Hannah and the first Magnificat : 1 Samuel 2

Hannah’s Magnificat

The Responsorial Psalm for December 22nd (Tuesday of Christmas week this year) is the Canticle from 1 Samuel, and although you will never have sung it before as a Sunday psalm, the words are oddly familiar. It is solidly reminiscent of the Magnificat, Our Lady’s chant of joy when she goes to see Elizabeth, which we also don’t use as often as we might, but it is much earlier in date. It is another chant of joy by a mother, but this one is voiced by Hannah, one of the great Mothers of Israel.

from left to right, Hannah, Penninah with children, and Elkanah
Women’s words?

I have to put in a disclaimer here, because of the culture in which the Bible was written and its great age.  It is most likely that the words of both Hannah and Mary herself have been mediated through a male writer, and we have no way of knowing what is authentically women’s words and what is artistic recreation, but as I have said before, there is so little even ostensibly by women in the Bible, that we have to grasp at what we can get. 

Women's voices singing
women singing, a rare picture

So I am taking both Hannah’s words and Mary’s in good faith as women’s words.  Traditionally, her mother taught Mary to read, but we don’t actually know whether she was literate, and it’s very unlikely that Hannah was.  So someone else must have written the words down; but they are given to us as women’s words, in the same way that Shakespeare’s heroines speak women’s words.

Familiar words, unfamiliar speaker

As I say, the most striking thing about Hannah’s words is how familiar they are, even to Christians who barely know Hannah’s name and story.  Part of the narrative is prescribed reading just once in the three-year cycle of Sunday readings (Holy Family Year C).  It finishes before Hannah’s prayer/song, but tells only a small part of the story even so.  I know I’ve talked of Hannah before, but only briefly, as one of a group (Women’s voices in the Bible).  Here I’d like to pursue her further, as she has a great story, which is worth studying.

Who is Hannah?

Hannah is one of the two wives of Elkanah.  She has no child.  Her barrenness is her defining characteristic at this stage in the story.  Her co-wife is Penninah, who has several children, but even so Elkanah prefers Hannah. He goes up to Shiloh once a year, to make a sacrifice to God.  Elkanah hands out parts of the sacrifice to all his family, so Penninah and her children all get some of it, but Hannah gets only one portion, because she has no children.

Hannah sad and Penninah just possibly flaunting

Penninah taunts Hannah, and this happens year after year.   Hannah is reduced to tears and understandably does not want to take part in the meal;  Elkanah indicates one possible aspect of the problem when he says to her with quite stunning insensitivity, ‘Hannah, why do you weep?  Am I not more to you than ten sons?’

Childlessness in the early Old Testament

With all its limitations in approach (it’s always solely the wife’s fault or problem), the Bible in its early stories is surprisingly aware of the anguish that can be caused by involuntary childlessness.  From Eve’s desire for another son after the death of Abel, to the unsavoury jealous byplay between Hagar and Sarah, one fertile, one barren, and the similar  arguments between Leah and Rachel, which can only have been exacerbated by their being sisters, children are seen as not only God’s gift, a sign of favour which can be given or withheld, but the greatest gift, justifying almost anything. 

Sarah and Hagar
Sarah and Hagar : Sarah by now has a child, but the comparison is still fertile versus barren

Lot’s daughters make him drunk so that they can have children by him, because there is no other man available.   Tamar wants a child so much that she disguises herself as a prostitute and leads her father-in-law astray (she has twins).  These women will do anything to get a child.  There is a poignant moment in Genesis 35, where Rachel is delivering Benjamin :  ‘In her difficult delivery the midwife said to her, ‘Do not be afraid; you have another son here”. 

Rachel and Leah
Leah with child and Rachel without

Rachel dies, and is mourned with great grief by Jacob, but there is no suggestion that the child was not worth all her suffering in her own eyes; her only fear is not having a son.  Obviously, there is the practical viewpoint that a child will look after you when you are old and weak, but there is more to it, as a child-bearing woman in those days often didn’t make it to being old and weak.

Hannah prays for a child

So Hannah, like Sarah and Rachel, knows that only God has the power to give her the son she craves.  After everyone has had dinner, she slips away from the hall, and goes to the temple.  Eli the priest is sitting there by the door.  Hannah weeps and prays, and then makes God a promise : if he will give her a son,  she will give him back to God for the whole of his life, and his hair will never be cut (a symbol of this dedication).  Then there is a fascinating little exchange between Eli and Hannah.  She is praying under her breath; her lips can be seen to move but her voice cannot be heard.  Eli ‘therefore supposed that she was drunk’, and upbraids her harshly.  Hannah replies in a most dignified and impressive way.  ‘And Hannah answered and said, No, my lord, I am a woman of a sorrowful spirit: I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but have poured out my soul before the LORD’ (King James 2000 Bible. Some of the other translations are more modern and colloquial, but the dignity is constant).  She explains that she has been speaking from her grief and resentment.   Eli does not apologise (look at the situation and who is speaking to whom here), but to his credit, he does answer respectfully and kindly : ‘Go in peace, and may God grant what you ask’.  Interestingly, she doesn’t tell him what she is asking for, and he now behaves with tact.  She goes back to the hall, her sadness relieved.

