1. Motherhood is a gift of God. “I have gotten a man with the help of the Lord!” (Gn 4:1), Eve exclaims after giving birth to Cain, her first-born son. With these words, the Book of Genesis presents the first motherhood in human history as a grace and joy that spring from the Creator’s goodness.
2. The birth of Isaac is similarly described, at the origin of the chosen people. God promises Abraham, who has been deprived of children and is now advanced in years, descendants as numerous as the stars of heaven (cf. Gn 15:5). The promise is welcomed by the patriarch with the faith that reveals God’s plan to this man: “He believed the Lord; and he reckoned it to him as righteousness” (Gn 15:6).
This promise was confirmed in the words spoken by the Lord on the occasion of the covenant he made with Abraham: “Behold, my covenant is with you, and you shall be the father of a multitude of nations” (Gn 17:4).
Extraordinary and mysterious events emphasize how Sarah’s motherhood was primarily the fruit of the mercy of God, who gives life beyond all human expectation: “I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son by her; I will bless her, and she shall be a mother of nations; kings of peoples shall come from her” (Gn 17:15-16).
Motherhood is presented as a decisive gift of the Lord. The patriarch and his wife will be given a new name to indicate the unexpected and marvelous transformation that God is to work in their life.
The Lord gladdens with the gift of motherhood
3. The visit of the three mysterious persons, whom the Fathers of the Church interpreted as a pre-figuration of the Trinity, announced the fulfillment of the promise to Abraham more explicitly: “The Lord appeared to him by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the door of his tent in the heat of the day. He lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, three men stood in front of him” (Gn 18:1-2). Abraham objected: “Shall a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Shall Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?” (Gn 17:17; cf. 18:1113). The divine guest replies: “Is anything too hard for the Lord? At the appointed time I will return to you, about this time next year, and Sarah shall have a son” (Gn 18:14, cf. Lk 1:37).
The narrative stresses the effect of the divine visit, which makes fruitful a conjugal union that had been barren until then. Believing in the promise, Abraham becomes a father against all hope, and “father in the faith” because from his faith “descends” that of the chosen people.
4. The Bible relates other stories of women released from sterility and gladdened by the Lord with the gift of motherhood. These are often situations of anguish, which God’s intervention transforms into experiences of joy by receiving the heartfelt prayers of those who are humanly without hope. “When Rachel saw that she bore Jacob no children”, for example, “she envied her sister and she said to Jacob, ‘Give me children, or I shall die!’. Jacob’s anger was kindled against Rachel, and he said, ‘Am I in the place of God, who has withheld from you the fruit of the womb?'” (Gn 30:1-2).
But the biblical text immediately adds: “Then God remembered Rachel and God hearkened to her and opened her womb. She conceived and bore a son” (Gn 30:22-23). This son, Joseph would play a very important role for Israel at the time of the migration to Egypt.
In this as in other narratives, the Bible intends to highlight the marvelous nature of God’s intervention in these specific cases by stressing the initial condition of the woman’s sterility; however, at the same time, it allows us to grasp the gratuitousness inherent in all motherhood.
5. We find a similar process in the account of the birth of Samson. The wife of Manoah, who had never been able to conceive a child, hears the Lord’s announcement from the angel: “Behold, you are barren and have no children; but you shall conceive and bear a son” (Jgs 13:3). The conception, unexpected and miraculous, announces the great things that the Lord will do through Samson.
In the case of Hannah, Samson’s mother, the special role of prayer is underlined. Hannah suffers the humiliation of being barren but she is full of great trust in God to whom she turns insistently, that Le may help her to overcome this trial. One day, at the temple she makes a vow: “Oh Lord of hosts, if you will indeed look on the affliction of your maidservant, and remember me, and not forget your maidservant, but will give to your maidservant a son, then I will give him to the Lord all the days of his life” (1 Sm 1:11).
Her prayer was answered: “The Lord remembered her” and “Hannah conceived and bore a son, and she called his name Samuel” (1 Sm 1:19-20). Keeping her promise, Hannah offered her son to the Lord: “For this child I prayed, and the Lord has granted me my petition which I made to him. Therefore I have lent him to the Lord as long as he lives, he is lent to the Lord” (1 Sm 1: 27-28). Given by God to Hannah and then given by Hannah to God, the little Samuel becomes a living bond of communion between Hannah and God.
Samuel’s birth is thus an experience of joy and an occasion for thanksgiving. The First Book of Samuel contains a hymn known as Hannah’s Magnificat, which seems to anticipate Mary’s: “My heart exults in the Lord; my strength is exalted in the Lord” (1 Sm 2:1).
The grace of motherhood that God granted to Hannah because of her ceaseless prayers filled her with a new generosity. Samuel’s consecration is the grateful response of a mother who, recognizing in her child the fruit of God’s mercy, returns his gift, entrusting the child she had so longed for to the Lord.
God intervenes in important moments
6. In the accounts of miraculous motherhood which we have recalled, it is easy to discover the important place the Bible assigns to mothers in the mission of their sons. In Samuel’s case Hannah has a determining role in deciding to give him to the Lord. An equally decisive role is played by another mother, Rebecca, who procures the inheritance for Jacob (Gn 27). That maternal intervention, described by the Bible, can be interpreted as the sign of being chosen as an instrument in God’s sovereign plan. It is he who chooses the youngest son, Jacob, to receive the paternal blessing and inheritance, and therefore as the shepherd and leader of his people…. It is he who by a free and wise decision determines and governs each one’s destiny (Wis 10:10-12).
The Bible’s message regarding motherhood reveals important and ever timely aspects: indeed, it sheds light on the dimension of gratuitousness, which is especially apparent in the case of barren women, God’s particular covenant with woman and the special bond between the destiny of the mother and that of the son.
At the same time, the intervention of God, who, at important moments in the history of his people, causes certain barren women to conceive, prepares for belief in the intervention of God who, in the fullness of time, will make a Virgin fruitful for the Incarnation of his Son.
Text taken from Blessed Pope John Paul II’s General Audience on March 6, 1996.