Today's podcast is a meditation on Luke 2:36-38, just after Jesus' birth.
You can get a copy of "Messiah: Biblical Retellings" here: my collection of retellings of the miracles of Jesus, published under my pen name, C.A. Gray
We know very little about Anna: just three verses encompass her entire life. She was married seven years, and then widowed for eighty-four; probably the youngest she could have been married would have been fourteen, which would make her at least one hundred and five by the time she sees Jesus.
The Old Testament makes provisions for widows. If they are widowed young, as Anna would have been, a kinsman redeemer is to marry her and provide for her. Perhaps she had none, or perhaps he refused.
Anna may have had children who had grown by now; maybe she chose to live at the temple only after they had grown. But the verses seem to imply that she had lived at the temple from the time of her widowhood, for eighty-four years. This to me suggests that in seven years of marriage, she never had any children. So either she or her husband were likely barren (and in those days, the woman was usually blamed). Would that be why she never remarried, because she was assumed to be barren? There are promises for the faithful of Israel that none shall be barren or miscarry, though the Word must always be mixed with faith to receive it (Hebrews 4:2). It’s pure speculation to imagine what might have happened in Anna’s case.
In my retelling, though, I imagine that her decision to remain a widow and live at the temple all her life started out as what she thought was her only choice. As a widow with presumably no family to care for her, she was dependent upon offerings to sustain her anyway (Deut 26:12-13), so it makes sense that she would live at the temple. But as she grew closer to the Lord and invested all her attention on pleasing Him rather than on pleasing a husband, she realized that this was actually better, as did the later Apostle Paul (1 Cor 7:32-40). The Lord is the husband to the widow (Isaiah 54:4-5) just as the Church is the Bride of Christ.
What did she do during those long years, though? How do you fast and pray for eighty-four years?
Paul writes that we are to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess 5:17). This does not mean constantly petitioning the Lord for the same things like a broken record, though. Most prayer is not petition at all. Like Adam and Eve strolling with God in the cool of the day, it is simply being aware of Him, spending time with Him. Like David in the Psalms, it is praising Him for who He is, for His goodness, for what He has done. For us today (though not yet for Anna), it is the Holy Spirit showing us things to come and leading us into all truth (John 16), and praying the hidden mysteries of God in tongues (1 Cor 14) to build us up in our faith (Jude 1:20). It’s meditating on and renewing our minds with the Word (Romans 12:2). I imagine that Anna also had plenty of time to pour over the prophecies of the Messiah. She did not yet have the Holy Spirit upon the HS was probably upon her but not w/in her her (or maybe she did, since Simeon did, Luke 2:26, and He came upon Old Testament heroes from time to time!). Regardless, like God’s friends of old such as Abraham and Daniel, He must have revealed to Anna what he was about to do on the earth. That’s why she knew to come in to the temple “that instant,” when Mary and Joseph were presenting the sacrifices for Jesus according to the law. God probably wanted to share with those attuned to Him enough to listen, just like we want to share good news with the people closest to us. He wanted his friends to celebrate with Him!
I could have attempted to remarry when I was widowed at the young age of twenty-one. But it would not have been easy, for several reasons.
First, my husband had no unmarried brothers. There were distant cousins to whom I could turn as kinsman-redeemers, but I knew they would not want me. In the seven years of our marriage, I had not produced a child, so it was to be assumed that I was barren.
I had a brother and a kindly sister-in-law who would have taken me in, but this would have been a great burden upon them. They were poor, and had three children at the time to provide for already. Also, given my barrenness, it was unlikely that I would ever be taken off their hands.
So it was clear that I should choose a life of pure devotion to the Lord. I was already predisposed to do so anyway, as I had learned to read at a young age, and during my husband’s long illness, I had poured over the scriptures for comfort.
