December 23, 2018

So Help Me, Hannah

We call Mary “The Virgin Mary,” of course. But regardless of what the church says about the way Jesus was conceived, the Bible tells us she had other children. I think we prefer this title, though, because it makes Mary seem quiet and young and meek.

But if we were to ignore 2000 years of church tradition and simply read the actual words of the Bible, I don’t think we’d have settled on calling the mother of Jesus “The Virgin Mary.” What we’d call her if we were more serious about the Bible would be “The Prophet Mary.” For of all the prophecies in the scriptures, none is more revolutionary than the one we just sang—the song called the Magnificat, that speaks of the turning of the world, the downfall of the powerful and the lifting up of the oppressed.

I say no prophecy is more revolutionary, but there are some prophets that equal Mary in their courageous zeal to speak the truth. Or at least, there’s one. And this one was also a woman. And this by itself is interesting, because if anyone were to ask us to describe the picture in our mind that’s conjured up by the word prophets, most of us would describe a bunch of bearded old men. But some of the greatest prophets were women, and one of the earliest was a woman named Hannah.

Hannah was one of the wives of a man named Elkanah, and Hannah was childless. Once, when Elkanah and his two wives were at Shiloh to make a sacrifice to God, Hannah approached the holy place after everyone else had gone to bed. No one saw her but the priest Eli. And what he saw was a woman in such distress and filled with so much passion, that he accused her of making a drunken spectacle of herself. She explained to him that she wasn’t drunk, but was praying. When he realized she was telling the truth, he said to her, “God grant you your petition.”

She had prayed for a child, and when she conceived and bore a son, she offered that son for God’s service. The boy’s name was Samuel—one of Israel’s greatest prophets—and when he was born, Hannah spoke one of the greatest prophecies of all time. The Song of Hannah isn’t heard all that often, but we heard it this morning as our first reading. I hope you noticed the similarity between Hannah’s song and Mary’s song. Both speak of a God whose involvement in the world cannot help but turn things upside down, making the rich poor and the poor rich, filling the hungry and sending the rich away with empty stomachs. It’s the kind of passion that gets people arrested in oppressive regimes, and so we have to assume that both Hannah and Mary were very courageous indeed.

Back in the days when people still cared about not cussing and not breaking the Third Commandment, they came up with something called minced oaths. Minced oaths are benign expressions which replace more objectionable words and phrases. And to this day, we still use words like gosh and darn. We also say things like For Pete’s sake and So help me Hannah—these two I used to hear so often as a kid that I thought Pete and Hannah were an item.

But let’s think about that expression, So help me Hannah, in another sense. Let’s pretend that we truly care about her prophecy, and genuinely acknowledge the fact that Mary had obviously studied it and took it seriously. What if we genuinely believed that our God was a God who “raises up the poor from the dust; [and] lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor”; who “has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; [who] has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”

I don’t know if you’ve ever used the phrase So help me Hannah, but it’s something to think about. We should perhaps pray for the strength of Hannah and the courage of Mary. How often do we speak out on behalf of those who can’t speak for themselves, and act in faith, even when the world arounds us points fingers at us? How many of us are called upon to speak the truth, risking the ire of despots?

We have lots of male rôle models for our faith, and they’re the ones we’re usually called upon to look to. But some of the best rôle models were women, and there are no greater prophets in the Bible than the two we’re heard from today. Samuel may have anointed the kings of Israel, but he had to take a back seat to his own mother in eloquence. And though his faith was great, could it have been greater than the woman who had faith in him even before he existed?

And if we want to think about why God chose an unknown young woman from Galilee to be the mother of Messiah, there’s no need to think about her purity, and I think we can throw meekness out the window. The doctrine of the immaculate conception that states that Mary needed to be have been conceived without sin is also completely unnecessary. What we need to remember is that the Child Jesus was reared in a home where his mother believed in a God of justice. He learned the concept of radical grace on his mother’s knee.

There’s a lot of talk about how we’ve forgotten the true meaning of Christmas. And this is true. But with Hannah’s help, and Mary’s, I think we can remember that when God breaks in upon the way things are, nothing can remain the same. To have faith in Christmas is to believe in the kind of peace that shines a spotlight on justice and equality. This, after all, is what the first Christmas carols sang about.

So as we give thanks for God’s Incarnation, let us remember the woman whose bold proclamation identified him as Immanuel—God with us to transform us and to lead us in the way we should go. May we start down that path this Christmas, and may it lead us to our homeland: a Realm where the hungry are fed and the poor are lifted up from the ash heap.
—©2018 Sam L. Greening, Jr.

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