Hannah praying with grief and resentment

Samuel is born
Hannah with Eli (and the Ark of the Covenant)(top), then Hannah with Samuel (and a midwife)

The family returns home, Hannah conceives and bears a son, Samuel.  The following year, she decides not to go on the annual pilgrimage because Samuel isn’t weaned yet, but she explains to her husband that when he is, she will bring him to Shiloh and present him to God in the temple, and leave him there.  Elkanah says, ‘Do as you think fit’.  We are told nothing about Hannah’s feelings, and it’s difficult to imagine them.  She has longed for this child, but he will not be hers to keep even as briefly as usual.   A ‘weaned child’, even in those days, is still quite little, easily able to fit on a lap (cf. Psalm 130/131:2). At this age, she gives Samuel up.

Hannah a real woman, not just a representer

In a way, it’s not Hannah’s feelings which are important here, because we aren’t thinking about her as an individual but as a representative of the heroic qualities she demonstrates.  It’s just like in fairy stories, where again, the longing for a child is frequently an engine of the plot (Snow White, Tom Thumb, The Gingerbread Boy, Rapunzel, Rumpelstiltskin and so on).   None of these stories dwells on the yearning of the would-be parent(s).  The situation is stated and we move on into the story.  Hannah’s story takes us very quickly into the next stage.  She longs for this child so much as to beg God for him, and at the same time she promises to give him up.  Hannah is ready to give her son to God if she can only have a son to take away the reproach of her childlessness.  This does not make her a self-obsessed monster lacking maternal feeling, it is to show first how good God is to her when asked, and second how generous he is (after giving up Samuel, Hannah goes on to have five more children, three of them sons).  But what I find fascinating is the way the story is told and the tension between the events as they unroll and the human nature of the woman.  Some of it we can glean from Hannah’s words, some from her actions and the way they are recounted.

look how little he is
Le style, c’est la femme

Unusually, we are given all Hannah’s words in direct speech.  (I regret that we don’t have any answer to Elkanah’s first question, but it’s probably just as well.)  We hear first what she says to God, where she is simple, passionate and direct as she makes her vow. She is full of grief and resentment, and she says so.  This is a real relationship with God, person to person, which can cope with the stresses of reproach and challenge.  Then Eli questions her and she answers him, again with simplicity and directness.  Later she tells Elkanah what her plans are in relation to Samuel, and he agrees without any cavil. After Samuel is weaned, she takes him up to the temple, with various gifts.  There is no evidence that Elkanah takes any part in this trip; Hannah is an impressively independent woman in context.  She goes to Eli and reminds him, again with great simplicity and directness, of their previous meeting.  Then she says the crucial sentence twice. ‘Now I make him over to the Lord for the whole of his life.  He is made over to the Lord.’ (1 Sam 1:28)’.  Then there is one more performative sentence (There she left him, for the Lord;  alternative translation in several other versions, There he worshipped the Lord) and then there is her Magnificat.

Hannah offering Samuel to the Lord
Hannah’s heroic sacrifice

I find the simplicity and understatement of all this extremely moving.  We have learned that Hannah is a woman of dignity and self-respect, and she is doing this because she has promised, not because anyone has made her.  She is a strong woman with agency.  We know that she loves her son.  In another very touching detail later, we discover that each year when the family comes back for the annual sacrifice, she brings Samuel a new little tunic, having worked out how much bigger it needs to be this year.  There is so much in that tiny detail, and you can imagine the love that would have been woven into the cloth and sewn into the seams.

Two women, two Magnificats

Hannah’s prayer starts, like Mary’s, with a declaration of God’s might. She quotes the psalms (God is a rock, there is none like him), and moves swiftly to a celebration of his power to turn everything upside down.  Here the sequence is as in Mary’s Magnificat: we move from a statement of God’s power to his crushing of the powerful and raising the weak, the sated going hungry and the starving having their fill, the raising of the poor and humbling of the rich.   Mary’s words are more individual and powerful.  She is talking about what God has done for her, now, in this time;  Hannah’s words are more general (and more repetitive), as she describes what God does and has done repeatedly through history.  She also has one specific couplet which only makes sense if you know the context :’ the barren woman bears sevenfold,/ but the mother of many is desolate’.  It comes in as another example of God’s reversal of the current order, but it is chilling.  Hannah’s Magnificat is an Old Testament version, compared to the pure redemptive NT joy of Mary’s.  Jesus refers to the barren only once, and on the way to the Crucifixion, where he speaks to the women of Jerusalem, and it’s a passage to show how dreadful things will be : ‘The days are coming when they will say,’Blessed are the barren” (Luke 23:29).   This is a topsyturvey again, but a fearsome one.

