For Sunday December 26, 2021
Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year C)
1 Samuel 2:18-20, 26
NOTE: Our lectionary essay this week is written by Michael Fitzpatrick. Debie is on a much deserved vacation, and will return to the lectionary essays January 2nd.
As Mary, the Theotokos, the Mother of God, treasures in her heart her front-row seat to the maturation of Jesus, we bear witness to more than the stereotypical pride of a mother in the growth of her son. This phrase comes in the wake of the three previous verses, in which Mary has searched for her missing son “in great anxiety” and been left utterly befuddled by his subsequent response. The treasures in Mary’s heart are those of a mother who has endured much, and who loves much.
My own inspiration for reading the lectionary’s juxtaposition of Hannah's and Mary’s commitments to their anointed sons is my mother. Pride in a child’s accomplishments can easily be the very source of a mother’s anxiety. In a cold January in the year 2003, I called my mother from an Army processing station in Portland, Oregon and informed her that I had enlisted to be a Chaplain’s Assistant. My mom, who had technically signed the paperwork permitting her 17-year-old son to do this, could not have anticipated that my decision would lead to some of the most stressful moments in her life.
Barely two months later, the United States invaded Iraq. With my induction date set for August 13th of the same year, I fervently assured my parents that by the time I finished basic training and my occupational school, the fuss in the Middle East would be over. As the saying goes, famous last words. I arrived from occupational school to my first duty station in Ft. Hood, Texas in mid-January 2004, and learned that we were deploying shortly after the first of March. We moved so quickly my mom didn’t even have time to fly down and see me off before my unit departed for the desert.
Mary had to search for her son for only three days. Yet imagine the severity of her fear and stress as she questioned her own ability as a mother to let something like this happen to her boy. Imagine the self-doubt, the self-loathing, all mixed with a profound maternal instinct to never give up striving to find and protect her child, no matter the cost to herself. Did she hardly eat in those three days? Did she hardly sleep?
My mother endured a similar turmoil for 12 months, helpless as she watched the evening news day after day reporting the violence in Iraq as she prayed for her son’s safety. She couldn’t even search for me, an action by which Mary could at least feel like she was doing something about the situation. When I called my mom with my 500 minute AT&T calling card from Iraq (a value which lasted about 45 minutes of actual call time, because of long-distance charges) and tried to explain to her why we were there and why I had felt the need to join, I doubt she really understood any more than Mary understood Jesus’ response—“Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” Sometimes children have callings, whether divine in Jesus’ case or human in mine, that a parent simply cannot make sense of.
This is why I’m so grateful that Mary and Hannah are juxtaposed together in our lectionary reading. Because without Mary’s story, Hannah’s astonishing virtue with respect to her son can seem almost superhuman, otherwordly. For so long she cried out to God for a son, and when her prayer is finally answered, and justice for her womb finally given, she barely has time to celebrate his miraculous birth and get Samuel weaned before she dedicates him to the temple of God. After such a sacrifice of gratitude, our text today says that she would make clothes for him as a gift when she’d see him once a year during the annual family pilgrimage to the temple.
We’re told nothing of Hannah’s inner thought-life in this passage, her emotional response to losing her son to temple service at such a young age. But when I think about her deep lamentations before Samuel’s birth, and reflect on Mary searching anxiously for her missing son, I suspect that Hannah treasures in her heart feelings of both tremendous pride for this son of hers who grows in favor with Creator God, and anguished longing to have mothered him for just a bit more time, a yearning that she permits herself to express once a year in handmade robes to clothe his body.
Again, it is my own mother’s journey that helps me here. For I know from her letters and phone calls how proud she was of her son serving his country, wearing the uniform, growing in favor with his fellow soldiers and leaders. Yet none of this pride removed the heartache of my absence, the powerlessness in knowing that at any moment my life could be claimed by an act of senseless violence. It wasn’t just those 12 months she endured, it was the next several years as I returned (as she feared) for a second deployment, this time lasting 15 months. All of this my mother treasured in her heart.
In the end, my mom’s bravery and endurance came only by trusting in her Lord and Savior. She finally had to accept that my life is in the hands of the One who creates and sustains and saves all things. She trusted my fate to my God and her God. Isn’t that ultimately what Hannah and Mary do as well? They don’t really profess to understand all that God is doing in the lives of their children, but they accept that God is at work, that Samuel is a miracle baby, that Jesus really was about his Father’s business in his Father’s house. Courage, patience, persistence, and long-suffering—these are the virtues of mothers who treasure all the anxiety, all the fear, all the thanksgiving, all the pride they feel for their children in their hearts.
It’s the first Sunday in Christmastide, those twelve days in which we rest from our labors as the Church, and dedicate ourselves to feasting and giving, celebrating the child who was born and who grows in “divine and human favor” for the salvation of the world. As we celebrate the season of Christmas, as we treasure these moments in our hearts, may we be open to treasuring not just the moments of kindness and celebration, but also the brokenness, the absences, the unkind words, the rejection, and the loneliness that we’ve experienced, and that perhaps some of us endure even now. Christmas joy is never to the exclusion of such things; rather, it abides in the conviction of Hannah and Mary that no matter how great our anxieties, no matter how much “a sword will pierce our own souls” (Luke 2.35), the peace of Christ can still rule in our hearts. Such peace is not the denial of our anxiousness, but our baptism by fire (Matt. 3.11) into a life that can treasure in our hearts the gifts of God even when we feel helpless in the face of our turbulent and uncertain world.
Michael Fitzpatrick welcomes comments and questions via email@example.com