Sunday, November 11, 2018

I Samuel 1 and 2: Hannah Did You Know?

The similarities between Hannah's song (I Samuel 2:1-10) and Mary's Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55) are well-documented and analyzed. Both songs are spoken after the promise of the birth of a boy child. Both have themes of the coming of God's reign, turning this world upside down: the poor are raised up and the lowly are exalted. God is fully in control through the one who was chosen and anointed by God.

What is quite different about these two women's stories is "the other woman." Both Hannah and Mary, in the context of their pregnancy experiences, encountered another woman. These "other" women offered quite contrasting responses to Hannah and Mary.

Hannah must deal with Peninnah, also wife to Elkanah. Peninnah has children where Hannah has none. Peninnah's practice is to provoke Hannah, taunting her about her lack of children. Though Elkanah professes to love Hannah best, she is still subject to the stinging words of the other woman. In the manuscript illumination below, Elkanah, Hannah, Peninnah, and her children are on the road back home from Jerusalem.

The journey home is one scene on a page devoted to the story of Hannah. In the top left Elkanah has made his sacrifice and distributes portions to Peninnah and her children as well as to Hannah. Though Hannah may receive a double portion, the greater amount goes to Peninnah who receives portions for herself and her children. In the upper right we see Hannah weeping in the temple, where Eli believes she is drunk. In the lower right is the miracle: the birth of Samuel.

In the lower left panel, Elkanah, his two wives and his children all seem to be on the road home. Elkanah has a raised finger as if he is chastising Peninnah for her taunting of Hannah. Peninnah's children appear to be eating bread as they walk.

(Left) Hannah's Grief; Hannah's Prayer; The Road Home; Samuel. The Morgan Picture Bible (MS M.638, folio 19v). Paris, France. 1240s. Morgan Library, New York. (Right) Visitation. Book of Hours of MarĂ©chal de Boucicaut. 1405-08. Manuscript (Ms. 2) Musee Jacquemart-Andre, Paris, France.

What a trial life must have been to Hannah before the birth of Samuel. Hannah, of course, longs for a child and has been unable to have one, a circumstance that Elizabeth would fully understand. Mary is unmarried (though betrothed) and finds herself unexpectedly pregnant. Fortunately Mary's experience visiting her relative Elizabeth is entirely different from Hannah's difficulties. 

From the moment Mary arrives at the home of Elizabeth and Zechariah, she is greeted as one who has been blessed by God. Elizabeth acknowledges that "blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her by the Lord." Elizabeth understands that Mary will be "the mother of [her] Lord." There is affection and respect and support between the two women.

Hannah, too, has received a promise of sorts. Eli asks that God fulfill her petition - which does happen. Presumably Peninnah's comments either stop or cease to hurt Hannah. Her son is not with her daily, but she has fulfilled the promise she made to give her son to God. As Mary's story unfolds, she, too, will give up her son. And that is when her own soul will be pierced by sorrow.

For thoughts relating I Samuel 2:1-10 and Mark 13:1-8, click here.
For how Psalm 113 relates to the story of Hannah, see Art&Faith Matters on Facebook.

Sunday, November 4, 2018

Ruth 3 and 4: Grandmother

The story of Ruth and Naomi culminates with Ruth's marriage to Boaz (Ruth 3:1-5; 4:13-17) and the birth of Obed. Obed's son will be Jesse. Jesse's son will be David. And Ruth and Boaz will be forever remembered as the grandparents of Israel's greatest king. But the grandmother who may be happiest is Naomi, whose biological relationship to Obed may be fairly distant.

Remember that Ruth is Naomi's daughter-in-law - no biological relationship - though the two women have chosen to make a family as mother and daughter. Boaz is related to Naomi in some way, though scripture doesn't specify what that is. He is identified by Naomi only as "our kinsman."

And yet the women said, "A son has been born to Naomi." A son. To Naomi. It has to do with lines of descent and family trees, of course, and it's wonderful that Ruth has given the gift of (grand)motherhood to Naomi.
Michelangelo Buonarotti. Salmon, Booz, Obeth. Sistine Chapel ceiling. 1508-1512. Vatican City.
Michelangelo included this part of David's (and Jesus') family tree in the lunettes of the Sistine Chapel. The lunette on the south wall contains the names of Salmon, Boaz, and Obed (though Michelangelo records the versions Booz and Obeth). To the left of the name plaque a woman holds close her swaddled child. A breast protrudes through her garment, indicating that she has recently nursed the child. This could be Ruth or Naomi (Ruth 4:16). Either way, this figure group is a very tender one, strangely juxtaposed with the old man who seems to face a carved image of himself.* 

It's a beautiful thing, this making of families of the heart. It will happen again at the foot of the cross. Jesus says to Mary, "Woman, here is your son." Then he said to the disciple, "Here is your mother." And a(nother) son has been given to Mary.


*The figure on the right has, sometimes, been identified as Boaz, but evidence to support that claim is weak. If not Boaz, though, the figure is difficult to identify.

What about the widow in Mark 8:38-44? Take a look at where she might have dropped her offering on this week's Art&Faith Matters' Facebook page.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

All Saints Day: On the Way to Holiness

Oh, Lord, we want to be in that number! When the saints go marching in, of course. And we are, at least symbolically, every time we walk into a church. The aisle(s) of a church offer us a way to think about the life of faith. Are we getting closer to our goal? Are we farther away? Of course, most of us are in the same place, the same pew, week after week, which might say something, too.

The church of S. Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna, Italy, is a basilica plan church (the footprint is a rectangle with a half-circle apse at the end opposite the door). The side walls (connecting the door wall and the apse wall) are covered with mosaic figures in procession toward the altar. On the left side the 22 female martyrs process from a representation of the city of Classe toward a group that includes Mary with the Christ Child on her lap and flanked by four angels. Their procession is led by the magi, identified by name as Balthasar, Melchior and Gaspar. To the right is a procession of 26 male martyrs in a composition that echoes the opposite procession. These martyrs are led by Saint Martin as they move from the Palace of Theodoric toward a figure group that includes Christ seated on a throne again flanked by four angels.

(Top) South wall mosaics of male martyrs. (Bottom) North wall mosaic of female martyrs. Consecrated 6th century. 

The martyrs clothed in white and carrying their wreaths and palms may seem beyond our reach. Their exemplary lives of service and sacrifice and ultimate sanctification may seem unattainable. But these two mosaic processions do more than dishearten those of us living in this world. They also demonstrate for worshipers the idea of entering the building and, throughout life, moving toward the holy.

In the Reformed tradition, All Saints Day reminds us of God's work of sanctifying not just spiritual superstars but the whole people of God. We give thanks for the lives of believers whose lives were both ordinary and holy in this age and in every age. We give glory to God as we remember members of the community of faith who have died in the past year. And yes, we pray that we will be in that number when the saints go marching in.

For additional thoughts on All Saints, click here.
If you aren't focusing on All Saints this Sunday, see Art&Faith Matters' Facebook post about Ruth and Naomi.