Presence Amid Absence

Barren is a term that re-occurs throughout the scriptures. Numerous biblical women face the heartache of not easily conceiving children, including Sarah, Rachel, Elizabeth, and, in today’s text, Hannah. Centuries later, the prophet Isaiah describes the destructive forces of the exile as rendering the land as “barren heights” and the people as “bereaved and barren.” To be barren in the Bible is to be emptied of hope, worn out from wanting, and uncertain of God’s favor.

One interpretive lens through which to view these barren scenes is historical. The stories of God’s salvation begin with despair about life continuing in the next generation. Abraham and Sarah are given a promise- your offspring will be as numerous as the stars- and the promise of that blessed future requires a reversal of their childlessnss. From this perspective, the sagas of Sarah, Rachel, and Hannah are less about individual families and more symbols of God’s larger work of life.

Another lens through which to unpack the stories is as portraits of fraught family dynamics. Read them and one will find rivalries and betrayals, years of disappointment, and misguided attempts to make alternate plans. Jealous family members taunt each other. Children compete for parental affection, as well as inheritance. The capacity to conceive plays a role in family position, protection, and power. And while such readings contrast the rosy, loving images we often lean into on Mother’s Day, the stories are real. Families have always been complicated. Families contend with misunderstandings, jealousies, and separation. Hearing of the trials faced by our biblical ancesors remind us that God works in and through complicated lives.

But perhaps the most important interpretative lens through which to explore the dimensions associated with barren-ness is how such a state evokes a spiritual crisis, a sense of being cut off from the God who gives life. Hannah was childless; and to whom is attributed her state? God, who closed her womb. What does Hannah plead for? God to remember her. The whole of scripture opposes such attributions, affirming God draws us close, knows the number of hairs upon our heads, and uses power for love. And yet the desolation of a barren season can convince someone that God has severed God’s self from them. Hannah’s yearly trek with her family to sacrifice at Shiloh’s temple embodies such desolation. In the celebratory meal following the ritual, Penninah eats surrounded by children, with plentiful helpings of food for all her brood. Hannah, even with her extra portion, is marked as a solitary figure, an aloneness that surely magnified her loss.

Barrenness is not a word we would, at first, associate with the overflowing days following Jesus’s resurrection. The tomb is empty, yes, but the earth is full of glorious life. Jesus stays close to his followers; sharing meals around the table, speaking out across the Galilean Sea. Jesus invites them to touch his wounds; but the time comes when he must leave for good. After forty days, a little less than six weeks, he departs from their presence. His return to God means a new, more permanent emptiness, a barren space where those who loved and followed him once could listen, see, and touch his earthly form. While scripture paints the scene as a joyous one, I can’t help but imagine other, more somber questions floated beneath the goodbyes:

“Why must you leave?”

“How will we manage without you?”

“What was the point of an empty tomb if, in the end, you go for good?”

Whatever the word: barren, empty, or future closed, the dilemma caused by Jesus’s ascension poses similar questions to us. What do we do with the gapping spaces? How do we carry hope that Jesus first carried? We move through these Easter weeks, with all their powerful Alleluia and claims about God’s resurrecting life, and also witness the barren parts of our world: the bloodied dust of Gaza, the violent deaths upon our city streets, an earth being depleted of resources, or the lonely, shut-down spaces carved into our complicated lives. The future Hannah hoped for was not coming to fruition. The path before the disciples veers into unknown territory. What is one to do?

Hannah finds herself again eating a meal near the temple. Another year. Another shaming dinner. The admonishment by her husband to be more cheerful only increases her sadness. So she escapes into the temple, and upon entering, lets out a moan that summarizes her life, a cry uttered to God who, she believes, is not acting. “Enter it, this grief,” writes Rachel Srubas (“Midrash for Hannah” in Journal for Feminist Studies in Religion 16 no. 1, 2000), “this temple God has hidden in the lives of barren women, and offer up the pure prayer of your tears.

Tears are prayers, of course; prayers so deep as to be rendered incoherent. Priest Eli misreads her, thinks she is disrespecting God’s home instead of hallowing it with her need. For a moment Hannah is embarrassed, because asking God for what we most want is revealing, vulnerable, and scary. She cannot fulfill her prayer on her own accord. And yet this meeting between Hannah and Eli helps her. Eli’s assurance tells her she had been heard. Their exchange, within the temple’s sacred walls, affirms “the temple God had hidden in her life.” Hannah begins to eat again, shares a glass of wine with her husband, and “her countenance was sad no longer.”

In the days after Jesus ascended, his departure settled upon his followers. First came the shock of his absence; no more glimpses of Jesus on the seashore, no more strong voice telling them to come and eat. Surely next came some tears; tears at all they had endured together, tears born of missing his presence along the path. Mixed with tears came fear, that prick of worry about what danger might confront them next. Jesus had tried to ready them for his absence. But it is one thing to be students at the master’s class and another thing entirely to have your life depend upon how well you remember the lessons and how quickly you can put the skills into practice. And yet, they learn, bit by bit, to recognize the temple God had hidden in their lives. It is a temple built by moments of feeding, healing, and walking together. It is a temple carved by suffering, a cross lifted, and tentative peerings into the empty tomb. It is a temple of persistent hope, insistent questions, and fierce trust that God is still at work, even in the absence of the Son of Man on earth.

In due time, Hannah does conceive. She has a son, named Samuel, a name that affirms one can ask things of God. But the birth is not the end of the story. That comes three years later, when Hannah returns to the temple with her son and gives him to God’s household. Imagine that: The people of God called Israelites tell this story because Samuel grows up to become the prophet who guides David to be their king. But there is more to wrestle from the story than a kingly line, beloved as it is. Here is truth about the gifts God gives us and how we are to ffer them back in service. They are never just ours, but always part of God’s plans for life. I pray that Hannah’s journey taught her how much she was valued, just for being her, how sacred the space is when tears come so hard and fast our words become a jumble of sounds only God can understand, how the goodness of God runs deeply under and around us. Even in the absence, God still is.

That is what the disciples will discover in the days following Jesus’s ascension. The absence creates a presence, a new type of knowing, and space to grow into their call. This is every person’s journey of faith, with its moments of meeting God and long stretches of absense, with its mornings of joy and its evenings when all seems for naught. What temple of God is hidden in your life, waiting to be born?

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