Making a spectacle

In today’s Hebrew scripture, we hear the story of Hannah (1 Samuel 1:4-20). Hannah is much loved by her husband Elkanah, but she has no children: “the Lord had closed her womb”. Her husband’s other wife, Peninnah, had “sons and daughters”, and taunts Hannah with her childlessness. Hannah, we’re told, grieves her childlessness. The account in scripture suggests very messy family dynamics, as Hannah is apparently the favorite wife, even though she was childless.

Hannah goes to the temple to pray, “deeply distressed”. She is watched by the priest Eli as she prays silently and weeps, and he asks her “How long will you make a drunken spectacle of yourself?” When she tells him she is not drunk, but praying from “anxiety and vexation”, he asks the God of Israel to grant her petition. And so it is: the story tells us that she and Elkanah worshiped before the Lord, went back to their house, and that Elkanah “knew his wife Hannah”. She conceived and bore a son, Samuel.

I am intrigued by Eli’s initial reaction, his concern that Hannah is making a spectacle of herself. She’s altogether too emotional in her prayer. Is Eli a closet Episcopalian? I’m uncomfortable with people who make a big deal about their faith. Like many Episcopalians, I’m not big on extemporaneous emotional prayer! Yet when we pray from our hearts, sometimes it is emotional. If we’re sharing with God our deepest joys, longings, fears, and griefs, there should be emotion. Maybe it’s time for me, like Eli, to better value the prayer that comes from the heart. And even make a spectacle of myself!

When I read the scriptures for today, I was struck that we have spent the last few weeks with women who need or want to bear a child. Ruth and Naomi are widowed; without a husband and a child, their place is uncertain. When Ruth bears a child to Boaz, Naomi helps raise him; they are safe. Ruth’s son is the father of Jesse, who is the father of David. Hannah’s position is more secure, loved as she is by her husband, but she longs for a child, and may feel that her long term security depends on bearing one. Again and again, we are reminded that God’s purposes are effected through the birth of children. As we hear Jesus, at the end of today’s Gospel, talking about the “birthpangs” of the new creation, his metaphor reflected the very real importance of bearing children in his society.

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