Glynn Cardy 14th November 2021
Some moments are beautiful. They reach out and touch us, break pleasure upon us, put a smile in our body. They can be serendipitous, or they can be expected. Regardless, they make our living enjoyable.
It might be a flower we pass as we’re walking. Maybe we stop. Maybe we sniff. It might be the play of the clouds, light, and sky. Maybe we stop and lingeringly gaze. It might be a child playing on her bicycle, carefree and joyful. It might be the pleasant comfort of the person beside us.
One definition of faith is finding beauty in the ordinary, in the mundane, and even too in the pain of our existence.
Sometimes when I read a Bible story, I think to myself, ‘Oh dear’. I can read it twice. I can read it with commentaries. I can read all sorts of things about it, and I still think ‘Oh dear’. But then I push all that aside and go looking with my upside-down magnifying glass for a speck of beauty in the text. And occasionally I find it.
The Bible story this week is about the birth of the prophet Samuel. If you like miraculous birth stories, this is one of them. You will find echoes of this text in Matthew’s and Luke’s miraculous birth story of Jesus. The genre of miraculous births is primarily for underlining the importance of the one born. But they also can say something about the mother – the hardship she faced, her faithfulness, and the birth as a consequence of faith.
Hannah was one of at least two wives of Elkanah. She was infertile. She was infertile in a day and age when the purpose of a wife was to produce children, especially sons. Her status and future wellbeing would be dependent on her sons, and the heights in the patriarchal world they would reach. Having children was also the way the afterlife, eternal life, was understood. You lived on through your children. Without children you did not live on.
These ideas about fertility can be very destructive. For women then. For women now.
Elkanah, Hannah’s husband, had at least two wives. Not an abnormal situation. His wife Peninnah had sons and daughters. She would have been considered blessed. But Elkanah favoured Hannah, let that favouring show, and not surprisingly a rivalry emerged between the women. Peninnah provoked and teased the infertile Hannah. Hannah would weep, not eat, she was deeply and bitterly distressed. Elkanah, like Father Abraham of old, did not manage the relationship between his wives well.
The solution the text provides to Hannah’s unhappiness is a miracle conception mediated by the priest Eli. With the Divine deal being that Eli would have the miracle child to raise as a Nazarite at the sanctuary at Shiloh.
And I suppose sermons of old would say the lesson is that God answers the prayer of the distressed. Only that there are many distressed that such a God seems to ignore, including many who are infertile.
Oh dear, am I really meant to be inspired by all this: polygamy, rivalry, deals with a deity, and a boy brought up by a sanctimonious stranger away from his parents? I don’t think so. Oh dear.
Then I turn my exegetical magnifying glass right-side down and notice a question attributed to Elkanah when consoling Hannah. “Am I not more to you than ten sons?” And I ponder that.
I would like to think that Elkanah isn’t praising himself, like ‘I’m so fantastic. One or ten sons you don’t need, when here I am and you’ve got me.’ A verse of ego.
Rather I would like to think that Elkanah is saying something like, ‘Your worth to me is far more than any progeny’. A verse of love.
A statement of affection. Of desiring Hannah’s affection. More than sons. More than cultural expectation. More than life everlasting. Love, in Shakespeare’s words, ‘bearing it out even to the edge of doom.’ A costly love. That ‘altered not when it alteration finds’ namely that Hannah can’t conceive.
There is a thread of beauty here at the periphery of this old story. Of a man putting aside patriarchal expectations for the sake of love. But maybe for Hannah, and maybe for baby Samuel, it is at the centre of this story.
It’s not dissimilar to the thread we see in the character of Joseph, he of Mary and Joseph fame, when Joseph decides to stay with, to stay committed to, his pregnant wife when he knows he’s not the father and wonders who is. I doubt he bought the whole ‘conceived by God thing’. Costly love.
Faith is finding beauty. Like the attraction love between Elkanah and Hannah.
But faith is also about making beauty. Like the costly love of Elkanah speaking aloud his commitment regardless of Hannah’ ability to produce heirs.
There is a common understanding that some people are beautiful and many are not. Whole industries are built on that understanding, peddling products to the ‘are nots’ in order to supposedly close the gap. What they don’t mention is that love that ‘bears it out even to the edge of doom.’
Love can, in every way, change a person. When a person is loved something beautiful happens. It happens between the lover and beloved, but it also happens within each of them. Something beautiful grows. And it is often noticeable to others. It might be an additional smile line. Or a gentler way of being. A person coming home to themselves.
What I’m saying is that faith is not just finding beauty in the world we live in. Faith is about making beauty.
There is a memorable verse in Paul’s letter to the Philippians that goes: 8 Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is beautiful, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. 9Keep on doing (such things).
A little about the context of Philippi (in North East Greece). It was a Roman colony, with privileges for its Roman citizens. Paul though wrote his letter in Greek, and most names in the letter are Greek. How would Philippian Greeks of Paul’s day have felt about the Roman colony? They probably felt many things in common with anyone who has lived under foreign colonial rule. The Greeks were not citizens. They could not vote or have access to the Roman law of which the colony was proud. They saw power and wealth mainly in Roman hands. The Greeks’ grandparents had lost land to the colonists, veteran soldiers who settled after the famous battle between Mark Antony and Octavian (Augustus) on the one side, and Brutus and Cassius on the other.
It would not have been hard for the Jesus group to think about whatever was false, whatever was dishonourable, whatever was unjust, impure, ugly, not commendable, anything worthy of criticism. And there would have been plenty. Just as there is plenty in our time and place. Plenty of injustice, plenty of things to find fault with.
But Paul says in effect look for what is beautiful, and then add to it. Commend what is commendable. Praise what is praise worthy. Make, plant, paint, help, encourage, give, weave, smile, build… Live out your faith by making your community more beautiful, more loving, and thus more just.
So, to be a person of faith is like being an artist. It’s about noticing the good and bad, the beauty and the ugliness. Then it’s a decision about adding to the good and the beautiful by actions and words, using your skills, your creativity, and your love.