Read and pray through the Gospel of Luke, chapter 2:22 – 40.
Introduction | With the 12 days of Christmas behind us and a new year before us, we offer you some bonus material for the last two weeks of this devotional series that began the season of Advent. Two weeks ago, we finished looking at the particular women who are highlighted in Jesus’ ancestry as presented in Matthew’s Gospel. Now we briefly will look at two other significant women who are a part of the Christmas story – noted specifically in Luke’s gospel account.
Reflection | For our final week of this devotional series we are considering one of the most overlooked people in the Christmas story – a woman named Anna. Only three verses are dedicated to Anna, so we aren’t told much about her. However, from what Luke does share with us, there is much to appreciate about this often-forgotten woman in the Christmas story.
Anna arrives on the scene during the purification of Mary, Joseph, and Jesus at the Temple. This purification ritual was rooted in the laws laid out in the book of Leviticus (specifically see chapter 12). According to these laws, a woman who had given birth was ceremonially unclean for different lengths of time depending on whether the child born was a boy or a girl.
When a woman gave birth to a boy, she was ceremonially unclean for forty days and when she gave birth to a girl, she was ceremonially unclean for eighty days. The difference between these two periods of time was not a reflection of boys being valued more highly than girls in Israelite culture. Rather it had to do with baby boys being circumcised on the eighth day. The shedding of blood that is a part of the ritual of circumcision shortened the period of uncleanness.
It is important to emphasize the word “ceremonially” when talking about this uncleanness. The point of the Levitical laws about cleanness was not about hygiene or morality. Childbirth itself was not viewed as sinful. These ritual laws were symbolic, underscoring the brokenness and mortality of all humanity apart from God which can only be reconciled and restored by the Lord’s gracious intervention. As part of this symbolism, one becomes impure or unclean upon contact with death or with the loss of potential life.
In this case, Mary was ceremonially unclean after having given birth and Joseph also was ceremonially unclean for having touched Mary while she was bleeding while giving birth. Therefore, the Jewish law required the purification of Mary, as well as Joseph. Perhaps we might wonder why a mother and a father would contract impurity upon bringing new life into the world if impurity is the result of the symbolic forces of death. In the ancient world, childbirth was laden with danger to the mother as well as marked by high infant mortality rates. Much more so than today, with the birth of very child there was an encounter with potential death. In addition, a mother’s giving of life to a child was viewed as something of a loss of life within her. With a delivery of a baby, a void of life – the child that grew within her –was experienced by the mother – in a sense a loss or death – thus creating the new for purification and renewal.
On the day of this ritual, as Mary and Joseph both dedicate their first-born son, Jesus, to the Lord and offer the required sacrifice for their purification, they encounter two individuals, Simeon and Anna. While both arrive independently of each other, Simeon and Anna appear to have been commonly led to Mary, Joseph, and Jesus by divine direction. The Bible advises, and for specific cases the Torah even requires, the evidence of two witnesses to establish an important legal charge (Deuteronomy 17 and 19). Simeon and Anna are a complimentary pair – together witnessing the beginning of the fulfillment of God’s covenant promise.
Simeon arrives first, and Luke records more of his encounter than he does Anna’s. Simeon is an old man who has been waiting for an intimate promise from the Holy Spirit to come true. Told that he would not die until he had seen Israel’s long-promised Messiah, Simeon prophetically rejoices as he declares the child before him, Jesus, to be the Lord’s “salvation” – “prepared in the sight of all people, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.”
While Joseph and Mary are still marveling at Simeon’s words, they are next approached by Anna. Unlike Simeon, her direct speech is narrated rather than quoted by Luke. While Simeon speaks of the broader context of Jesus as the Christ both to Israel and the Gentiles, Anna gives thanks to God and evangelizes more selectively—to those “looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem.”
But who is this woman named Anna who seemingly appears out of nowhere?
She is a unique and most unusual woman in the Bible because she is described as a prophet – or more literally, a prophetess. In this categorization, Anna joins an elite group of women who are mentioned as prophets in the Old Testament – Miriam, Deborah, and Huldah. However, Anna is the New Testament’s only named female prophetess. The only other women in the New Testament specifically declared, not as prophets per se, but as bearing a prophetic gift are the daughters of Philip in Acts, chapter 21.
Whereas Simeon prophesies in the moment of meeting Jesus, Anna is presented a prophet by divine calling. As a prophetess, Anna receives, through the Holy Spirit, divine insight into things that normally remain hidden to ordinary people. Through this encounter with Jesus, the Lord further appoints Anna to declare His word and plans for His people.
The significance of this cannot be overstated. After all, until this moment, it has been 400 years since the last divinely set prophet of Israel named Malachi. Since Malachi, no revelation from the Lord had been given to His people. Until now. Until Anna.
Anna was the daughter of Penuel, of the tribe of Asher. Interestingly, she numbers among the few people in the New Testament who are referenced in terms of their tribal heritage. Others include Jesus, of the house and lineage of David and the tribe of Judah (Luke 2:4; Matthew 1:1-16), Saul of Benjamin (Philippians 3:5), and Barnabas, a Levite (Acts 4:36). Asher was a northern tribe of Israel that after having been conquered by Assyria became known as one of the ten lost tribes. Therefore, in the time of the New Testament, the tribe of Asher was not viewed as being all that significant. But now, through the prophetess Anna and her encounter with Jesus, the tribe that once was lost now comes home (see Jeremiah 23:8).
