My Dear brothers and sister in Christ
Peace be with you. As I was reading over the first reading from the First Book of Samuel, I couldn’t help but think about my niece and nephew named, appropriately enough, Hannah and Sam. Hannah is three years older than Sam and, at points, struggles to tolerate her younger brother. In the first reading, the namesakes of my niece and nephew aren’t siblings but mother and son. The mother, Hannah, is so excited to receive the gift of Samuel, her child, that she freely offers him to Eli, the priest, to be raised. I’m sure that there were many times during their growing up years that my niece would have gladly taken my nephew to their church to leave him there. Thank goodness even the worst knock-down, drag-out fight between siblings never ended with a hog-tied little boy sitting on my rectory steps. And that, as they’ve gotten older, my niece has found a way to not only get along with her little brother but to use him as a taxi service between buildings.
Both the first reading and the gospel give us a glimpse into a confusing and unique aspect of family life that I think is often overlooked but very important. What is it that would cause a mother who was barren to be willing to give the first child she ever received to God? As a person who has worked with young men who are considering priesthood, I know that often parents are the second hardest people to tell about a vocation. When I work with guys in college, they first have to convince themselves, and maybe their girlfriends, that God may in fact be calling them to priesthood before they tell their parents. Sometimes the parents are excited but many times the parents see nothing but loneliness and complications for their sons and a dearth of grandchildren for themselves. God even makes it complicated for Hannah in the scriptures because, when she goes to the temple to pray for a son, Eli, the very high priest to whom she would eventually hand over Samuel, accuses her of being drunk and tries to send her away. But, Hannah’s response shows both pluck and humility by saying that she hasn’t been pouring drinks down her throat but has been pouring out her troubles to God. She isn’t going to allow an inarticulate priest to distract her from praying to God for a son. She understands what Pope John Paul II referred to as the law of the gift.
The law of the gift says that your being increases in the measure that you give it away. That’s why, immediately after giving Samuel to the priests, she prays one of the most beautiful prayers in Sacred Scripture. “My heart exults in the Lord, my horn is exalted by my God. I have swallowed up my enemies; I rejoice in your victory.” Her being is lifted up because she willingly gave away her son. You see, it’s when you give back what God has given you that you are exalted, that you are lifted up. We tend to think that happiness comes from being filled up by God. But it is precisely the opposite, when we empty ourselves of all the possessions and worries and cares that weigh us down, that we can be lifted up to share in the glory of God.
The same is true in this confusing and frustrating gospel. In my heart, this is a great example of the Bible turning a common reaction in a completely different way because of the law of the gift. After Jesus’ Bar Mitzvah, he remains behind to converse and impress the unnamed high priests of his time. One wonders if young Annas and Caiaphas were present during the three days that Jesus learned and taught in the Temple. Meanwhile, Mary and Joseph’s walk back home to Nazareth is interrupted in a Home Alone moment of realizing that Jesus is not hanging out with his cousins. They hurry back to Jerusalem and search for three days only to find him still in the Temple. Imagine the anguish they must have felt at losing Jesus and all the thoughts that would have gone through their heads. Has he been kidnapped and sold into slavery in Egypt? Has he upset some resident in the big city of Jerusalem and gotten himself killed? Has he become a hawkeye fan? I’m sure these and a thousand other horrors crossed their minds as they searched everywhere in Jerusalem. You can just imagine the emotions they would have felt when they looked in the last place they thought, the temple, to find him. They ask him, “Why have you done this to us?” and Jesus responds “Did you not know I must be in my father’s house.” Jesus’ response may seem like he is a typical smart mouthed teenager but, in truth, he is evidencing the very attitude of Hannah. He is offering up his very self in order to be glorified by God. And he will continue to do so as he goes home to go through the stages of development that every person has to go through as a teenager and young adult. What’s interesting is that Luke includes the detail that Mary kept these things in her heart. Her life will, therefore, be an exercise in learning the law of the gift in the hardest way possible. I have a feeling that Mary will think of finding Jesus in the Temple when Jesus is back at this temple being condemned by high priests and will remember the confusion, frustration, anger, and relief she felt when she will again wait for three days to see her son, this time resurrected from the dead.
The law of the gift, then, is at the very heart of the gospel message and, therefore, at the heart of family life. The family is a place where the mission of each family member is discerned and prepared. After days of giving what we hope will be the perfect gift, now is the perfect time to refocus on what is the true gift each of us are seeking. Rather than getting lost in the consumerism of Christmas, find some way to give away yourself, not because we know that God will give us even better stuff if we give things away but because we know that God will be glorified if we humble ourselves. What is God calling you let go in order to glorify him?