Today is the feast of the conception of the most holy Theotokos by the righteous Anna, in Hebrew, Hannah … and also that of the prophetess Hannah, mother of the Prophet Samuel. The Church celebrates these two feasts together because they have a most intimate connection, albeit being separated in time by some 11 centuries.
The mother of the Theotokos was named after the mother of the Prophet Samuel, Hannah and Anna being the same name. Hannah in the Old Testament is best known for her barren mother’s Song of celebration in the calling of her miraculously conceived son to serve the Lord for all his life. Hannah or Anna in the New Testament experienced exactly the same situation; once barren but now miraculously with child she looks forward to the birth of her daughter, the All-Holy Mary, who will offer a similar service to the Lord.
Doubtless Our Lady would have been taught her Mother’s Song before entering the Temple as a girl, and she obviously treasured it in her heart. Delightfully, somewhat later as a young Mother herself, she exulted in the conception of Jesus by the Holy Spirit in her womb and, recalling that Song, made it her own. The Song of Mary or the Magnificat is so obviously derived from her mother’s Song; and we can know that as we hear both songs now. In this rendition I shall read the verses of the Magnificat; and Father Deacon Emmanuel will read the corresponding extracts from the Song of Hannah.
There are three themes in both these versions of the Song:
1. The praise of the unique and incomparable God who defends us;
2. The exaltation of the poor and needy and the abasement of the proud; and
3. The succour of Israel and the judgement of all nations.
Now these are grand themes and painted across the broad sweep of history, but what on earth have they to do with a mother’s joy? Some might have expected something more personal, more intimate, and yet we read here of God’s purpose writ large in the affairs of nations. Actually, this should not surprise us at all. In the original version of the Song, Hannah’s joy was to witness the son of God’s promise ushering in a new age for Israel and for the world. As we know, the Prophet Samuel, by anointing David as King to replace Saul, testified to a new covenant between God and his people established in and by David’s line, that is his lineage, from which the long-awaited Messiah would come. This prophecy was of course fulfilled in the ever Virgin Mary whose Son, our Lord, being this Messiah, brought about the salvation, not just of Israel, but, according to the original prophecy given to Abraham, of all the nations of the earth. When the Theotokos sung this Song, beloved of her mother, she knew that all generations would call her blessed. Moreover, since neither she nor her Son had children according to the flesh, the new Israel of the Church was not to be a dynasty or a lineage but rather a family of grace comprising those who, according to the teaching of St John the Theologian, “were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.” (John 1:13).
As we approach Christmas and the birth of our Saviour, the Song of these two mothers, subtly different but with a common theme, delights us in the conviction that with the coming of Christ we stand in a new and revolutionary age for all humanity. Saved from sin and death, our very human nature being deified and made glorious through continual repentance, we shall witness the overthrow of many tyrants. In God’s final victory accomplished for all time in Christ’s resurrection, the meek really will inherit the earth, and the pure of heart really will see God, and all manner of things really will be well.
However, Christians are not crazy utopians, foolishly trusting in the aspirations and efforts of godless men for a better world. Such dreamy projects have often ended in nightmarish scenes of blood and oppression. No, we rather believe in the power of God to turn the world on its head, in other words, the right way up. Our Lord Jesus Christ has given us this possibility of righting the world, but starting with ourselves. If after our spiritual rebirth we can resist the idolatry of serving men as God and instead work with our Lord to establish His just and gentle rule, then we shall see great and wonderful things. The fact that we often don’t see such transformations today bears witness to the fact that we so often lack the faith, courage and sacrifice to testify to Christ before men. This is why the boldness of the dual Mothers’ Song is so characteristically important for all Christians. We need to sing it out, not just at Matins but in our lives. So, with the Mother of God and Hannah before her we must sing, with our blood if need be:-
“He has shown strength with His arm; He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts. He has put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich He has sent away empty.” (Luke 1:51-53)