Infertility and the desert
|Manoah and his wife sacrifice a ram to the angel|
While listening to the Gospel (Lk 1:5-25) and also the first reading at Mass today (Judges 13:2-7,24-25), I do not think it hard to be moved by the plight of both women, whom people had called “barren”. It was a terrible label for any woman. Fertility, the ability to bring forth life, has been the essence of marriage in almost every society (excepting our own in the modern west) and the inability to have children is a terrible burden for any married couple. And this burden perhaps falls most heavily upon women who are constantly reminded through their menstrual cycle of their capacity to nurture life within their bodies. Women are created with the gift of being tabernacles of new human life. (Incidentally this is why in Catholic churches women traditionally wear veils. All holy tabernacles are veiled in a Catholic Church: the tabernacle behind the altar, the chalice, statues of Our Lady and thus also all God’s daughters.)
Infertility was seen in their time as a sign of God’s disfavour, but Elizabeth and Monoah’s wife, we hear about in Mass today, are not the only childless women in salvation history who are made fertile by God’s intervention. There was Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, and Hannah. Thus John’s birth falls in line with that of Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Samson, and Samuel, all of whom were representatives of the Covenant between God and Israel.
And John was to be a Nazarite from birth. The practical consequences of this were that being consecrated he could not drink alcohol nor have his hair cut. In many ways Nazarites were like Old Testament monks and nuns. Nazarites could take lifelong or temporary consecration. John was to be a Nazarite from birth and for his whole life. Nazarites could also be priests or members of the laity.
The conception of John in a womb called “barren” also symbolised his vocation as a desert prophet. For from the barren wilderness would come forth a prophet proclaiming a message to prepare for the coming of Him whom is Life. Indeed the desert would blossom and bring forth truth, beauty and goodness.
There is barrenness in all our lives. There are aspects of all our lives I expect that are not bearing fruit. What should we do about them? Like those courageous women of faith in salvation history we need to bring our barrenness to God with all the faith we can muster and ask the Lord to make our lives fruitful according to His Will. Perhaps we do not see how they can be made fertile but God does not see things as we do!