I Samuel 2:18-20, 26; Psalm 148; Colossians 3:12-17; Luke 2:41-52.
The vocation of God’s servants begins in childhood and is apparent in the clothes they wear and the company they keep.
This year’s readings for the First Sunday after Christmas focus on the boy on his way – on his way to becoming a man of destiny. These are the boy Samuel and the boy Jesus.
I Samuel 2:18-20, 26.
The reading from the Prophets actually portrays Hannah, the mother, more than it does Samuel himself.
Hannah has left her little son in the care of the priests at the major temple where she had dedicated him before his birth. Each year after that she visited him, bringing along a new clerical robe, presumably fitted to his growth from year to year. The head priest Eli blessed Hannah and her husband, and – in a verse omitted from our reading – God gave Hannah other children to fill her later years (2:21).
As for the boy Samuel, he “continued to grow both in stature and in favor with the Lord and with the people” (verse 26, NRSV). His personal story will begin when he is summoned in a mysterious way to bring a new thing in Israel – a word from the Lord (chapter 3).
The prophet Samuel would terminate “the age of the Judges.” In the Deuteronomistic history of Israel, the period of the Judges is a progressive worsening of the condition of the people – militarily and spiritually. The high-point at which Moses had left the people lasted only a few generations. Now the thrill is gone, the people are oppressed by more powerful neighbors from the outside and divided among themselves within. It was an age in which “every man did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 17:6 and 21:25, RSV). That does not mean the freedom of democracy; it means the chaos of gang warfare.
In the big picture Israel needs a king who will unite them against enemies, maintain order, and administer an even-handed justice among the tribal warlords. This, in the long run, Samuel will initiate. This work by Samuel would bring to Israel the Anointed One (ham-māshîaḥ), the Messiah.
The boy playing around the temple in Shiloh and learning priest-craft in his new tunics was preparing a great destiny.
This great hallelujah psalm is an exuberant and delightful summons to heaven and earth to praise the Lord, to “hallelu” (the plural imperative) God. The craft exhibited by the composer is not complicated but is pleasing to watch as it unfolds.
The call to heavenly things (verses 1-4) repeats in rapid sequence seven imperatives to praise, moving from one aspect to another of the heavenly realm: (1) from the heavens, (2) in the heights, (3) all God’s angels (messengers), (4) all God’s host (army), (5) sun and moon, (6) all lighted stars, and supremely, (7) the heaven of heavens enclosed by the cosmic waters. These seven imperatives are followed by an exhortation: “Let them praise …,” which in turn leads, finally, to a reason for the praise: because all these summoned entities were “created” by God and fixed forever.
The second section (verses 7-13) also sweeps across a vast domain: earthly things. The imperative “Praise ye …” is given only once at the beginning, then followed by a chain of earthly things, places, and people who are included in this imperative: (1) the earth; (2) sea monsters and deeps; (3) lightning and hail, snow and frost, storm winds (all weather elements kept in cosmic storehouses); (4) mountains and hills; (5) trees – for fruit and also huge cedars; then, moving toward the human world, (6) animals wild and domestic, crawling creatures and winged birds; and finally (7) the varieties of people – kings and clans, princes and judges, young men and maidens, old folks and kids.
The long enthusiastic enumerations are intended to be inclusive, creatures of all kinds included in the command to “Praise the Lord.” All of it culminates in a reason for the summons to praise: because “his name alone is exalted; / his glory is above earth and heaven” (verse 13, NRSV).
Does this reason for praise seem too general, too vague? The poet’s basic structure is completed, but both creative art and faith erupt in a final declaration, a final proclamation of why God is to be praised: “He has raised up a horn for his people, …for Israel, the people close to him” (verse 14, my translation).
This psalm is not about this horn, this pillar of strength to empower the people; it is about the heavenly and earthly realms which, in this vision, will be transformed by God’s gift of such a leader.
As Hannah brought her son Samuel a new robe to wear in the Lord’s service each year, so the Epistle reading would have believers put on new clothes in their service of God. These chosen folks are to be holy, wearing compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. These garments enable people to bear with each other gladly, because all know themselves to be forgiven ones. Even more important is that you clothe yourselves with love, an outer garment holding in all the warmth of companionship.
But lest we be held too completely by external things like clothes, most of all we must have inside “the peace of Christ … to which you were called in one body” (verse 15). Then, beautified and warmed in body, we may burst out in exuberant song and let the word of Christ teach us all wisdom and all praise (verse 16)!
On one of the years when Hannah went up to the temple to take Samuel his new garment (I Samuel 2:19), it would have been the time of preparation for his bar mitzvah – for his transition out of boyhood toward a young man responsible for his vocation in Israel. The Gospel reading presents this occasion in the life of the boy Jesus. His parents are represented as observant Galileans who made the pilgrimage each spring for pesach, which had to be eaten inside the precincts of Jerusalem.
This narrative, however, is not about the faithful observance of Joseph and Mary; it is about Jesus being about his Father’s business – or being in his Father’s house, as the NRSV has it.
It was a seven-day festival, but that wasn’t long enough for the precocious son of Joseph and Mary. He has heard the learned ones discussing scripture and God’s will for daily life and for Israel’s destiny, and he rapidly learned to join in and exchange questions and answers with them. His anxious mother comes close to stamping her foot when she finds him (verse 48), and he meekly goes back to Nazareth.
On one level, this story is a playful speculation about how the boy Jesus must have grown toward his awesome vocation. On another level, it is a more sobering, even tragic, parallel to the boy Samuel. Samuel grew up and got his training in a great temple establishment, but when his prophetic calling came he would pronounce doom on that very sacred institution. At God’s direction, he would prophecy the judgment of the Lord on the priests and the temple at Shiloh (I Samuel 3:10-14).
So, in Luke’s larger story of Jesus, the boy grown to a man would lament over the fate of the beloved city that knew not when its time for repentance and turning had come (Luke 19:41-44).
Still, before the doom, there was the time of the playful boys busy about the temple.