Today, December 9, we commemorate the Conception by St. Anna of the Most Holy Theotokos, as well as St Hannah the Prophetess.
The connection between Anna and Hannah (same name, Greek and Hebrew forms) and Hanna and the Theotokos is obvious in some ways, but also evident in some wonderful, more subtle ways.
Grace Without Grace?
We read in the first two verses of the book of 1 Samuel that there was a man named Elkanah, from the hill country of Ephraim, who had two wives – Peninnah and Hannah. Peninnah had children, but Hannah had no children.
Elkanah went yearly to Jerusalem to fulfill the requirement of the Law, which stipulated that the covenant people of God were to appear at the central sanctuary three times a year. During this time, before the monarchy and before the construction of the temple, the tabernacle was at Shiloh, and it had been there for a long time, since the days of Joshua, and through the time of the judges.
This was a time of darkness and apostasy in the land, and as we will see in the next chapter, Hophni and Phinehas, the sons of Eli who assisted him in the tabernacle, were wicked priests. Israel’s central sanctuary was a reflection of the state of the nation: lack of discernment, idolatry, wickedness and corrupt leadership.
As Elkanah would bring his family to the appointed feast at the tabernacle, we see the contrast between his two wives:
And her rival [Peninnah] used to provoke her [Hannah] grievously to irritate her, because the Lord had closed her womb. So it went on year by 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.
Barrenness at that time and in that society was not only a source of disappointment, but also of shame and disgrace. A barren wife was perceived as one whom God had cursed, since it was thought that the Lord would close the womb only of those whom he hated. Fruitfulness was a blessing promised in the Law, and barrenness a curse.
Bearing no male heir was bad enough, but bearing no children at all would set a woman on the course of eventual destitution. There was also the shame that the family line could not be continued through her, but only through her rival.
However, Hannah’s circumstances here connect her immediately to two other women who were in a similar predicament in redemptive history. Sarah was barren, and Abraham had a son with her maid Hagar, who became a rival to her. Rachel also was the loved one who was barren, while her sister Leah was having Jacob’s sons and disdaining her.
Now Hannah is barren while being the one her husband loves.
One of the ironies of this is that the name Hannah means “Grace,” or “the favored one.”
Was Grace without grace?
At this point, grace is the least thing that is apparent in the Hannah’s life. It seems as though the one who had received grace and favor from the Lord was Peninnah, who is described here as receiving portions with all her sons and daughters.
Yet, as redemptive history indicates, God is pleased to help those who cannot help themselves. It was from the barren womb of Sarah that God was pleased to bring forth Isaac, the son of promise with whom he chose to establish the covenant. It was from the barren womb of Rachel that God brought forth Joseph, the one before whom the whole family eventually would bow, as he became their deliverer in Egypt.
Now, Hannah stands as a barren woman who is opposed by her rival, and experiences great shame and sorrow, hoping that one day the Lord would shine his grace upon her and cause her truly to be a “favored one.” As she suffers year after year, we read that she lived a life of tears, despite the love her husband had for her.
A Picture of Israel
Hannah is presented here in the beginning of the narrative as a picture of Israel. Hannah was the “favored one,” but she was barren. Israel was also loved by YHWH, and yet it had become barren. Hannah was barren through no fault of her own, but Israel was barren as a result of their wickedness and idolatry.
The people had by and large forsaken YHWH, the priests were greedy and wicked. As we read 5 times in the book of Judges – including the last verse, which summarizes the whole book – “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.”
We read in verses 9-11 that after their sacrificial worship and meal, Hannah, deeply distressed, went into the tabernacle to pray and weep bitterly.
“O Lord of hosts, if you will indeed look on the affliction of your servant and remember me and not forget your servant, but will give to your servant a son, then I will give him to the Lord all the days of his life, and no razor shall touch his head.”
Hannah was weeping in deep sorrow, but as we will see, her very tears would water the barren ground and bring forth fruit from God. Notice how many times she repeats in her prayer that she is the servant of the Lord. Hannah’s attitude is one of utter humility and dependence upon YHWH, which is exactly the heart condition the Lord delights to bless.
And Eli said to her, “How long will you go on being drunk? Put away your wine from you.” But Hannah answered, “No, my lord, I am a woman troubled in spirit. I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I have been pouring out my soul before the Lord.
Hannah had not been pouring in the wine, as Eli thought, but she was pouring out her very soul to the Lord. Eli’s misunderstanding seems like a mere interesting detail to the narrative, but in fact it highlights the very spiritual condition of Israel – confusion and lack of discernment.
