St. Alban’s Episcopal Church
Reflection November 14, 2021
By Sandy Burnett
My ears always perk up a little when I hear the readings include a story about a woman in the Bible. Some of the stories, like Esther’s and Judith’s are pretty exciting. The story of Hannah seems somewhat mundane. Actually, before we get to the section that was read today, we learn that there are two women in the story, childless Hannah — her husband’s favorite, and the fruitful Penninah. As one commentator pointed out, both women had to be jealous of each other: Hannah because of Penninah’s fertility; Penninah because her husband loved Hannah more. The Bible, proving that the character of the clueless husband is way older than TV sitcoms, wonders what the problem is. “Aren’t I more to you than 10 sons?” he asks Hannah.
Well no, he’s not. Hannah is so desperate for a child that she promises God that if he gives her a son, she will sacrifice that child to God’s service in the temple. God grants her prayer and Hannah gives up her son when he is still a very young child. From then on, she gets to see the boy only when the family makes their annual pilgrimage to worship, and she makes increasingly bigger tunics for him as he grows. God gives Hannah more children, both sons and daughters. And this is the last we hear of Hannah, Peninah and their husband.
But the son, named Samuel, goes on to be a prophet and leader of Israel. Samuel had a formidable career as a priest of God and ends up following God’s order to choose Israel’s first king. In the Old Testament, the priests and prophets are just as important, sometimes even more important, than kings.
Of course, priests also play a big part in the New Testament, but they have gone from being heroes to much more modest roles. Some are even villains. In the letter to the Hebrews, priests are depicted as useless when it comes to having God’s ear through presentation of sacrifices. God’s son, who we will soon hear about in Luke’s Gospel in our Advent and Christmas readings — is given like Hannah’s son to the service of God. He is the one perfect sacrifice that never needs to be repeated; the once and for all sacrifice that is meant to be everything that we need to follow and believe.
Then, in the Gospel, we’re back among the priests at the Jerusalem Temple, which Jesus says will be completely destroyed. The disciples, as usual hoping to get in on the ground floor of whatever is coming, ask Jesus when that will happen. And Jesus, replies not with a straight answer but with the order to beware of people claiming to be the Messiah and to not be too alarmed about wars and “rumors of wars,” earthquakes and other catastrophes because they are just the “birthing pangs” of the world that is to come.
That phrase, “rumors of wars,” has always interested me. Today, we don’t have rumors of wars, we have televised images of wars in countries and continents that the people of Jesus’ time had no idea even existed. We see the earthquakes, the battles, the tsunamis and the mudslides, often as they happen, up close and in color.
Mark’s audience may not have had TV, but they were well acquainted with unthinkable tragedy. They had seen their temple destroyed and their country ravaged. Still, the Gospel tells them — and us — that Jesus is with them, and that something much, much better, awaits.
Birth, sacrifice, priests and temples, and God’s ability to do anything, seemed to come up from reading to reading. I tried to figure out what this all meant to me. I have never longed for a child, as Hannah did, but I think we’ve all longed and prayed for something important — for love, for life for ourselves or others, for an end to loneliness, for peace. And I relate to Peninah, lashing out in her jealousy and powerlessness, at her rival.
But I wrestle with the concept of sacrifice. I struggle with the idea of wars and earthquakes. Jesus calls them “birthing pangs” in the Gospel. Women who feel birthing pangs may be relieved that labor has begun, but they still hurt and worry that this time, things may turn out badly.
I don’t believe that only pain and sacrifice produce good. Hannah’s song says that God can do anything. I don’t know why God doesn’t use that power to make a better world, but I believe there is a reason because God offers all of us a way of salvation even in the midst of all this evil. We have the example of how even the least of us can be raised up, and of how we can be loved even when we don’t love ourselves. We have a God who loves and cares for us even when we aren’t aware of it. Our world is a mundane place, filled with petty desires and jealousies, as well as the love people share with each other.
The disciples, who I’ve always thought were chosen for their ordinariness, all rose to the task of spreading the Gospel, and were martyred for it. Through the love of Jesus and God, we all have the opportunity to rise above our mundane selves: to love and be loved in the most extraordinary way.