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1 Samuel 2: 18-20, 26

At this time of year echoes from the rough stable at Bethlehem ring loud and clear (cf. Lk 2:1-20). It is less than a week since the Christian world gathered ‘around the manger’ to pay homage to the child who is Immanuel, ‘God with us’. Luke's story of the nativity ends in this week’s gospel reading (Lk 2:41-52) with a keen observation about the effect of the event on Mary, the mother of this child. Luke indicates that her mother’s heart was already troubled (Lk 2:51; cf. 2:19). This child is dedicated to God – but what does the future hold? What will it mean for him? What will it mean for her, his mother? There are clear signs that Luke finds inspiration in the story of Samuel. The reader can see the parallel between Mary’s knowledge that her child belongs to God, and Hannah’s loving gift of her child to God (1 Sam 2:20). Our focus turned briefly to Hannah and Samuel at the end of last year (Year B, Sunday between Nov. 13 and Nov. 19) and today’s reading reinforces the connection between the story of the birth of Jesus and the conclusion of the story of David.

The Books of 1 and 2 Samuel are set at a time of great insecurity and disturbance in the lives of the people of Israel. Again and again they have been defeated, and occupied, most recently by the Philistines. Again and again they have been left without hope. They have a deep need for a strong and stabilizing influence – a leader whose values will be those of God. Hannah is destined to be the mother of this leader – this man of God. As this week’s reading begins she has already given her son, Samuel, to God. We may imagine that this might mean a great deal of sadness for Hannah, but the story teller emphasises it as an act of hope (1 Sam 1:28). Hannah believes he will renew the relationship between the people and God. Samuel will cleanse the worship of God from the corruption and selfishness displayed by Eli’s sons (1 Sam 2:12-17).

In Luke’s story Mary also understands that her son’s life will be dedicated to God, to bring reconciliation and peace. The Gospel story this week, Lk 2:41-52, already carries something of Jesus’ future. Mary’s ‘loss’ of Jesus when on their way back from the festival in Jerusalem, when the boy lingers in the city, foreshadows her future ‘loss’ of him in that city. And his interaction with the teachers in the temple foreshadows the later conflict with the authorities in Jerusalem. Across the early years of Jesus falls the shadow of his passion and death on the cross.

There are clear comparisons between the story of Mary and Jesus and that of Hannah and her son, Samuel: the pure motive of the mother in each case, as she gives her son to the service of God, and the interaction of the son with those in authority. Samuel, like Jesus later in his story, will have to oppose a corrupt priesthood. The story of Samuel’s boyhood at the sanctuary includes a particularly poignant reference to Hannah’s personal sacrifice. Every year she makes a little robe for him (1 Sam 2:19). He will wear this throughout the following year, complete with a linen ephod, symbolic of his holy office as representative of God. The reader can picture Hannah sewing all her love for her little boy into this garment. She and her husband, Elkanah, bring it to him at the time of the yearly sacrifice. For Hannah it is a renewal of the sacrifice of her son to God.

The little robe is also symbolic of Samuel’s growth in faith and knowledge. He has not begun with all the wisdom and understanding he needs for God’s work. He must learn. Each year as he grows out of the linen robe, he is given a new and bigger one, symbol of his growing maturity as man of God. In 1 Sam 2:26 there is a gentle reminder of what this growing wisdom and maturity means. The person who finds favour with God will also be held in high regard by his or her fellow human beings. A godly person will reconcile others to each other, and to God.

The very words of verse 26 remind us again of the link between Samuel’s story and that of Jesus. It was Samuel who would later anoint David, the man who became Israel’s ‘messiah’ (1 Samuel 16). From his line was born the child destined to be ‘Son of God’ for countless Christians (Lk 1:26-38). Yet Luke’s faithful use of Samuel’s story to frame his picture of the boyhood of Jesus says clearly that the boy Jesus also needed to grow in his understanding of God.
Both stories stress the need of growth in faith – growth that is in terms of understanding and practice. We might also call it wisdom in the faith, the beginning of which is, as Proverbs reminds us, the ‘fear of God’. Not terror but awe and worship; a sense of God in relation to creation which intimately involves understanding ourselves and those around us. How much more do we as Jesus’ disciples in every age need to seek to grow in our faith – in favour both with God and humanity. Faithful service to God is a slow journey of growth and learning with aspects of loss and vulnerability along the way.

Psalm 148

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