Looking beyond the past into the future – Sixth day within the octave of Christmas – Luke 2:36-40
In 516 BCE the reconstruction of the Temple was complete. King Herod renovated it in 19 BCE, expanding the facility to include what was basically a large shopping precinct, where you could buy religious goods and animals for sacrifice. It would have been a great sight to behold, especially for Mary and Joseph who had come from a very small town to the big city. Mary and Joseph were faithful Jews. They would have travelled for about a week to get there, at great expense. For them, observing the laws of purification was absolutely essential. They are here for the purification of Mary and the presentation of Jesus. It is here that they encounter Simeon and Anna.
The Christmas season celebrates the birth of a child but the Gospels include many venerable figures like Simeon, Elizabeth, Zechariah and Anna in these narratives. We have already dwelt on Simeon, who as part of his bucket list (a list of things you want to do before you “kick the bucket”) desired to see the Lord’s Messiah. Today we are introduced to Anna in Luke 2:36.
Anna is a prophetess, another of the ‘Quiet in the Land’ who had lived to a great age. In a few words we are given a summary of her life – her name, her father’s name, her tribe and her long life as a widow. She is the only widow named in the Gospel of Luke.
Her story is one of sorrow. She was married for just seven years before her husband died. She was left as a young widow. She may have been in her early twenties when this happened. One would imagine that in her situation she would soon find another husband, or that her kinsmen redeemer would come and raise up children for her husband who had died. But this is not what happens. She decided to stay single. She took a path that many women of her time would run away from and even loathe.
What stands out is the quality of her life, especially her faith. There is no mention in the Gospel per se of her challenging life with all its losses. She is old but full of hope, speaking ‘to all who were looking forward for the redemption of Jerusalem’. She is a model of waiting, or recognising, of fasting, of prayer and of praise. She spent her life trusting in her God to provide for her physical needs. Perhaps she even depended on the generosity of others to help sustain her physically. Her sight was clearly not on herself; she was devoted entirely to God.
There is an interesting comment that Raymond E. Brown, the scripture scholar, makes. He notes that in the books of Acts, the sequel to Luke’s Gospel, Luke describes the life of the early Christian communities in Jerusalem (Acts 2:42, 46) and later in Antioch in Syria (Acts 13:2) in very similar terms to his description of Anna, who never leaves the temple courts and who worships God day and night in prayer and fasting. “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers… Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God…” (Acts 2:42, 46). Anna is therefore a pre-figurement of the Early Church.
So, what is our takeaway from today’s Gospel?
Luke tells us that both Simeon and Anna were not just people who kept God’s commandments. Luke says of Simeon that “this man was looking forward to the consolation of Israel” (v. 25) and he tells us that when Anna saw Jesus “she began to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem” (v. 38). Both Anna and Simeon were people who were actively looking for the fulfilment of God’s saving work in the world.
Anna never left the temple but worshipped there with fasting and prayer night and day! Imagine! We can’t all be quite as focused as that, but like Anna we too must desire to put God first in our lives. Really first!
The redemption of Jerusalem was such a long time coming, the waiting involved so many centuries. So many old women in Israel looked forward in vain over all those years. Anna was blessed that she saw the Saviour just before she died. How blessed are we too, to have the Saviour near us every day of our life.
Today, an old woman is given to us as a model of discipleship. She had moved beyond the past and looked to a new future. There was no looking back with regret with what life has brought her. She had grown strong and was filled with wisdom. Let our prayer draw strength from Anna as we seek to follow her fidelity in welcoming and presenting Jesus to those around me.