Hannah’s Magnificat : form

We do not use all Hannah’s words in the Responsorial Psalm for December 22nd, because it is even longer than Mary’s Magnificat (and we omit parts of that, when we use it as a psalm), but we use all the parts which chime with Mary’s later version.  We have the first four lines on God’s greatness, then the six-line stanza about turning things upside down, and the later lines which continue the same theme.  It comes out as a psalm of four stanzas, a six-liner followed by a four-liner, twice.  The Response is tweaked to emphasize the similarity between the two Magnificats : Hannah’s Response as prescribed is ‘My heart rejoices in the Lord, my Saviour’, given as v 1 of the psalm but in fact that is simply ‘My heart rejoices in the Lord’, and the reference to a Saviour is absent.  Mary’s first lines, on the other hand, are ‘My soul magnifies the Lord,/ and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour ‘(Luke 1:46f), so we are definitely pushing the parallels here.

Mary speaking
Mary rejoicing in God her Saviour
Giving it a tune

Setting it to music was difficult, but I think mainly because I would have liked to be able to do it so much better.  Setting women’s words is a rare privilege for me, but there are various essential limitations when you are writing a tune for a Responsorial psalm, especially for a weekday.  It can’t be too difficult to grasp or to sing.  Technically, this one has unequal verses, which means the tune needs to have room to expand and contract.  It seemed to fall naturally into a Handelian sort of shape, but the problem with that is that Handel is so much better at setting joyful women’s voices than anyone else (except Bach), so it’s embarrassing.    There is some laughing in the tune (verse 1), and at one point the tune itself has to turn topsyturvey because the words need it to go up when the rest of the verses take it down (end of stanza 3).  And I had to change the Response, because I first thought it started on an unaccented syllable (‘My’), but that didn’t work with the shape of the verse ending, so I had to allow the ‘my’ a certain stress.  It felt right after that; Hannah is a strong woman, and her words have a characteristic directness.  So I wasn’t satisfied with it when it was done, but at least it now has a tune and can be sung.  And I had a chance to find out more about Hannah, and write about her, an early Christmas present I had not expected.  Because she was worth it, definitely.  Happy Christmas.

crib scene in illuminated capital
the joy of a baby….and music as well

 

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Immaculate Conception and misconceptions

The Immaculate Conception of which baby?

The Feast of the Immaculate Conception is the last Mary feast of the year, or the first one of the Church’s year, if you think of Advent as the start of it, which of course we do.   These celebrations of stages in Mary’s life parcel the year out between them, trying to show the natural rhythm of conception and birth, but they can also lead to misunderstandings,  because the feasts have difficult names and some people get genuinely confused about what’s happening, and to whom, and when.  The Immaculate Conception is not the Virgin Birth.  The first is of Mary, the second is of Jesus.

Creating the liturgy

And the Church has to find readings for them all in a text which manages to leave the Mother of God totally offstage most of the time (and doesn’t feature many other women either in a starring role, though of course we know that there must have been lots of them around all the time, holding up half the sky).  There are some great female forerunners in the Old Testament, but we don’t use their stories, which is a pity, as Mary would have known them well.

Mary feasts and Jesus feasts

With apologies to those for whom this is obvious, you can divide the Mary feasts into those about Jesus and those about Mary.

Annunciation : the angel comes to tell Mary about Jesus

The Annunciation is the feast of the conception of Jesus, with  Christmas exactly nine months later as the feast of the birth of Jesus.  The Immaculate Conception is the feast of the conception of Mary (followed exactly nine months later by Our Lady’s birthday).  The Assumption is the feast of the death of Mary (neat Churchly chiasmus there).  All the other feasts happen in between, depending (for Mary) on her various titles (Mary the Mother of God, Our Lady of Guadalupe, of Fatima etc) or (for Jesus) on various events as they unfold (the Presentation in the Temple, the Transfiguration, the Passion, the Resurrection).

The Immaculate Conception

Immaculate Conception : angel comes to tell Joachim about Mary

So we are about to celebrate the Immaculate Conception at the beginning of December : this is the conception of Mary herself, the only person since Adam and Eve to have been born without Original Sin, so that she could be a suitable mother for Jesus.  I’m not going to discuss the theology of this, for various reasons;  I’m just looking at the readings set for the feast.  This is conceptually (sorry) the first Mary feast, because it has to predate eveything else, and it does come early in the Church’s year.  It’s just unfortunate that it happens near the end of the calendar year and Christmas itself, which probably adds to the confusion.

