Father Donald Senior, CP

Dec. 20: Fourth Sunday of Advent

Wednesday, December 16, 2020

Barrenness in the Bible

2 Sm 7:1-5, 8-12, 14, 16; Ps 89:2-3, 4-5, 27, 29; Rom 16:25-27; Lk 1:26-38

A few years ago, I heard a radio interview with a woman who was the head of the local chapter of the Gray Panthers, an organization that advocates on behalf of the elderly. Founded in the early 1960s, its main mission is to combat ageism.

The interviewer asked the woman, “What exactly is the mission of the Gray Panthers?” I haven’t forgotten her answer. “We have three simple desires for our members,” she said, “that each of them will have something worthwhile to do, something to look forward to and someone nearby to love.” I thought to myself that those are basic human longings that I think everyone, no matter their age or circumstances, desires to have fulfilled.

If we reverse those three basic needs into deficits — nothing worthwhile to do, nothing to look forward to, no one nearby to love — we have what the Bible calls “barrenness.” There are many examples such as Abraham and Sarah or Elkanah and Hannah (the eventual mother of the prophet Samuel). 

In a traditional clan culture, such as the biblical peoples, not to be able to bear a child was considered a shameful tragedy. Having descendants was not only vital for continuing your family legacy, but it was also crucial in an agrarian society to have the collaboration and strength of youth to help the family survive. 

It is no surprise that, as in our own language, the experience of barrenness became in the Bible symbolic of more than the physical experience of sterility and its consequences. For example, the prophet Isaiah applied the notion of barrenness to Israel itself. Its sagging moral strength, threats of invasion and injustice inflicted on the people by their rulers led the prophet to compare the plight of the people to the experience of corporate barrenness — a sadness and lethargy for the people as a whole for whom life seemed to be without hope. 

For example, in a powerful passage in Isaiah 54, the prophet challenges Israel to turn to God for newness of life: “Sing, O barren one who did not bear; burst into song and shout, you who have not been in labor!” Why? Because God will not abandon them and will give them reason to hope: “For your maker is your husband, the Lord of hosts is his name, the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer, the God of the whole earth he is called.”

This motif of barrenness offset by God’s promise of new life stands behind the beautiful Gospel reading for this last Sunday of Advent, which is the account of the annunciation to Mary in Luke’s Gospel. Here, in a spectacular way, we see the biblical motif of barrenness at work.

When told she will bear a son, Mary, a young virgin who has had no relationship with a man, asks, “How can this be?” And the angel Gabriel, to reassure Mary, reminds her that her cousin Elizabeth, “who was called barren” because she and her husband were elderly, would yet bear a son. 

In each instance, the power of God to bring life where no life seemed possible is in play. The angel Gabriel himself cites words from an ancient story of barrenness and unexpected life told in the book of Genesis (18:1-15) about the great ancestors of Israel. When Sarah laughs at the prediction of the three mysterious visitors (representing the Divine presence?) who receive hospitality from Abraham and Sarah at Mamre (“I will surely return to you in due season, and your wife Sarah shall have a son”), the visitors respond, “Why did Sarah laugh? Is anything too wonderful for God?”

That declaration hangs over the Gospel passage today. “Is anything impossible for God?” the angel Gabriel asks. We know the answer. The child to be born to Mary will bring the fullness of life to humanity, enabling us to find ultimate forgiveness and peace. Surely this is a message of God’s Word to us today that we need to keep in mind and heart this Advent and Christmas season. No matter how empty or threatened we may feel, God will never abandon us.



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