At first the stories of old were just stories to me. But in time I began to see the broken heart of God as the theme interwoven through them all: His deep love for His people who time and time again betrayed Him. His love for Israel was like the jealous love of a husband for his unfaithful bride, Israel. The first time I read through Hosea, I wept and wept for the Lord. I was only one woman, but I longed to make it up to Him on behalf of my people, to the best of my poor abilities. He would be my husband, and I would be his bride, spending every moment and every year and every last bit of my strength in loving and worshiping Him. In return, He filled me up with His love so completely that I often felt I could burst with the joy of it. No earthly wife was ever so satisfied as I was with my groom.
I dwelt in the temple night and day, fasting and praying before the Lord. I slept in the Chamber of the Hearth. I joined in as those who came to the temple presented their little ones for dedication and sacrifice, thanking God for them with as much fervor as if they had been my own. Many times the Lord would give me a specific word for their lives, and I would lay hands on them and prophesy to their parents what they would become. He often led me to join with those who wept and mourned, and lend them the strength and comfort He had given me. I didn’t resent it or feel like I was just being used as an instrument to bless others—it was more like I was partnering with my Husband in His work. It made me feel closer to Him.
I had been there for almost fifteen years, the first time the Lord let me see Him. Whether it was in the body or in the spirit, I do not know, the Lord knows. But for the first time, I understood what the prophet Ezekiel had described. His language of the Throne Room had been so fantastical that I could not grasp it until I saw it myself. Then I realized that our language falls pitifully short, and Ezekiel had done the best he could! The throne shone a vibrant, clear, shining blue—like a sapphire, though it was not a sapphire. The One who sat on the throne—oh! I have never before beheld anything so beautiful! He burned like fire, except he was not fire itself. It was his glory that shone, radiating an amber color from the waist up, like the vibrant orange of a flame; from the waist down, beholding Him was like looking at the sun, or a star. But the light He produced split into all its component colors, a shimmering rainbow so bright I could scarcely look at it. I, too, fell on my face before Him.
“Stand, Daughter,” said the voice of the One on the throne, and though it sounded like many waters, in it was also infinite tenderness. “And approach. She who dwells in the secret place of the Most High shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty.”
I recognized the passage as the first verse of Psalm 91. I had spent many years now meditating upon the meaning of the secret place. Here it was! The Lord granted me the desire of my heart—to behold it. To dwell in it! The only way to get into the shadow of the throne was to do as He bid me, to approach very close indeed. It was the one thing I wanted so badly I could hardly stand it, and yet I was so terrified that I dared not move without invitation.
But He Himself had invited me! I rose, quivering. Somehow my legs obeyed me, and the next thing I knew, I was running to Him. He laughed, and the sound of His laughter filled the throne room with almost palpable joy. Then He stood up, opening His arms to receive me. I had intended to dive behind the throne and hide in its shadow, but to run past His waiting arms would be to reject Him—and that was the one thing in the world I could never, never do. Though I hardly knew how I dared, both terrified and yet bursting with His joy, I ran straight into them. And oh, the bliss of that moment—it is almost indecent to describe it!
I have not left that embrace these almost seventy years since. Not once.
As the years went on, the Lord took me more and more to the scriptures that prophesied the coming Messiah, from the prophecy of Eve’s Seed who would bruise the head of the serpent to the Rod of the stem of Jesse prophesied in Isaiah. This meant we would know His lineage, I realized. He would have to come as a baby, not as a conquerer from the ends of the earth! As I realized this, I had a vision of a child, ordinary looking in every way.
Oh, how I longed for that Child, far more than I had ever desired a child of my own!
Then one day, the priest named Zacharias emerged from his duties at the temple. There was a commotion around him. Curious, I joined the small crowd of onlookers as he emerged into the outer courts.
“What took you so long, Zacharias?” the other priests pressed him. “You were in there for ages! We thought we would have to pull you out by the rope!” There was a smattering of laughter at this, but it died away quickly as Zacharias gestured at the Holy of Holies, then up at the ceiling and down, then with his fingers splayed out again and again.
