We've just begun studying First Samuel in the Sunday morning Bible class, and we're in the middle of Hannah's story. In some respects, it's one of those basic Sunday school stories that I've known since I was a little guy. In other ways, I'm finding that it's really more profound than I had ever realized before. In the entirety of the Holy Scriptures, I doubt there is any other woman, save for that most highly favored lady, the blessed Mother of God, St. Mary, who exhibits greater piety or faithfulness than Hannah. Her words and actions, her prayer and confession, are exemplary. Considering her character and conduct makes it easy to understand why Hannah has stood out as one of the more prominent Old Testament saints commemorated in the Eastern Churches (and now also in our own LSB on 2 September).
Hannah's son, Samuel (commemorated in the LSB on 20 August), is also more significant than many might expect. He is a second Moses, so to speak, a prophet, priest and, if not a king, then certainly a judge, a ruler of God's people. In both his birth and his eventual anointing of King David, he is a type of St. John the Baptist, going before the face of the Lord to prepare the way for His Messiah. In all of these ways, Samuel is instrumental in the Lord's fulfilling of His promises and the accomplishing of His purposes for Israel. For which we rightly give thanks, above all to the Lord Himself, but so also for His servants Samuel and Hannah.
My study of the Scriptures has persuaded me that Hannah's prayer for a son was not primarily for her own benefit, but for the salvation of Israel. She is troubled by her rival, her husband's other wife, Penninah, to be sure, but I believe that Hannah's greater grief and sorrow is caused by the wicked apostasy of Eli's sons, who daily profaned the Name of the Lord, despised His gifts, and abused His people in a variety of heinous ways. She prays for a son, not that she would have the joy of rearing him to adulthood, but that she may dedicate him to the Lord for lifelong service, to live before Him in righteousness, and to bring His deliverance to Israel. Her prayer is answered, and the Word of the Lord is confirmed, not simply in the conception and birth of a son, but when young Samuel is presented to the Lord and his entire life is offered as a living sacrifice. It is then that Hannah sings her powerful song of praise, which confesses the Lord and His great salvation, anticipating in faith and hope the anointing of His King, the Messiah, who would come.
Hannah keeps her baby Samuel with her until he is weaned, probably until he was three. In the past, I've taken it for granted that she simply wanted to have him for herself for as long as possible, and that a certain reluctance and regret tugged at her maternal heart. Surely she would have experienced sadness in giving him up to the Lord, as would any parent, but I have been led to rethink her motivations in this case, too. She cares for her son, as a mother for her child, in ways that old Eli will obviously not. She lives in her vocation and fulfills it (as did the mother of Moses in his infancy). But this not only with respect to the care and tending of his body. While nursing Samuel at her breast, she is likewise also catechizing him to long for the pure spiritual milk of the Word.
Mother's are always teaching their children, even from the womb. They speak words of love, and words of knowledge and wisdom. The faithful women of God speak, not only their own love and knowledge and wisdom, but especially that of the Lord. Hannah would have done so for Samuel, as she dandled him on her knee, and in this way she prepared him for liturgical service in the House of the Lord, and for the special revelation that he would receive when the Lord summoned him to be, not only a priest, but a prophet and a judge.
I'm convinced that Joakim and Anna did the same for their young daughter, the Blessed Virgin Mary, as she was growing up, until that day when she would be summoned to conceive and bear such as Son as the world had never seen before. Why is it that her Magnificat is so similar to the Song of Hannah? Certainly these two canticles have the same Author in the Person of the Holy Spirit; but the Spirit does His work with earthly things and sings with human voices. Both Hannah and Mary speak and sing, and pray and confess, with the faith of the Church — but where does such faith come from? It is by the Word of the Lord. Thus, Hannah believes and confesses what she has been taught from the Torah.
Dear St. Mary, likewise, sings with the voice of praise that she has been taught by the Law and the Prophets, including the Song of Hannah. Her language of faith is the language of the Holy Scriptures, with which she has been catechized. How else would she pray, praise and give thanks, than with the Word of the Lord that her Mommy and Daddy have taught her? As she has conceived the Lord's Anointed in her womb, the Son of David who shall reign over the House of the Lord forever and ever — and as she visits her who once was barren, who has conceived a child in her old age, a son who will go before the face of the Lord to prepare His way — what better Word for St. Mary to recall than Hannah's song? With that Word, in particular, the Lord opens her mouth to show forth His praise, even as that very Word is confirmed in the Fruit of her womb.
