Of all the things we dream of being, an eighty-four year-old widowed prophetess fasting throughout the day and praying deep into the night is not high on the list. Not many of us would choose Anna as our model.
But what a precious, old, soft-hearted woman who must’ve been a joy for heaven to welcome home.
Anna the prophetess appears in three verses near the beginning of Luke’s gospel (Luke 2:36-38). Her father was an Asherite named Phanuel, and he may have wished that his daughter never married, because after a mere seven years, she was widowed. I’ve been married for seven years, and it’s not enough. Not enough for life and love with the one to whom your heart is bound.
Decades later, at eighty-four years old, Anna had devoted herself to temple worship — she made the temple her permanent home, fasting and praying day and night on this hallowed ground settled into the Judean hills just above the old city of David.
Anna’s fasting wasn’t like our contemporary fasting, usually a contrived act of piety aiming to kick-start our feeble spirituality by giving us a short-lived taste of the sacrificial devotion and religious concentration that seems to evade our busy, worldly lives. No, Anna was mourning over the delay of the Messiah and pleading for his coming. She was waiting for the promised one who would come and fulfill the ancient prophecies and redeem her people Israel.
And one day, he came. He was just a brown-eyed Jewish infant bundled up in his teenage mother’s dark-skinned arms, but Anna knew who she’d been waiting for. Immediately “she began to give thanks to God and to speak of him to all who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem.”
Here we have suffering and loneliness and frailty and hope and fasting and praying and worship and evangelism and eschatology bound up together — and don’t ever let anyone tell you that they’re not. Devotion and anticipation turn to gratitude and proclamation as she finally lays eyes on the hope of the ages, born of a woman, born of a virgin, burn under the law.
And just maybe, in those few moments when we have eyes to see through the fog, Anna shows us why perhaps now and then we should be dreaming about being a sweet and solemn eighty-four instead of trying to stay a toned and trendy twenty-four.
I know some pretty intelligent people — deeply analytical, intellectually sharp, widely read, increasingly successful. I see the parade of glossy secularism traipsing across the flatscreens of the nation we strangely call home. I watch world-class athletes strike and soar while eye-catching actresses posture and pose. I even see and join Christians enjoying God’s earthy delights and focusing on making the most of our time on this first earth.
But Anna is rare.
I suppose she always has been. The incessant cries for relevance and engagement and activity, needful as they may be, just don’t tend to summon us toward the kind of widowly devotion that appears so softly beautiful and so strikingly foreign all at the same time.
Yet at the end of it all, I am reminded that this elderly Anna didn’t become her sweet self by looking in the spiritual mirror and touching herself up following the best tips from the religious magazines. She was just looking for the Christ. And look what she became.
We dream of being a lot of pretty paltry things, even good paltry things. But altering our aims toward the character of Anna really isn’t the ultimate solution. Rather, we should remember that although Eden was lost and Noah got drunk and Sarai laughed at the promise, although Joseph died in Egypt and Israel molded the calf and the spies said no, although the Canaanites hung around and Saul pitied Agag and David took Bathsheba, and although Solomon did his thing and his son split the kingdom and the northerners came down and took away all hope — nevertheless, there was a little boy who grew up, wept over Jerusalem, and stretched out his life across the great chasm so that the angel might put down his fiery sword and Eden could be ours again.
To be like Anna, we should start looking for Jesus again. And let hope take its course.