Reading for the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary
There was a certain man of Ramathaim, a Zuphite from the hill country of Ephraim, whose name was Elkanah son of Jeroham son of Elihu son of Tohu son of Zuph, an Ephraimite. He had two wives; the name of one was Hannah, and the name of the other Peninnah. Peninnah had children, but Hannah had no children.
Now this man used to go up year by year from his town to worship and to sacrifice to the Lord of hosts at Shiloh, where the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, were priests of the Lord. On the day when Elkanah sacrificed, he would give portions to his wife Peninnah and to all her sons and daughters; but to Hannah he gave a double portion, because he loved her, though the Lord had closed her womb. Her rival used to provoke her severely, to irritate her, because the Lord had closed her womb. So it went on year after year; as often as she went up to the house of the Lord, she used to provoke her. Therefore Hannah wept and would not eat. Her husband Elkanah said to her, ‘Hannah, why do you weep? Why do you not eat? Why is your heart sad? Am I not more to you than ten sons?’
After they had eaten and drunk at Shiloh, Hannah rose and presented herself before the Lord. Now Eli the priest was sitting on the seat beside the doorpost of the temple of the Lord. She was deeply distressed and prayed to the Lord, and wept bitterly. She made this vow: ‘O Lord of hosts, if only you will look on the misery of your servant, and remember me, and not forget your servant, but will give to your servant a male child, then I will set him before you as a nazirite until the day of his death. He shall drink neither wine nor intoxicants,* and no razor shall touch his head.’
As she continued praying before the Lord, Eli observed her mouth. Hannah was praying silently; only her lips moved, but her voice was not heard; therefore Eli thought she was drunk. So Eli said to her, ‘How long will you make a drunken spectacle of yourself? Put away your wine.’ But Hannah answered, ‘No, my lord, 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. Do not regard your servant as a worthless woman, for I have been speaking out of my great anxiety and vexation all this time.’ Then Eli answered, ‘Go in peace; the God of Israel grant the petition you have made to him.’ And she said, ‘Let your servant find favour in your sight.’ Then the woman went to her quarters, ate and drank with her husband, and her countenance was sad no longer.
They rose early in the morning and worshipped before the Lord; then they went back to their house at Ramah. Elkanah knew his wife Hannah, and the Lord remembered her. In due time Hannah conceived and bore a son. She named him Samuel, for she said, ‘I have asked him of the Lord.’ 1 Samuel 1:1-20
The story of Hannah is like the story of the matriarchs. Like Sarah, Rebekah, and Rachel, she was what was considered almost cursed in her culture. Sarah was over ninety when she conceived Isaac. Rebekah was barren for some time before Isaac pleaded with God and Rebekah became pregnant. Rachel had to put up with her sister Leah who had son after son. Barren women must have displeased God in some way by being sinful or were not of good character; they were defective. No matter how much their husbands loved them, they still were inferior to any wife or concubine who could produce living children, particularly sons.
Hannah’s husband went up to Shiloh each year to offer worship and offer sacrifices to God. He always brought part of the sacrifice home to his wives and children so they might share the blessings. Everybody ate and drank very merrily except for Hannah; all she could do was cry and turn away from the sight of all the children, none of whom were hers, and the smirking, sniping cruelty of the second wife. So she did the only other thing she could think of doing.
She went to the temple and started to pray once again. She’d done it many times before but without success. Yet she had to keep trying. Maybe she stood or maybe she sat. Perhaps she knelt or even prostrated herself. She could have held her hands out, palms up asking for a blessing from God, or stretched out her arms in entreaty. She moved her lips but there was no sound coming out yet the words were probably screaming in her brain and her heart. Hannah was totally oblivious to anything and anyone around her so focused was she on her desperate plea to God for a son, just one son, not multiples, not a quiver full, just one son that she would dedicate to God’s service.
Eli the priest thought that Hannah had had too much wine. He spoke to her rather sharply about the fact that she shouldn’t be in a holy place and attracting the wrong kind of attention because she was so drunk. I imagine that if we saw someone today behaving as Hannah did, we would probably think they were either mentally disturbed, on some kind of mind altering substance, or just plain drunk. We judge based on what we see, which is what exactly what Eli did. Hannah explained the situation to him and immediately Eli saw the error that he had made. He blessed Hannah and sent her home. She must have felt confident that God had finally heard her as her mood seems to be a bit lighter and, shortly after her return home with her husband and family, Hannah became pregnant.
Even today some women find themselves in Hannah’s situation. They desperately want children but are unable to have them. There were no doctors for Hannah, no clinics specializing in infertility problems where corrective action could be taken mechanically or pharmacologically. She took the only recourse she could think of which was to plead with God. God heard and God answered.
I wonder, how many of us would think of doing what Hannah did, namely seek out as a sacred place and pour out our hearts to God with our deepest desires and with the utmost faith that it would happen, not just doing this once but again and again. Would we risk being seen as intoxicated? People judge so quickly on what they see, usually without knowing anything about the situation other than what happens before their very eyes. Even then sometimes they don’t understand what happened any more than they did if they had just heard about it on the TV news. The people like Hannah who have a passionate desire for something often do what Hannah did which was to make a deal with God. “Give me a son and I will give that son back to you.” For a woman who had been barren for years to make such a promise was truly an indicator of her great desire to be a mother and to demonstrate her faith that God would make it happen.
It must been hard for Hannah. Because of her promise she knew she would only have a short period of time with her child. She was willing to trade her right to watch him grow and marry and have children of his own for the joy of bearing and raising him until he was weaned before taking him to Eli to be raised as a nazirite and a servant of God in a holy place. Two, maybe three years of watching over his firsts -- first smile, first tooth, first unsteady steps – and then he would be gone and she would only see him from year to year when the annual sacrifice was made.
Hannah promised God something over and above what almost any of us would. I have to ask myself, how much passion do I put into my prayers, especially those asking for guidance or what I most deeply desire? What promises have I made that I haven’t kept, especially those I made to God? What am I really asking God for, and how much faith do I really have?
It’s a question to consider today as I think about Hannah’s passion, prayers and promises.