The Significance of Anna’s Age and Lifestyle — Sixth Day in the Christmas Octave

Readings: 1st John 2:12-17, Luke 2:36-40

Whenever we read the Bible, it is profitable for us to remember that every detail is there for a reason. The sacred authors and the Holy Spirit chose to omit so many minor facts that “I do not think the whole world would contain the books that would be written” if they had described everything. (John 21:25) Instead, all that we find in Scripture has been purposely included for our benefit. (John 20:30-31) Consider the details mentioned in this encounter from the Presentation, when Joseph and Mary brought the baby Jesus to the temple in Jerusalem for the first time:

The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple by James Tissot

There was a prophetess, Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was advanced in years, having lived seven years with her husband after her marriage, and then as a widow until she was eighty-four. She never left the temple, but worshiped night and day with fasting and prayer. And coming forward at that very time, she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were awaiting the redemption of Jerusalem.

This is the only episode in the New Testament where the prophetess Anna appears. Why does St. Luke include Anna’s age and the length of her marriage? Let’s explore this obscure detail. The 84-year-old widow was married for seven years, and thus was unmarried for 77 years of her life. She is 7 x 12: the Jewish number symbolizing completeness and perfection times the number of the tribes of Israel. Anna personifies Old Testament Israel at her best. But of the twelve tribes, which tribe would correspond with Anna’s seven years of marriage?

After the death of Saul, all the tribes of Israel came to David (of the tribe of Judah) seeking to make him their king. They said: “Look! We are your bone and your flesh,” echoing the words of Adam towards Eve at the beginning of their marriage covenant, “This one, at last, is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.” (2nd Samuel 5:1, Genesis 2:23) Old Testament Israel had been wedded for a time to David, but now she awaited the kingship of a Son of David from the tribe of Judah. While David had once conquered Jerusalem from the Jebusites, Anna and others in her day were “awaiting the redemption of Jerusalem” by the Messiah/Christ. (1st Chronicles 11:4-5)

Living like a Christian nun veiled in anticipation of her bridegroom’s arrival, Anna “never left the temple, but worshiped night and day with fasting and prayer.” Why would Anna, or any woman, choose to live in this way? St. John’s first epistle offers this admonition:

Do not love the world or the things of the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, sensual lust, enticement for the eyes, and a pretentious life, is not from the Father but is from the world. Yet the world and its enticement are passing away. But whoever does the will of God remains forever.

Alexandrian World Chronicle (5th century) featuring Anna the ProphetessThough Anna understood the evil corruptions of “the world,” she was also well aware of the goodness of creation. She had known the blessings of marriage and the (at least occasional) pleasures of feasting, but Anna knew that these passing things could not fully satisfy her. Her deepest longings could only be met by the One to come, not only for her but for all Jews and Gentiles. When Jesus Christ came to the temple, Anna rejoiced, gave thanks, and “spoke about the child to all who were awaiting the redemption of Jerusalem.” Because she devoted herself to “the will of God,” Anna’s scriptural legacy and joy before the Lord ‘remain forever.’

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