A mother's hands, a mother's heart
Mother’s Day personifies Jesus’ command to love friend and enemy alike.by Carmen Schrock-Hurst
In 1 Samuel 1 and 2, we read a story about a mother, Hannah, who was unable to have children. She lived in a culture and a time when this was a particularly painful reality for a woman to face. Her husband took a second wife, Peninnah, who bore several children and was disrespectful to Hannah. One year, on the family’s annual trek to the temple to offer sacrifices, Hannah prays passionately.
I have no doubt that Hannah prayed faithfully for a child for many years. And I have no doubt that God heard her all those years. Yet for some reason God’s hand was still, and her prayer seemed unanswered. On this day she prays fervently and finds inner peace to come to terms with living with God’s answer, whatever the answer. She has made a promise that if God gives her a child she will bring the child to the temple to be reared, and in making that promise she has found peace.
Later she bears Samuel, whose name sounds like the Hebrew word for “heard by God” or “asked of God.” Hannah nurses Samuel until he is weaned, which scholars think was in that culture around the age of 3. And when the child is weaned, Hannah does what to my mother’s heart seems unthinkable, she gives him away.
If any of you have a 3-year-old in your house, you know how full of life 3-year-olds are—constant movement and chatter, endless questions and a true delight as they discover the world. How empty Hannah’s house and arms must have seemed when Samuel was no longer there.
Instead, when she honors God by taking Samuel to the temple, she breaks forth into a beautiful hymn of praise. Some call this the Magnificat of the Old Testament, and indeed it is similar to the song Mary sang when she was told she would bear the Christ child.
Hannah, a simple, no doubt illiterate peasant woman, is so pleased to be able to honor God with her obedience that she sings God praises. She is so sure that God is holy that she focuses on God and not on her own action. Then we read that each year she and her husband came to the temple she brought her son a little coat (verse 19).
Eli prayed for them, and eventually Hannah bore more children. Indeed her cup of joy was running over. But my mother’s heart knows that a piece of her heart stayed with Samuel in the temple each year when she left him there to do God’s work. And we read that Samuel answered God’s call to him with, “Speak Lord, your servant is listening.” Samuel was made available to do God’s work by his mother, Hannah.
In the beginning, Hannah’s hands were clasped in prayer, begging for a child. Then Hannah’s hands held that child, bathed him, wiped his fevered brow, caressed him and fed him for three years. Then Hannah’s hands led that child to the temple, where she honored her promise to God.
Later, Hannah’s hands made a coat for Samuel, year after year, with each stitch a prayer that he would come to know and honor God, each stitch a prayer that God would make her son an instrument of justice and holiness. Indeed Hannah’s hands and her prayers shaped Samuel to be used by God. And God used Samuel and Samuel’s hands to anoint kings for the kingdom of Israel.
I am reminded of my grandmother Sarah, who only had the use of one hand and one arm due to an illness when she was 19. Grandma Sarah almost singlehandedly raised seven children; her husband was often gone all week long for work. She learned to sew and make beautiful quilts using her left arm, even though she was born right-handed. Her ability to make beauty in spite of personal loss and suffering was a lesson to me.
God has given us hands. In honor of Hannah, this matriarch of the Old Testament, and in honor of our own mothers and grandmothers, let us all commit to use our hands for God’s work. Perhaps the story of Hannah will call us to honor God with our lives and our children’s lives, to dedicate ourselves to God’s work and to building God’s future for the world. Perhaps the story of Hannah reminds all of us that our children do not belong to us but to God, and God has a greater purpose for their lives than we can even imagine. We are called to give our children back to God to do God’s work.
One of the women credited with beginning what we now celebrate as Mother’s Day is Anna Jarvis. She was a Methodist born in 1850 in West Virginia. Her mother, Anna Reeves Jarvis, organized Mother’s Work Day Clubs in the 1850s that provided health care for the poor, inspected milk and established shelters for children with tuberculosis. When the Civil War broke out, Jarvis called together her clubs from both sides of the fighting, begging the women to pledge that friendship and goodwill would not be a casualty of the war. Her women from both sides of the war worked together to nurse soldiers and save many lives.
Following the war, Jarvis organized Mothers’ Friendship Days to bring families that had been torn apart by the war together. Jarvis herself knew great sorrow and hardship, losing eight of her l2 children to death before they reached adulthood. Her life revolved around the church and church work, as she was married to a pastor and taught Sunday school for 25 years.
In 1907, two years after her mother’s death, the younger Anna organized the first Mother’s Day to honor her mother. She went on to work tirelessly to establish a nationally recognized day to honor mothers, and in 1915 President Wilson signed a congressional resolution officially proclaiming the second Sunday in May as Mother’s Day, which is now observed in many countries around the world.
Another woman credited with helping found Mother’s Day was Julia Ward Howe, who worked against slavery and wrote the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Following the Civil War, Howe focused on two other causes: voting rights for women and world peace.
Howe began organizing what she called Mothers’ Peace Day festivals, celebrated on June 2. She was convinced that, though the world may be divided by war and conflict, the experience of raising children could bind the mothers of the world together into one family, a family that could make a difference. So the primary concerns of the original Mother’s Day were international peace, overcoming poverty and ministering to the poor and sick. From the beginning this was a day not simply to remember our own mothers but to extend love outward to family, friend, stranger, foreigner and even enemy. In the truest sense, Mother’s Day personifies Jesus’ command to love friend and enemy alike.
Today we live in a world that has faced many changes since the lives of Anna Jarvis and Julia Ward Howe, who worked to found Mother’s Day 200 years ago. And we certainly live in a world that has faced vast changes since the biblical Hannah lived some 3,000 years ago. Yet some things remain the same. Mothers still love their children with all their hearts. Mothers still use their hands to show that love.
And mothers still pray. It is no doubt the fervent prayer of many mothers around the world—Christian mothers, Jewish mothers, Muslim mothers, all kinds of mothers—that their children grow up in peace, have enough to eat, lie down to sleep at night without fear of bombs or terrorists and have a better life than they had. I believe God hears those prayers. I also believe God often answers prayers through the hands of his children, through the hands of the church. It is up to us to be the answers to some mother’s prayer, to share what we’ve been given, feed the hungry, visit prisoners, bind up the wounds of war, shelter the homeless, do God’s work and be the hands and heart of God for those around us.
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Carmen Schrock-Hurst is on the leadership team at The Table, which meets on the campus of Eastern Mennonite University, Harrisonburg, Va.
Her article is adapted from a Mother’s Day sermon she gave May 9, 2004, at Union Church of Manila.