Do not regard your servant as a worthless woman, for all along I have been speaking out of my great anxiety and vexation.” Then Eli answered, “Go in peace, and the God of Israel grant your petition that you have made to him.” And she said, “Let your servant find favor in your eyes.”
This is a key passage in the narrative because God is beginning to pull off the veil of deceptive appearances. Hannah was not a worthless woman, but she was seeking God. Eli pronounces a blessing upon her, and she responds by humbly saying “Let your servant find favor in your eyes.”
The word “favor” is the Hebrew word chein, grace, from which the word/name Hannah comes. The one who seems disgraced – even though her name means grace – is actually the favored one who seeks grace and is about to receive it.
And Elkanah knew Hannah his wife, and the Lord remembered her. And in due time Hannah conceived and bore a son, and she called his name Samuel, for she said, “I have asked for him from the Lord.”
God remembered Hannah as he had remembered Sarah and Rachel in their barrenness. The same would happen to a barren woman in the New Testament named Elizabeth, who gave birth to John the Baptist as the son of promise in her old age.
The Barren Womb and the Virgin Womb
All these point to another womb – not barren but virgin – that would give birth to the ultimate Son of promise, Jesus Christ. God’s blessing and deliverance comes not by power and by might, but in God’s blessings by the Spirit through faith. God not only delivers his people in their weaknesses, but in Christ he is pleased to take upon himself that very weakness.
The same God who says, “Let there be light” and brings it out of darkness is the God who brings life out of death. Hannah is being carried from bitterness to joy, as Israel would be delivered by Samuel who would eventually anoint king David. The road to deliverance was long and painful, but God is faithful and would not allow his people to perish.
At the time of the Judges, the answer to the barrenness and death of Israel was not, as one would expect, a great warrior ready for battle – but a child, Samuel. It was a helpless and innocent child that would become the vessel of God’s blessings to his people, because he delights in saving those who cannot save themselves.
The barren wombs of the Old Testament point to a virgin womb in the New Testament, and the children of promise of the OT point to the child Immanuel, who would be anointed king to reign and deliver his people forever.
In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. And the virgin’s name was Mary.
And he came to her and said, “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!”
But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be.
And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.
Once again, the Lord provides the deliverer not in the figure of a great warrior, as the Jews were hoping and expecting, but in the incarnation of God’s Son as a helpless child in the virgin womb of a poor and lowly maidservant of the Lord.
And Mary said, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” And the angel departed from her.
Behold the maidservant of the Lord, Mary says. As Hannah humbled herself before YHWH, Mary now becomes the mouthpiece of all those who will inherit eternal life: she says yes to God’s word, plan, and promise – “let it be to me according to your word,” she says, humbling herself as his lowly servant who cannot do anything but receive his grace and favor.
And thus the one who humbles herself as the handmaid of the Lord becomes more honorable than the Cherubim, more glorious beyond compare than the Seraphim – without defilement giving birth to God the Word.
As she goes to visit her cousin Elizabeth, the barren woman who had become pregnant with John the Baptist, Elizabeth exclaims, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!” Blessed indeed is she who in her humble submission and simple trust becomes the very one who will give birth to the seed of the woman promised in Genesis.
As Satan, the fallen angel, spoke to Eve in the garden, she said yes to his seducing words. The fruit of rebellion, through her, caused Adam to fall, and with him the whole human race. Now, as the angel of God speaks to Mary and she says yes to God’s words spoken through him, the fruit of promise and righteousness comes into the world through her, reversing the curse, turning around the course of history, and bringing the New Adam who will save his people from their sins.
And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.
Blessed is barren Hannah who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what she had prayed for as she received the blessing of the high priest. Blessed is the Theotokos who believed the promise of God and submitted to his will. Blessed are all those who in their weakness commit themselves to the Lord as his lowly servants, and trust in him to bring victory, light and life out of defeat, darkness and death.
We are like Hannah in that we go through this life looking and often feeling barren, because of the suffering we still have to endure here. Yet if we belong to Christ, our name is indeed Hannah, for we are the favored ones with the grace of God.
And Hannah said,
My heart exults in the Lord; my strength is exalted in the Lord. My mouth derides my enemies, because I rejoice in your salvation . . . the bows of the mighty are broken, but the feeble bind on strength. Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread, but those who were hungry have ceased to hunger. The barren has borne seven, but she who has many children is forlorn.
No doubt the Mother of God was thinking about this when she said,
My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant. For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name. And his mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent empty away. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his offspring forever.