St Andrew’s Anglican Church
Sunday 18 November
1 Samuel 1.4-20
Song of Hannah
Hebrews 10.11-14, 19-25
Birthing Hope © Sue Wilton
The pregnant anticipation of Advent is almost upon us, and our readings today usher in this theme of waiting, of new birth, in this last reading in our year of the Gospel of Mark.
But waiting is not all joyful hope. Waiting can have its bitterness as it did for so many long years of Israel’s history of troubled social, political and economic times and prolonged seasons of suffering and violence. So many parts of the world today remain in this kind of waiting and longing for liberation and a new day of freedom and safety. The cry of “How long, O Lord?” is an extended cry from the Hebrew scriptures and one of the most primal human prayers. It is a plea which will have echoes in the hearts of many of us gathered here today as we look for an end to the suffering of sickness or pain or grief, a change in our circumstances, or the chance for a new beginning.
When you read the long account of Israel’s history the era which will celebrate the reign of King David seems to take an inordinate amount of time to arrive. While powerful men come and go, the narrative makes the daring move of locating the origin of Israel’s future and the source of all the great leaders to come in the story of a bereft, barren woman named Hannah. There would be much struggle and suffering before Hannah’s son, Samuel, would anoint the ruddy and handsome boy David as God’s anointed king over all Israel. The story names the truth that waiting begins in barrenness- in times of fruitlessness, bitterness, hopelessness.
Hannah’s desperation leads her to appear foolish to Eli who presumes she is drunk. The kind of naked vulnerability Hannah shows before
God is always condemned and ridiculed by others who do not understand. Sometimes our religion gives us something to hide behind and enables us to avoid the kind of exposure and humiliation our ego is so committed to avoiding. But this kind of naked prayer is able to lead us toward life as it sheds all our pride and self-sufficiency and places sole dependence on God as the ground of our being. Hannah in “pouring out her soul” arrives at a place where her weakness is her greatest strength and her poverty has made her rich. This is what is expressed both in her song which we have heard today, and in an echo from another mother from the village of Nazareth, who would give birth to the one to be proclaimed the son of David. In Mary’s life, the child growing within her was not a long hoped for pregnancy that would raise her social status but a baby that was unlooked for and would bring social exclusion. Yet both women sing a song that celebrates the attention of God to the poor and lowly, the vindication of the oppressed and the day of liberation. These stories of conception are speaking of more than the arrival of a child that will alter the course of history, but of the way God acts in the world and in our lives.
This song doesn’t seem to be able to be kept down. It shares a message proclaimed in different ways through the Psalms and on the lips of the prophets. Hannah’s song and Mary’s song are like musical eruptions of the same melody- a song which proclaims a God who is ever faithful to Divine promises, who is strong in mercy and rich in love- who does not recognise outward signs of power but acts subversively, filling the hungry and sending the rich away empty, lifting up the lowly and casting down those who in their greed and pride would oppress and dehumanise.
All through history we have outbreaks of this kind of upside-down kingdom, but there are always the long periods of waiting, of transition before the sharp pain that heralds new birth, and what we thought was permanent, shifts on its foundations. It would have been harder to find a better image of solidity and permanence than the large stones of the temple. But Jesus points to it all being demolished. It is the fig tree that has not borne fruit. It is not God’s dwelling place but a den of thieves. It has not offered life and liberation and so a new life, growing like a baby in the dark, hidden space of the womb, will quietly emerge, birthing freedom in a way all the grandeur of the temple and the power of kings has failed to offer.
Jesus’ account of the destruction of the temple and the aftermath is horrifying, and the earliest readers of the Gospel of Mark will have lived through this horror. The birth pangs are traumatic indeed. All the women here who have given birth, and even those who have witnessed a birth, can attest to the period of transition when the baby is coming but is not quite ready to arrive. In this stage there is not only pain but there can be confusion, disorientation, frustration and agitation. Most of us can point to periods of our life that if not quite as cataclysmic as the destruction of the temple, are nevertheless painful and traumatic- the death of a loved one, the loss of a job, a major health crisis, the breakdown of a relationship, the rejection of children, a personal or moral failure. These changes can happen quickly, but the period of transition to this new reality is not quick, and we can find ourselves unmoored, bereft of the identities that previously defined us.
Here is where we need to find ourselves naked before God, willing to hang in the in-between space of endings and beginnings, and begin to realize that our only foundation is found in the source of our being. Jesus points to this when his disciples ask him to share in their wonder at the grandeur of the Temple. Don’t place your dependence on this, says Jesus. It will all be destroyed. This apparent earthly stability is deceptive, as are all the ways we identify ourselves based on our career, our wealth, our relationships, our achievements. To live in transition means to recognize the fluid nature of all that we have tried to hold on to, and let go of our previous modes of participation in the world. This can lead to despair, which the poet David Whyte defines as “a loss of horizon…the place we go when we do not want to be found in the same way anymore…when we give up hope because certain particular wishes are no longer able to come true….despair is the time in which we both endure and heal…”
Jesus assures his disciples that even in the midst of chaos and catastrophe, they should not reach for those who offer easy answers or assurances of certainty but wait for the Spirit. The kingdom does not come in a spectacular show of strength but begins in our desperate, vulnerable cries of barrenness and loss, and grows slowly and is brought to birth painfully. The sense of loss and discombobulation you feel in any stage of transition is a necessary journey that can help detach us from our dependence on the strength of things temporal and find our sure footing upon that which is eternal.
There are times in our life when hope eludes us. Perhaps if we can befriend our despair, allowing it to have its own natural life, we can find a way to hold ourselves and one another in compassion. Mary Oliver says, “Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine. Meanwhile the world goes on.” Maybe in the struggle of transition as the world goes on, still marked by pain and violence and loss, we can accompany one another, or provoke one another to love” as the writer of Hebrews says. In such relationships we uncover that which is eternal and true. Maybe we could be gentle midwives for one another in what God is bringing to birth in each of our lives and creating in our world. Then, together, we can sing a new song of hope.