“What’s he saying?” a few murmured.
Another said to him, “Can’t you speak?”
“I think he’s seen a vision! Did you see a vision, Zacharias?” When the priest nodded vigorously, there was a ripple of shock. The questions came faster and all at once after that, but the priest pushed past them, apparently done trying to communicate. It was clear he was eager to leave.
He saw an angel, I realized. I swallowed, and asked the Lord, Does this have to do with the coming of the Christ?
He did not answer me, but I felt that it did somehow. Yet why couldn’t the old priest speak about what he had seen? Why would the Lord reveal something to him in a vision if he could not communicate it to us? That must mean that the vision was just for him…
Nine months later, I had my answer. I was not there when the elderly priest’s newborn son was circumcised, but the temple was abuzz with the stories.
“His tongue was loosed as soon as he proclaimed the child’s name was John, and then he prophesied that he would be the forerunner of the Christ, the one Malachi spoke of!”
My pulse quickened, and again, I had a flash of the baby: the Lord’s anointed. This John was not Him, but He would come soon, I realized. He would come to this very temple for His dedication and sacrifice. I would see Him!
Will I see Him, Lord? I begged silently. Will I live that long? I was an old woman, over one hundred years old—but surely the Lord could let me live just a little longer. As I had remained in the Father’s embrace all these years, might I also hold Him with my natural arms, before I fell asleep for the last time?
I petitioned the Lord for this honor daily for the next six months.
Then one day, I saw devout old Simeon hurrying through the outer courts of the temple. He did not live in the temple as I did, but he was there very often. Usually he was friendly to me—but today, he was on a mission. I followed close behind him, my heart burning with anticipation. Then suddenly, he froze.
A young couple stood before him. The girl mother held a small bundle, and her husband stood beside her. Both were simply dressed. My eyes fell to the babe in her arms even as I saw Simeon approach them, and my heart leapt to my throat. Simeon reached out for the babe, and the surprised mother yielded him to the old man’s arms.
“Lord,” Simeon said, his voice loud and clear, yet trembling with emotion, “now You are letting Your servant depart in peace, according to Your word; for my eyes have seen Your salvation which You have prepared before the face of all peoples, a light to bring revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of Your people Israel.”
The man and his wife exchanged a look of wonder. Still cradling the child, Simeon looked up at the girl and proclaimed, “Behold, this child is destined for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign which will be spoken against—yes, and a sword will pierce through your own soul also—that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.”
He then relinquished the child into the mother’s arms again, and turned to look at me with a smile and a twinkle in his eye. Trembling, I walked forward for my turn, and beseeched the girl with a question in my eyes. I hoped—oh, so desperately!—that she would offer to let me hold him too. I reached out my withered old hands, and then retracted them again, suddenly fearing that I might be too frail. What if I could not support Him? But just as I pulled away again, the girl gave me an encouraging nod and reached out, placing the bundle in my arms.
My eyes swam with tears as I held my Lord, as He had held me my whole life long. I looked into the innocent little face. He looked back up at me with His wide dark eyes that seemed just like those of any other infant, and yet—did He know me? I fancied He did. Then He smiled, giggled and cooed. I giggled back like a schoolgirl, the tears running freely down my face. I dared not spare a hand to wipe them away while I held such precious cargo.
I thought my heart would burst. But if it did so now, if I died right here, that would be all right.
“Thank you, Lord,” I managed, “for granting my petition, for granting that I might see and hold the redemption of Your people, here in the land of the living! This is the Child who was foretold in the beginning, the Seed of Eve, the root of Jesse, the Lion of Judah, and the Lamb of God!”
I lifted up my eyes in thanksgiving, as the mother whispered, looking from me to where Simeon had been, “How do you both know this?”
“The same way the shepherds knew,” her husband murmured to her. “Everyone close to the Lord seems to know…”
“It’s an open secret,” I agreed, grinning at the man. “He’s only been talking about it since the dawn of time.”