptures?
The barrenness of Israel’s mothers is a picture of life in a fallen world. We feel ourselves outside of God’s blessing in a futile and hopeless world where the wicked prosper and the righteous suffer.
In her dystopian novel, Children of Men, P.D. James describes a world deprived of any hope for the future. It is set in the near future, thirty years after every male human being on the planet has mysteriously become sterile. As a result, the human race faces imminent extinction. Civilization is crumbling; and in Great Britain, where the novel is set, people have lost all interest in politics and have left the nation to be governed by a small council. In other parts of the world, the practice of human sacrifice has reemerged as a fertility ritual. Now imagine what it would be like, in a world like this, for a woman suddenly to conceive a child.
A film adaptation of the movie premiered on December 25, 2006, Christmas Day. The story isn’t the kind of heartwarming tale we normally associate with the Christmas season, but I thought the parallel was really quite powerful.
At a time of cultural and political turmoil and anxiety, Isaiah prophesied, “Behold, the virgin [a young woman] shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.” This prophecy of course ultimately refers to Jesus Christ, but there is a sense in which every child that is born is a sign to us of the fact that God is still with us, that he has not abandoned us, and that there is hope for the future. God has declared in and through his elect people that he will bring blessing to us in our barrenness, joy in our sorrow, peace in our violence, light in our darkness, and hope in our hopelessness.
Hannah, filled with the Holy Spirit, perceives the bigger picture. She recognizes the historical and cosmic significance of what God has done for her and she sings a song of praise and thanksgiving to God. The song that she sings in the second chapter of 1 Samuel is the canticle appointed for today in the usual place of the psalm.
The connection of this song to the story of this poor woman and her struggle to bear a child is not immediately obvious. There is of course the celebration of how God exalts the poor and brings down the proud, which is relevant to Hannah’s struggle with her rival Peninnah, but this is a song that celebrates the mighty power of Yahweh to conquer Israel’s enemies.It is a song about clashing armies and military conquest. It culminates in a prophecy concerning Israel’s coming King, God’s anointed, his Messiah, and his exaltation by God.
It makes more sense when we consider the fact that Hannah’s child, Samuel, will be a mighty prophet and Judge of Israel, and that it is he that God will use to anoint David as King over all Israel and that David’s Son, his heir, Jesus Christ, will reign as Lord forever.
The biblically and liturgically astute will also notice a striking similarity between Hannah’s song and the song of another young woman, The Magnificat, the song that the Virgin Mary sings in the Gospel of Luke about the child that is miraculously in her womb.
Both songs are sung in thanksgiving for a child and celebrate God’s intervention in human affairs. In one case, God gives a child to a woman who is seemingly infertile, and in another God miraculously gives a child to a woman who is a virgin. Both songs begin with exalting in the Lord’s greatness; and both speak of how God humbles the proud, conquers Israel’s enemies, lifts up the lowly, and satisfies the hungry. They are songs of judgement and vindication, of great reversals, of how God is able to turn the world upside down (or rather right side up).
Mary’s Song is a continuation of the song that Hannah sung. It is the climax of all of God’s mighty actions on behalf of his people throughout history, and the fulfillment of his promises. Hannah is the mother of Mary, the type of which she is the fulfillment, and Mary is the mother of Israel par-excellence.
In our Gospel reading for today, Jesus himself speaks to his disciples of a judgement soon to come. It will be a time of great reversals. There will be wars and rumors of wars, the natural world will be in a state of turmoil and instability. There will be earthquakes, and famines, but Jesus tells them not to be alarmed. God will be with them. Appropriately enough, given all that we have been talking about, Jesus describes all of these phenomena as ‘birth pangs.’ God is about to bring fourth something new, something miraculous, something unexpected. Their salvation is at hand. Now the wicked unbelievers speak arrogantly, they kill and destroy, but when the world’s true Lord appears they will be thrown down and shattered, cut off in darkness, but his faithful ones will inherit a seat of honor.