Queen Anne Christian Church
January 1, 2012
36 There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband for seven years after her marriage, 37then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshipped there with fasting and prayer night and day. 38At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child* to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.
39 When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. 40The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favour of God was upon him.
Who is this woman Anna and what does she have to do with the circumcision and naming of Jesus. She is mentioned only once in scripture and the only information we have about her is in these three verses, not a lot to go on. We don’t even know if Anna really existed, she may be a creation of Luke because the role Anna plays is important in the telling of his story.
When I read these few sentences something stuck out for me. Here is woman who is living in the temple, praying night and day, fasting night and day, and considered a Prophet, a woman! In a culture where women had only marginally better status than the household’s donkey this is amazing. But, Luke does give her great status within the Jewish culture; first of all he names her of the Tribe of Asher who was the seventh son of Jacob, so she has social credibility with temple authorities. Her husband’s name, Phanuel, which means “Face of God”, seems to foreshadow the very life she has lived all her years in the temple, praying and fasting, focusing her entire life on God. Her act of devotion and obedience to God appears to be exemplary, and she also appears to be one of kind. While it isn’t unheard of in scripture, after all there were women judges in the Hebrew Scriptures so women traditionally did play an important role in prophecy, but the impressions we receive from the Christian Scriptures are that a woman’s role had diminished to simple household duties.
So why would Luke even bring up this seemingly insignificant woman? After all she doesn’t play a role in the ceremony; in fact, she just seems to be at the right place, at the right time to meet Mary, Joseph, and Jesus. It is her response to that event is what Luke is emphasizing here. Unlike Simeon, Anna doesn’t bless the child, or Mary and Joseph, she doesn’t offer advice, doesn’t even offer a warning about what they will endure. Rather she understands only one thing her prayers, which she’d been offering for long years, had been answered, because Anna sees the Face of God in Jesus. Even though this small child is only 40 days old she recognizes his importance to her people. And, what does she do: Anna immediately begins to praise God, and tell everyone she knows that she has seen the future of Jerusalem. Anna, a woman, yes a well respected and honored woman but a woman, becomes the first to spread the Good News. Anna becomes the voice of the voiceless in the culture of her day. She’s not telling the Chief Priest, or any other temple big wig, she’s telling those “who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem,” Anna is telling the ones who had suffered the most under the rule of the Romans and even under their own Jewish authorities.
Anna lived in the temple, she knew how it was run, she understood that many temple authorities were abusing their power, to gather wealth and power to themselves at the expense of the people God had placed in their care. Yet in all that time Anna never lost her faith, she knew a change was coming and when she saw the first glimmer in the eyes of a baby she could not contain herself, she had to broadcast it. Anna may not have known how the life of this newborn would alter the world she knew, actually rock the Jewish and Roman world to its core, but that didn’t matter, it didn’t matter because she saw hope in the eyes of a child, It didn’t even matter that she had no knowledge as to what kind of hope was coming, she simply had to tell what she saw.
Today we start a New Year, a year of promise and yes a year of change. Traditionally the symbol of the New Year is a child, representing new life and new opportunities for the coming year. Unfortunately we have come to see the New Year promises as only political, economic and material, but I wonder how Anna would see them. Would she see hope in the latest gadget to buy, would she make a New Year’s Resolution to lose weight, or to pray more? I don’t think so, I think she would look into the eyes of the New Year’s Child and see hope of different kind. A hope of a better tomorrow, redemption of the New Jerusalem, a hope that draws us closer to a relationship with God and God into a closer relationship with us. Anna never knew what would take place 30 years later, just as we don’t know what will happen in the year, or years, to come. That didn’t stop her from being the first to shout out that hope was at hand, and it shouldn’t stop us from shouting out the same thing today.
Today we are some 20 centuries past the birth of Jesus, and yes a lot has happened within the church we aren’t particularly proud of, but, there is also a lot that we should exclaiming with praise. Anna was shouting that change was coming and a good change at that, if people listened. Well I am shouting out that change is coming to us as well. In the last 5 years I have worshiped and studied with people of many different denominations and there is one very important lesson all of us agree upon and that is Church as we have known it is undergoing a radical change. Now I don’t mean individual churches, like Queen Anne, we are a part of the greater Church, but we are only one part. I mean Church, the Greater Body of Christ, God and Holy Spirit. I mean the Church made up of every tradition, whether followers of Christ, Islam, YHWH, Buddha, or any other expression of God that draws people into relationship with the Creator. If Anna were here today she’d be shouting from the rooftops that how we worship, the ways we express our spirituality, and how we care for the ‘other’ are evolving into a new expression of God in creation. She would be saying, I see the future in young and old alike who have awakened to discover they want more than what those of the Baby Boomer Generation have grown comfortable with. Anna would be telling you, no long will the 1 or 2 hours on Sunday Morning be enough, that a time is coming when all will take their awakened spirituality and apply it to their lives, to live in a new way, where Sunday Morning, or Wednesday Evening, or Tuesday at noon become times to celebrate lives enriched by a living faith, but, the real job, the real life, of being co‑creators’ with the Great Spirit comes in our everyday living together.
Simeon warned Mary and Joseph to be prepared for heart break, and I think he would offer us that very same warning because we too will live through heart break. It is never easy creating something new and alive. There will be, there are right now, birth pangs. Suffering will take place, all of us will have to walk through some dark places, shedding some old ways, adapting others, and creating new ones. But like Anna we cannot be worried about that, just as she only wanted to let the world know that something new is coming and to get ready, we too need to tell and help prepare the hearts, minds, and spirits of our fellow travelers for new life. Anna didn’t know what the future would bring; she was only the harbinger, the robin, or first crocus of a new spring that would rock the World as she knew it.
We have just entered winter, yet deep in what looks like a lifeless ground there are stirrings of new life, ready to be born. New green shoots will shoot up and spread their leaves and produce the fruit of a new world. Within the hidden places of the earth there are animals sleeping and preparing for the spring, having their young that will grow up to and become the next generation. Our Churches are like that, we too are ready to send out shoots to grow into new green life, we too are ready to shelter the young so that they will grow into a new strong generation of Christ’s Body. Luke ends this passage with the young family returning to Galilee where the “child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God.” Today we are the ones to shelter, and fill with wisdom the young who will follow us and take up the new life of the Body of Christ. More importantly we are the Anna’s of today, shouting out the first good news of a new spring. It is up to us to shout out “I’ve seen the Face of God, hope is coming and it will be good.”
©Ruth Jewell, January 1, 2012