Having celebrated the birth of the Christ-Child at Christmas, and before that during Advent, John the Baptist’s birth, the Old Testament readings for the First Week of Ordinary Time centre on yet another special baby, Samuel, the first of the great prophets.
In the first chapter of the First Book of Samuel, we learn that Samuel was literally ‘an answer to prayer’ on the part of his mother Hannah. On a visit to the sanctuary at Shiloh with her family, “In the bitterness of her soul she prayed to God with many tears” (1Sam1:10) both because of her childlessness and the spiteful conduct of her husband’s other, fertile, wife.
But she is not alone.
The priest in charge of the sacred place is watching curiously from a short distance. He expects to hear her speaking aloud, as that was the custom in praying in those days. But Hannah is praying inwardly, while her lips move. Eli leaps to the conclusion that the woman must be under the influence and challenges her on the point.
Hannah defends herself as “a woman who is deeply troubled” (1Sam 1:15). There seems to be an element of humour in this tragic scene as Hannah claims to be “pouring out my soul to the Lord,” whereas Eli was thinking of her pouring wine and beer into her body! Now Eli is really listening to her, this time with sympathy as he grasps her sincerity.
“Go in peace,” he says, “and may the God of Israel grant your prayer” (1Sam 1:17). And this part of the story concludes with Hannah moving away, no longer dejected because of her honest prayer, but even more because of the compassionate listening of the priest. Eli’s initial attempt to listen led to a presumption of drunkenness, but a more compassionate listening led to much needed comfort for this troubled soul. And so, Eli becomes a model of pastoral concern for priests down through the ages.
This stress on the value of listening is underlined in the story of Samuel’s call by God in the same sanctuary some years later (1Sam 3:3). (Hannah has kept her promise to give over her son, once weaned, to the service of God under the guardianship of the same dependable, wise listener, Eli.)
The story is well known of the boy hearing his name being called three times, his disturbing the elderly priest who listens patiently but fails initially to understand the import of what is happening.
Then the penny drops and Eli pronounces those classic words to the youngster to prepare him to receive the call of God: “Speak, Lord, your servant is listening” (1Sam 3:9). And the Lord makes Samuel his prophet, one who will listen with all his heart and who will be rewarded in such a way that “he [the Lord] let none of his words fall to the ground” (1Sam 3:19).
Although the story centres mainly on the faith of Hannah and Samuel, surely we cannot fail to see the mediating role of the priest, Eli, in these two dramatic scenes. Eli is the one who practices what he preaches. He is the one who is the listening servant, both to Hannah and Samuel.
We can imagine him saying to each “Speak to me of what is in your heart, for I am your listening servant.” And, without that, granted imperfect, service, the story of Hannah and Samuel could have been quite different.
When Hannah is leaving the sanctuary after her encounter with Eli, she speaks in a way that makes her sound very like Mary at her Annunciation: “May your servant find favour in your eyes” (1Sam 1:18).
But let us not forget that faithful figure of Eli, committed priest of God, who has been in all truth Hannah’s servant, providing the service of listening to a woman threatened with feelings of worthlessness and gaining instead God’s message of peace.