Twenty-fifth Sunday after Pentecost
“Do not regard your servant as a worthless woman, for I have been speaking out of my great anxiety and vexation all this time.” The story of Hannah begins as she is living with the raw reality that the Lord has “closed her womb.” And year after year she continues to go up to the house of the Lord to pray, fast, and weep before her God. And every time she goes, “Her rival would provoke her severely, to irritate her, because the LORD had closed her womb.”Hannah is distressed, weeping, full of anxiety and vexation. This would be enough for most of us to be driven away from the Lord. Why continue to long for something that only seems to perpetuate despair? Why persevere in a context or ridicule and harassment? Why persist in petitioning a God who seems to be stingy with the blessing of new life?And yet, there is a boldness within Hannah, a holy presumption that she would approach the God of the universe and presume to be heard. I thank God for Hannah’s courage because she helps us navigate times in our lives when we walk between lament and praise. Hannah’s song of praise that we hear in 1 Samuel 2:1-10 was conceived in a life of lament. This barren space of life between lament and praise is powerfully portrayed in a sequence of scenes from one of my favorite movies, Tree of Life. It captures the haunting juxtaposition of the particularity of our painful prayers going up before an infinite God. The movie begins with a quote from Job 38:
Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?…When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for Joy
The film then continues with two parents receiving the news that one of their sons has died. You watch them as they navigate through various areas of their lives while carrying the weight of this reality — the weight and sadness of their loss is palpable. The movie then shifts perspectives from this particular family, in this particular moment in their life. The screen goes completely dark, and the mother’s voice echoes in the darkness,
Lord, why? Where were you? Did you know? Who are we to you? Answer me?
It is as if these whispered words drift into the vastness of the universe. The movie then shifts to portray a cinematic representation of the world being created, stars being born, solar systems coming into existence. However, as these scenes of the birth of the cosmos are being portrayed, a rendition of the Lacrimosa begins to be sung over and over. “Lacrimosa” is the latin word for “weeping,” or “full of tears.” It is also an allusion to Mary the mother of Jesus as the “Our Lady of Sorrows.”This song grows louder and louder, as images of the cosmos being created play out before the viewer. I am so moved by these scenes because it captures how small and particular our sufferings are in comparison to the vastness of God and the universe. And yet, the prayer goes up, the Lacrimosa is sung. It is a lament of humanity being sung out into a seemingly cold and relentless reality. That is what our prayers look like: The weight of our deepest pain, anxiety, and vexation being uttered in an overwhelmingly immense cosmos. This is the weight of Hannah’s prayer. And there are a number of ways in which Hannah can inspire and empower us. First, the same conditions that could drive us away from God, can also be very conditions that helps us to pray to God in new in powerful ways.
The people who have doxologies like Hannah’s are also the people who have the courage to persevere in prayer out of their own contexts of weeping, anxiety, and vexation. How can we use our angst, depression, and even rage as a catalyst for our prayer to God? We should do so with boldness, because these are precisely the prayers that God seems to answers from the saints who have gone before us. Second, instead of viewing a context of barrenness, isolation, or betrayal as a context of God’s absence, perhaps it precisely this context in which we see God is longing to enter, if we would just invite Him. This is one of the realities we celebrate when we come to the table of our Lord. While our prayers might seem to be met with a cold absence of God, we are reminded that Christ is with us, uttering our prayers before the Father — and the Father listens to his beloved.
The last thing I want to highlight is that one of the things at work in bringing Hannah’s prayer of anguish to a doxology of praise is also a movement from harboring her own private reality to bringing it to a more public posture of prayer. While Hannah did not broadcast to the world her deepest anguish, she did allow Eli into her prayer of anguish. As the Christian year draws to a close our lectionary texts do not allude to bringing things to an end, but rather a new beginning. The texts hold within them a sense of anticipation. But in both our Gospel text and in the story of Hannah, it is a hopeful anticipation that is laced with distress and vexation. In our Gospel text, Jesus points to the temple and comments that some of the things that the disciples think are permanent will actually come to an end. And things that they do not yet see will hold a much weightier reality. He talks about wars, rumors of wars, the clashing of nations, earthquakes, famines. And he says these things are “but the beginning of the birth pangs.” Not even the birth pangs, just the beginning of birth pangs. So here, at the close of the liturgical year, we anticipate a new beginning. If Advent is a season of anticipation, then we are anticipating a season of anticipation. What are we to do in between these times? Between the smallness of our particularities and the vastness of God, between the pain of a broken world and the joy of the coming kingdom, we, like Hannah, live a life between lament and praise.