Hannah, Mary, and Miraculous Motherhood

1 Samuel 2:1-11
Luke 1:26-38

This Advent season, I have been reflecting on how thin is the line between life and death, between being and non-being. In my work as a hospital chaplain, I wait with families as someone they love crosses that line, a time that is bathed in mystery and wonder. But more personally, in the past month I have celebrated birth with two of my closest friends, and I have mourned the death of my unborn niece, lost to my brother and his wife at just twenty weeks. What a painfully exquisite juxtaposition it has been.

Most striking to me is that the division between life and death is the work of a single moment—of a last breath, of conception, of miscarriage—and of many moments—the length of an illness, nine months of pregnancy, a lifetime of hardship and joy. What tilts the balance one way or the other? Why does one person survive an illness while another does not? Why does one woman give birth to a healthy baby while another aches with emptiness? How do we make sense of reality transformed in the merest breath of time?

I hear echoes of these questions in our readings today, which include the words of two women whose lives radically change in a moment. They come to motherhood at very different times in their lives but by equally mysterious and miraculous means. Hannah has suffered years of infertility and endured the vicious barbs of other women, especially her husband’s other wife Peninnah. She has passed countless nights in tears and deep sorrow to the point that she cannot eat. Then, after years of fervent prayer, the priest Eli blesses her petition, the Lord remembers her, and she conceives and gives birth to Samuel, one of God’s prophets. After a lifetime of struggle, in a moment, Hannah’s barrenness becomes fertile. Her “death” crosses the thin line into new life.

Mary knows no such struggle and heartache when the angel Gabriel visits her. She has scarce begun to even think of babies and parenting when, in a moment of annunciation, she changes from a lowly girl into the mother of the Most High. Puzzled and frightened, she hesitates only briefly before saying yes to God and beginning the march of events that will culminate in another passage between life and death.

And as they walk the narrow edge of childbearing, both Hannah and Mary sing hymns to God, of favor found and enemies conquered, of faithfulness rewarded and status reversed. In God they find the source of life, the deliverance of the poor, the light of peace. And in death, darkness, barrenness, and pain they find God.

Perhaps my Advent musings, then, have led me to nothing more profound than to say with Hannah and Mary that God is in all moments. But perhaps that is also the most profound truth we can ever proclaim—that God is in all life, and God is in all death, and God is in the whisper of an instant that divides the two. So as we wait through these final days before the Christ child is once again in the manger, reflect for a time with me on all of the fragile moments of death and of life and fully know that God is there.

***

Sarah Green is a per diem chaplain at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital-Weill Cornell in New York City. She is a candidate for ordination as a teaching elder in the Presbyterian Church (USA) and a graduate of Claremont School of Theology in Claremont, CA.

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