By Lynette Norris
Greene Publishing, Inc.
“And there was one Anna, a prophetess, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher: she was of a great age and had lived with an husband seven years from her virginity; And she was a widow of about fourscore and four years and departed not from the temple, but had served God with fastings and with prayers night and day. And she coming in the instant gave thanks likewise unto the Lord, and spake of him to all them that looked for redemption in Jerusalem.” (Luke 2:36-38, KJV)
The scene is the temple of Jerusalem, where Mary and Joseph have just brought the infant Jesus to be circumcised according to Jewish law. There, they present him to the Lord and offer the traditional sacrifice of two turtledoves or two young pigeons; and there, they meet two very extraordinary people.
One is Simeon, an elderly man described in Luke 2:25 as “just and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel: and the Holy Ghost was upon him.” In some orthodox circles today, he is known as “Simeon the God-Receiver.”
The other is Anna (whose name means “favor,” or “grace”), the daughter of Phanuel (meaning “the face or appearance of God”), of the tribe of Asher, one of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel.
At the time of the narrative in Luke’s Gospel, Anna is a devout, elderly widow.
The elderly Anna and Simeon had one other thing in common; they both had the privilege of seeing the infant Messiah before their deaths.
Long ago, God had promised Simeon that he would see the Christ child before he died, and on this day, the Holy Spirit has summoned him to the temple for this very reason. Upon seeing and holding the infant, he quietly rejoices that he can now depart his earthly life in peace; God has kept His holy promise.
Anna, the elderly widow, has been living in the temple since the death of her husband many decades earlier.
According to Jewish custom, Anna was probably wed at the age of 14; for a young Jewish maiden like Anna, her wedding day would have been the single most important day of her life, marking the threshold between girlhood and the rest of her adult life as a wife and mother.
We are never told the name of Anna’s husband or why he passed away, only that he died after seven years, leaving Anna a widow in her early 20s. For a young Jewish woman, marriage and childbearing were the sum total of her existence, her raison d’etre, and life for a widow in ancient Judea was a precarious enterprise at best. Women could not own property except under unusual circumstances, and thus typically had to rely on the kindness of strangers or the charity of other family members for financial survival. There were few legal protections for widows and orphans – a woman’s testimony was not even allowed in a court of law – and unscrupulous people could exploit them without much fear of legal reprisal. Perhaps this is why there are so many exhortations in the Scriptures for the church to remember especially the widows and orphans, and see that they were properly cared for and treated well.
Of course, a widow might marry again; there was the long-standing custom of a deceased husband’s brother taking the widow in marriage, but there is no mention of a brother for Anna’s late husband. Perhaps she could have married another man, being still fairly young, but she didn’t. She may have been too grief-stricken or, after seven years of marriage and no children, she may have been presumed barren, one of those women “whose womb the Lord had closed,” and therefore unmarriageable.
However, the Scriptures do not come right out and say directly that she was considered barren, so it may have been her decision to remain a widow for the rest of her life. We cannot know for certain.
What is certain, though, is that she did not give in to despair and hopelessness.
For Anna to be so bereft of everything that had made up her young adult life of seven years, the future must have looked bleak indeed, and the loneliness of the years stretching out in front of her would be hard for anyone else to imagine. She is left with almost nothing…except her faith.
Rather than becoming bitter and angry, she draws on her faith in God for strength and comes to live at the temple as a prophetess, a holy woman, spending the rest of her life ministering to others. Over the years, people became quite accustomed to seeing her serving at the temple. Her faithfulness, wisdom, devotion and gift of prophecy bring her respect and credibility in the eyes of the community, and also bring her closer to God.
At the time of Luke’s narrative, she is either 84 years old, or has been a widow for 84 years; the passage is a little ambiguous, with some scholars holding out for 84 as her given age, and others maintaining that she had been a widow for 84 years. That would make her about 105 at the time, which is entirely possible. Tradition has it that Simeon lived until the ripe old age of 360.
As soon as Anna sees the infant Jesus, she knows immediately that this is the long-awaited Messiah. She rejoices in her heart and proclaims the news to everyone who will listen. Because of her many years of seeking the Lord’s presence and walking with God, she is in the right place at the right time, to be the first to proclaim the joyous news of the Messiah’s arrival; her words carry weight with those who hear them because of the exemplary life she has led.
Today, the Roman Catholic Church and Eastern Orthodox Church commemorate Anna as a saint – Anna the Prophetess. The Eastern Orthodox Church considers Anna and Simeon as the last of the Old Testament Prophets, celebrating their feast day on Feb. 3.
In works of art, Anna and Simeon are often included in the iconography of the Presentation of Christ, along with Mary, Joseph and the Holy Infant; according to orthodox tradition, it was in the persons of Anna and Simeon that the Christ child first met the people He would eventually lead in His earthly mission.
What we take with us from Anna’s story is her willingness to seek the Lord in all things and to draw upon Him for strength in times of trouble, rather than give in to despair and allow grief to claim the rest of her life. When Anna was mourning her late husband and everything seemed to have been taken from her, she put her faith and trust in God, and allowed Him to lead her to her new life in the temple.
Because she was known as a Prophetess by the time her story is told in Luke, we know that she was respected and admired, and that her ministry in the temple must have helped many people over the years. We also know that God must have been pleased with His servant, not only because He blessed her ministry, but also because, before the end of her days, He allowed her to see, with her own eyes, the Son of God, the Messiah who had come to deliver Israel.