Offered: Feast of the Holy Family 2018

One day years ago in Lincoln, Nebraska, a man came into the university Newman Center, definitely not a student but had found his way there somehow. There wasn’t anyone else around and we began to talk. I thought I maybe smelled some alcohol but he seemed pretty with it and he urgently asked me if I would please pray with him.

Now this is the sort of thing a campus missionary lives for, right? So it was with a full and grateful heart that I followed him into the chapel, all the way up the aisle, right to the threshold of the altar and tabernacle, where he knelt on the stone steps. I knelt next to him as he began praying aloud. Immediately he was sobbing… “Jesus… Jesus… help me… help my family…” I don’t remember all his words but they were a real cry from the heart, from someone who seemed to have been lost and was being found right next to me kneeling on those steps.

I was just silently praying along, and also thanking God for the incredible grace, the privilege to share a moment like that. Such were my thoughts as he continued at an even higher pitch than before: “And Lord, bless the Huskers… bless the coaches… let them have a good season and beat Oklahoma and make the defensive line and the running game what it used to be…

What can you say to that? “Amen.”

I decided just maybe there was a little less grace and a little more drink than I’d thought. Well, I remembered that story while thinking about our first reading and the story behind it because Eli made exactly the opposite mistake one day in the Temple. He was in there sitting by the door one evening when a woman came in. She was kind of mumbling, apparently, her lips moving but no sound. Something about it made Eli assume she was drunk.

But Hannah was not drunk. What Eli dismissed so casually was really this, 1 Sam 1:10: “In the bitterness of her soul she prayed to the Lord with many tears.”

Why the bitterness and tears? Hannah had no children. Preachers always seem to want to explain that back in those days that was a particularly painful situation. I don’t get that at all. There’s nothing old-fashioned about that particular hurt. I think those of us who aren’t expecting parenthood can relate too, though. Anyone can come to a point where they feel life hasn’t turned out how they expected. Anyone can feel like something is missing, missing in a way that’s really crushing. Anyone can feel barren, unfruitful, empty.

But for Hannah, as for so many, it’s about something quite specific. It’s where that spiritual longing for fruitfulness combines with, let’s face it, the most profound drive in our biology… quite a combination. So that night at dinner was one of those times it boiled over and she had a bit of a meltdown. She was just crying, and she couldn’t eat. Her husband, Elkanah, tries to console her in a way that’s kind of endearingly pathetic. He asks her, “Hannah, you have me, am I not more to you than ten sons?” Um, sorry, Elkanah, that’s a hard ‘no.’ There’s a word for people who respond to tears this poorly. We’re called “men.”

Dinner finishes and Hannah goes to the Temple. This is when Eli saw her. What she did, I want to share the translation from The Jerusalem Bible translation: “After they had eaten in the hall, Hannah rose and took her stand before the Lord.” I don’t even have a point about that, I just think it’s one of my favorite verses in the Bible. Hannah rose and took her stand before the Lord, and in the bitterness of her soul, she prayed to the Lord with many tears. I cannot stress enough how important this is. If you have many tears and bitterness of soul, give them to God. Join with Jesus in Gethsemane, with Mary at the foot of the Cross, with Hannah in the Temple. You must not withhold this offering. If this doesn’t make sense right now, some day it will. When you have nothing to offer God, you come before Him and you offer Him your nothing. “This is all I have, Lord, this is all that’s left, and it’s Yours.”

As Hannah continues to pray, she makes a promise. She tells God that if she has a son, he’ll be dedicated to God. And this is what happens, and her son is the great prophet, Samuel. You could interpret this kind of shallowly like Hannah offers a bargain and God accepted it. But I think what’s she’s really doing is offering her deepest desire to God, and offering any fruitfulness she may have to God. This is what Eli sees Hannah silently praying through bitter tears: Whatever happens, whatever God gives her, she will offer it back to Him.

Now that’s a prayer.

In the next chapter, we hear another prayer from Hannah — this time, after Samuel is born. The same Hannah who came to God in her broken emptiness, when all she could do is cry, now she comes to God with a joy in her heart that’s overflowing into praise and song. She praises the God Who breaks the strong and strengthens the weak, Who shatters the proud and lifts up the humble, Who empties the rich and fills up the empty. It should sound familiar; Mary’s Magnificat in Luke 1 is modeled closely on Hannah’s prayer in 1 Samuel. Mary understood the kinship between them.

But understand Hannah’s prayer here: she is not just all bubbly because her bargain was accepted and now she has what she wanted. It was never a bargain, and what she has received she will not be keeping. After bringing Samuel to the Temple, she will not be taking him home.

There’s nothing today that really resembles this so it’s hard to explain, but you might almost say it’s like if seminary started shortly after birth. He will grow up in the Temple household. If that’s hard to understand for us today, understand simply this: Hannah is giving God her fruitfulness and happiness every bit as completely as she gave God her brokenness and emptiness. And these are inseparable, they are actually the same thing. This is the part of the story about Hannah giving Samuel to God. But the whole story, all of it, is about Hannah giving Hannah to God.

Maybe a bit of a tangent here, but there’s another deep lesson as Hannah lets go of her son to live his own calling apart from her. Anyone who pays attention can see that one of the things a mother can do to really mess up her child is to hold on too tight for too long, to refuse to let them go and live their own lives. But while we’re growing and leaving, at the time it’s happening, I don’t think any of us have any idea what it costs our mothers to not do that. Fathers, too, but especially mothers, right? I shouldn’t pretend to really know, but Hannah and Mary know. Moms, they know what it costs you.

Maybe that’s less a tangent than a transition, though, because isn’t that also part the story of of Joseph and Mary losing Jesus and finding Him in the Temple? It’s like a foreshadowing of just how much He doesn’t really belong to them. And have you ever thought how Joseph must have felt, after all that panic, all that effort, to hear these words: “I had to be in my Father’s house.” Ouch. But that’s Joseph’s calling. His fruitfulness, his paternity, is to care for the child of another. He is sometimes called a ‘foster father;’ personally, I love the word ‘Guardian.’ Joseph is another patron for those whose lives don’t turn out the way you imagined. His sure didn’t, but he had his calling, and he stood up and delivered — heroically. Now that’s a man.

It is a profound meditation on the nature of parenthood on this Feast of the Holy Family. It is also profound for all of us, of any calling. Will you offer to God not what you wish you had, not what you expected to have or think you ought to have, but what you have and what you are in this moment? And offer Him also what you don’t have and what you aren’t. In brokenness and in happiness, in hunger and in fullness, He is God and we are His. It’s not about working your life out so you can offer it to God. It’s about giving Him exactly who and what you are right now.


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