Readings for the Mass

I can’t help thinking that some of the unclarity over the Immaculate Conception is caused by the choice of the Annunciation as the Gospel for the day.  Yes, of course it’s the pivotal moment when Mary says yes to God’s plan of redemption, but we are supposed to be celebrating her own conception (by a chaste kiss between Joachim and Anna, according to some of the Church fathers) and the fact that it’s totally different from everyone else’s, although she’s supposed to represent the human race working together with God.

Joachim and Anna cuddling the toddler Mary (Chora)

Only a small group to choose from

But there’s actually not much choice if you are looking for Mary readings.  There is no reference to the Immaculate Conception in the gospels.  Appearances of Mary are limited to the Annunciation, the Visitation (with Magnificat), the Nativity, the Presentation in the Temple, looking for Jesus after he’s been left behind in Jerusalem, the wedding at Cana, the offstage scene where Jesus gets a message that his mother and brothers are outside (and he stays where he is), the Crucifixion, and Pentecost (she is present, although there is no further reference to her).  That’s it.  And most of the time, she is present but silent; she speaks only four times, according to the record in the Gospels.  Our one lengthy piece of Mary-speech is kept as a reading for the Feast of the Assumption, though we are allowed to use it every day in Evening Prayer.  It is turned into a Responsorial psalm for the third Sunday of Advent in Year B.  I’ve talked about the Magnificat before, as a piece of (rare) female speech in the Bible.  I wish we used it more on Sundays.

First Reading : the Fall, Eve’s fault

Adam and Eve with serpent
Legs still there (for now)

So choosing the readings for the Immaculate Conception was always going to be difficult.  We start with the reading where God calls to Adam who has just eaten the apple and is hiding.  If you look this up, ‘the man and his wife’ hear God in the garden and ‘they’ hide, so Eve is definitely there.   But God calls to the man, asks Adam whether he has been eating the forbidden fruit and Adam says ‘It was the woman you put with me; she gave me the fruit and I ate it.’  Then God asks the woman, and she says ,’The serpent tempted me and I ate.’  God curses the serpent and prophesies enmity between the woman and the serpent and their descendants.   The reading ends abruptly with a short sentence explaining that the man then names the woman ‘Eve’ (derived from the Hebrew word ‘to live’) because she was the mother of all the living.  That last sentence comes a good five verses later in the chapter, and comes after God’s further words to the erring couple, which are left out.  How do we respond to this with the psalm?

Responsorial Psalm 97/98 yet again

We go back to our trusty psalm 97/98, which we have been singing repeatedly recently, and which we will sing again on Christmas Day, in exactly the same version as here, but with an extra four lines.  We positively celebrate the events of the first reading because God has brought salvation even out of such disaster (this is the felix culpa mentioned in the Easter Exsultet : ‘O happy fault which won for us so great a Redeemer’).  It’s a great joyful psalm, which encourages everyone to sing (always a good move), enumerates God’s mercies and ends by encouraging everyone to sing all over again.

After the psalm, the second reading (Ephesians 1) is a beautiful poem which again emphasizes God’s ‘pretermined plan’ which he had organised from the beginning, but as it’s St Paul, it’s all very male-oriented language, and despite the references to being chosen ‘from the beginning’, it doesn’t really seem to refer to Our Lady much.

Back on course with the Alleluia

You realise that we have strayed from the path when the Alleluia verse, the first line of the Hail Mary, almost comes as a surprise.  And some of the force of it is lost when the identical verse is translated differently in the Gospel (‘Rejoice, so highly favoured!’).  If you want echoes to reinforce the message of the readings, surely it would help if they sounded the same note.  The Gospel, as I said,  is the account of the Annunciation, exactly the same reading as set for the Annunciation feast itself.  This does contribute to the confusion, but it’s hard to think of a better Gospel reading except the Visitation (because then we’d get the Magnificat), and that would not actually cause any less confusion, because yet another baby (John the Baptist) would be in the picture.

two women, two special babies; but who is the Immaculate Conception?

Alternatives to the Gospel?

Luckily for me, both the bits I have to set to music are ones I feel happy with.  We have different versions of this psalm at various stages in the year, and it’s always a pleasure to set because it is so joyful.  The psalm and the Alleluia are celebrations of God’s plan and Our Lady’s part in it.  I can think of alternatives for the two readings, but for the Gospel I think it has to be the Annunciation because Christmas is coming round the corner,  Mary’s other sublime moment when she is the agent of God.  We can’t use the Nativity readings;  everything in Advent is building towards the event of Christmas night.  The focus is on the point of shifting from who Mary has been till now (Immaculate Conception, tribe of David, betrothed of Joseph, cousin of Elizabeth), to what she is about to do.  She is about to become the mother of God-with-us, who will be born only because she said yes when God asked the question.  The saying yes and following through are what make Mary the Queen of Heaven.  We are thanking God for her on this feast.

crib scene in illuminated capital
Sing choirs of angels….and everyone else too