Reflection for the Conference of the Victorian CWA
Feast of the Visitation
1 Samuel 2:1-10
You might not be aware (I certainly wasn’t) but today the Anglican, Lutheran and Roman Catholic churches celebrate the Visitation. This Feast remembers the story from the Gospel according to Luke in which Mary, the mother of Jesus, visits Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, while both women are pregnant with their sons. The two women meet and talk free of any men, other than their unborn babies. The Bible is a male-dominated collection of writings, and it rarely includes scenes in which women appear together without men, so although the Uniting Church doesn’t officially celebrate the Visitation as a Feast it seemed suitable for a service of the Country Women’s Association to use the Bible passages that the Lutheran church has chosen for it, one from the Old Testament or Hebrew Scriptures, and one from the New.
The passage from the first book of the prophet Samuel is the song that Hannah, the mother of Samuel, sings when she finds out that she is pregnant. According to the Book of Samuel, Hannah is one of the two wives of Elkanah. Elkanah’s wife Penninah has children, but Hannah doesn’t. It’s possible that Elkanah is quite happy with this arrangement; he has one wife for child-bearing and one to love; one biblical commentator translates “Peninnah” as fertile or prolific and “Hannah” as charming or attractive. When Hannah mourns her infertility, Elkanah says to her: ‘Hannah, why do you weep? Why do you not eat? Why is your heart sad? Am I not more to you than ten sons?’ As far as he’s concerned things are fine. But Hannah has all the pain and hunger of a woman who wants children and can’t have them; in a society that sees her lack of children as something God has done to her.
Hannah is mocked for her infertility. Peninnah taunts her: ‘as often as she went up to the house of the Lord, [Peninnah] used to provoke [Hannah].’ I suspect that there’s a reason that I know many people called Hannah and I’ve never heard of anyone called Peninnah. Peninnah is not a role model for us as women. Do not taunt your fellow women!
Hannah does what people in her situation have always done – she calls on God. She goes to the Temple to pray and is seen by the priest Eli. Because she’s praying silently but with her lips moving Eli thinks she’s drunk. But when Hannah explains Eli adds his blessing to Hannah’s prayer, and she leaves comforted. ‘In due time Hannah conceived and bore a son. She named him Samuel, for she said, “I have asked him of the Lord.”‘ And then she sings the song that we just heard read.
God works through the oppressed. He chooses an infertile, despised woman in an obscure family in Israel to bear a prophet and leader of his people. This is the way that God always works, as Hannah recognises. Her song rejoices that the Lord is the one who brings to life, who gives children to the infertile, who feeds the hungry, who makes the poor rich, and exalts the lowly. She looks to the future and celebrates that God ‘will give strength to his king, and exalt the power of his anointed’.
Then, hundreds of years later, we find another woman having trouble with her fertility; this time not because she is infertile but because, if anything, she is too fertile. Mary, the betrothed of Joseph, becomes pregnant before she is married. We know that this is shocking because in the Gospel according to Matthew Joseph, who is a righteous man, decides to break the betrothal, as he must, but to do it quietly so that Mary won’t be publicly disgraced. But then God tells him in a dream to take Mary as his wife and raise her child as his son.
Christians believed that Jesus, in whom God came to live amongst us, was born out of potential scandal avoided by Joseph not doing what he was meant to. When Mary goes to visit Elizabeth she models her song of joy on Hannah’s, in which she praises the God who overturns all expectations. Like Hannah, Mary voices the deep and dangerous hope that in response to human injustice, God will bring justice. The stories of Hannah and Mary remind us that God acts in surprising ways and unlikely places, through despised and oppressed people.
You are gathered here in beautiful Williamstown to celebrate ninety years of diversity. You are a community that welcomes all women, of all ages, in all places. And so you are the daughters of Hannah and Mary; women who rejoiced in the God who overturns the world’s unfairness and brings about justice.
In 1928 when the CWA opened ‘rest rooms’ throughout Victoria it was overturning an injustice that meant that women couldn’t travel far from home. We all know how important it is for women to have access to toilets; even today some girls leave school when they start menstruating because they don’t have access to water and toilets. So well done to those very first members of the CWA!
The general resolutions that you will discuss during this conference are all resolutions that seek to bring about justice; justice for the environment; justice for the elderly; justice for the homeless and those with low incomes. You are following in the footsteps of your fore-mothers, the women who established the CWA ninety years’ ago, and I want to congratulate you for that. I also want to assure you that Hannah, Mary, and the God they celebrated, will be with you as you meet. May you have a wonderful conference; may your strength be exalted; and may you rejoice in your victories. Amen.