Especially as my own children are growing up, and now that DoRena and Zachary are preparing to get married, establish homes and start families of their own, I have been thinking more and more about my place and purpose in the world. I am daily given opportunities to serve my neighbor. I have my vocations as a husband and father. I have been called and ordained to preach and teach the Word of God, to administer His means of grace, and thus to catechize and care for the sheep of His pasture in this place. From time to time, I am also enabled to serve the Church at large with the gifts that God the Lord has entrusted to my stewardship. All of this is significant and important, whether noticed or not, whether remembered in the future or not.
As I get older, I am increasingly comfortable and content with that which God has given me to do; despite the fact that, yes, my sinful old Adam can still manage to get me riled up, restless and agitated for something more. The words of St. John the Baptist are instructive, when his disciples were distressed that Jesus was baptizing more people than John: "He must increase, but I must decrease." No man can receive anything unless it is given to him. We serve for a little while in our own time, in our own place, and the Lord accomplishes His purposes according to His good and gracious will. It is not our work but His gift that bestows life.
Anyway, I have been contemplating the fact that, one hundred years from now (if the Lord should patiently allow this world to continue that long), it may well prove to be that the most significant contribution I have made, by the grace of God, is simply to have catechized my children for whatever service they are given. I cannot know what their future will hold; no more than Hannah could know what the Lord would ultimately accomplish through her son, Samuel. In rearing our children in the fear and admonition of the Lord, we live by faith in His Word and acknowledge that they are His, not ours. They may live in quiet faithfulness and simply catechize their own children in turn; or the Lord may change the world and deliver His Church through them, in the vocations to which He calls them. Whatever the case may be, they are prepared to receive and respond to the Lord's calling by the catechesis of His Word.
My wife and I are given to care for our children's bodily needs, as Hannah was given to nurse her baby Samuel until he was weaned. We feed them and clothe them, shelter and protect them (so far as the Lord enables); we teach them how to read and write, how to calculate numbers, how to understand the world and our society, and how to get along with their neighbor. But the single most important thing we are given to do for our children, is to speak the Word of God to them: to catechize them with His Word. To pray and confess and sing the Word of God, and the Church's faith in His Word: to our children, with our children, for our children, so long as we have breath. In the womb, at the breast, and as they daily increase in wisdom and stature. We catechize and train them by example, by taking them to Church, by making time for daily prayer in the home. But along with our example (which is never as faithful and flawless as it ought to be), we ought never to refrain from confessing the Word of God, from saying what He has said, and saying it again, and repeating it, and having our children repeat it — so that it penetrates deeply through their ears into their hearts and minds, and then proceeds out of their mouths and into their lives.
Sometimes, even when we catechize our children faithfully and well, they do not receive it in faith or follow in the way they should go. We cannot make them believe the Word of the Lord; we can only speak it to them. In this, also, we entrust them to the One who is alone their Creator and their God. Maybe Eli catechized his sons; maybe he did not; either way, they rebelled against their father and more tragically against the Lord and His people. The answer would come in the person of a prophet, Samuel, who would speak the Law and the Gospel, and by this Word the Lord would kill and make alive, bring down to the grave and raise up again. The Word of the Lord remains the only real answer, the only real hope and help in time of need. He is the One who closes and opens the womb, who closes and opens the heart. Hannah trusted Him for both, and He remembered her, His people and His Church.
It is not worse for the Church in our own day than it was for Hannah and the people of Israel then. Faith does not despair, but prays and confesses, and hopes in the Lord, who is faithful. Hannah lived within her vocation, even when it seemed as though her vocation was for nought. When the Lord opened her womb and gave her a son, it was for her to give him back to the Lord all the days of his life. We do the same when we catechize our children in the Word of the Lord: when they wake up in the morning, when they go to bed at night, and as they go about their days; in the house and in the car; at the gate and on the sidewalk; when they sit down to eat and when they get up to play or work or study. Such catechesis is not silly or a waste of time; it is the single most important thing that parents are given to do.