While Luke provides Anna’s father’s name, he does not share her husband’s. All we are told is she was married for seven years, then widowed. No children are mentioned so we can assume Anna had no one to care for her in her old age. To be a widow without children in the ancient world was to be left with no real means of support and therefore to find oneself particularly vulnerable.
Luke makes it clear Anna was a widow for many years – making her position in society even more precarious. He also reinforces that she was very old when she met Jesus. What is uncertain is exactly how old Anna was. Luke dwells on her advanced age with ambiguity. As written, did Like mean that Anna’s widowhood lasted for 84 years or that Anna was 84 years old when she encountered Mary and Joseph?
If it is the former, let’s do the math. The average age for a woman to get married in the ancient world was between 14 – 15 years old. Therefore, it is possible that Anna was widowed at age 21, and then met the family of Jesus 84 years later at either age 105 – 106!
Whether she was 84 or 106 years old, most people of Anna’s age – at least today – would have been slowing down. And yet Luke indicates Anna’s daily routine – probably one for decades – were the habits of worship, prayer and fasting. This was a woman with a serious relationship with her Lord. She did not rest merely upon her calling as a prophetess but nurtured that calling, that gifting, through a regular diet of conversation and abiding in the presence of God. Her ability to walk around the Temple reflects how, despite her age, her spiritual fitness was equally matched by her physical fitness.
Luke also indicates Anna never left the Temple. Evidently, she resided within the Temple or on its premises. There is a precedent for such a living arrangement from earlier centuries where Levite musicians and heads of families “stayed in the rooms of the temple and were exempt from other duties because they were responsible for the work day and night” (see 1 Chronicles 9:33). The Second Temple constructed during the reign of King Herod’s was even larger than the original one. It had various rooms built into the outer walls. Many scholars believe that is where Anna lived – a room built into the wall of the Courts of Women.
Unlike Simeon, who after meeting the Messiah was ready to go home to the Lord, Anna appears to be just getting started. For the last word Luke offers us about Anna is how, after encountering Jesus, she “spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem.” For Anna, the good news of the birth of our Savior was too good to be kept to herself. Deeply rooted in a rhythm of spiritual practices – of worship, prayer, and service within her community – Anna put the weight of her life and her reputation behind her words and told others about Christ. Even before this child had grown into a man – before any signs and wonders, any teachings or parables, or the work of the Cross and the Resurrection, an elderly woman started to spread the Gospel to everyone she knew.
With only three terse verses, we are given a picture of a woman who gratefully received the gift of Christmas and shared it with others. For many of us, the reality of both growing older as well as enduring loss in our lives can turn us bitter. Anna, however, reflects a biblical example of aging well – no matter what one’s age or life circumstances.
Anna had lost her husband quickly. After being married for only seven years, Anna could have lived in misery and despondency. Instead she purposefully chose to daily live a life that sought and relied upon God. Having lost her earthly love, Anna literally moved into the Lord’s house and surrendered completely to the eternal movement of divine love. She waited a long time but one day love came in flesh – as promised.
Meanwhile, Anna did not wait aimlessly. She spent her time getting ready and being prepared. Anna did not live in fear despite her exposure and vulnerability as a widow. She persisted in trusting in the Lord. Not in theory but in practice. She abided daily – speaking, listening, and practically relying on God.
Through regular fasting, her primary hunger and thirst became for spiritual nourishment. Through a lifestyle of prayer, she communed with God in both the smaller and the decisive moments of her life. Dedicating herself to a posture of daily worship, she learned the language of Heaven and was empowered to speak truth to power as a prophet of the Lord.
And when the most important moment in all her life came, Anna was ready. She was prepared. She was able to see her Lord. She was blessed to recognize the truth and to know she was saved. She was gifted to not only receive the goodness of God but to share His goodness with others.
From Anna’s story we learn yet again regardless of age, gender, social status or life circumstances, God can use anyone to be an ambassador of His Kingdom, to be an agent of His mercy, grace, and love. And like Anna, our waiting upon the Lord is not in vain, provided we make the most of the time we are given – trusting and abiding always in His leading.
For the Lord chooses all of us to reveal and actualize His message and His plans for this world and to keep passing it on to others.
Consider & Discuss | In what aspect or area of your life is the Lord calling you to wait upon Him? How are either your age or your life experiences affecting your attitude and your perception of your ability to wait for God? What can you learn or apply from how Anna waited on the Lord despite her age and the loss she encountered in her life? What would your waiting be like if you adopted the spiritual practices to which Anna committed herself?
Sometimes we are waiting for God and sometimes God has shown up or spoken and yet we are still waiting to act, to respond. After Anna’s waiting was over, she shared what she had received. Examine your circumstances. Are you sharing what the Lord has given you? How is God calling you to move from waiting to sharing – to expressing your faith in Christ through your love and service for others.
Prayer Focus | Precious Lord, we seek to persist in waiting upon You like Anna. We recognize and confess that there are many distractions before us in our waiting – our perception of the limitations of our age, the pain and frustrations of the loss we experience in our lives. Teach us to wait by learning to hunger and thirst for You. Empower us to adopt a daily posture of worship – of communing with You through prayer and being in Your word. Encourage us when we stumble in developing this habit. Recenter us when we confuse these spiritual practices with their focus – being in an abiding relationship with You. Remind us again and again, that waiting upon You is never wasted time but rather time to be prepared, to be equipped for when You call our name and direct our steps forward. When that time comes, Lord, like Anna, may we respond with gratitude that leads to action in Your name. Through our words and our deeds, make our lives a living testimony of Your love and power as we welcome and present Jesus to those around us. Amen.