“There was also a prophet, Anna, the daughter of Penuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was very old; she had lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, and then was a widow until she was eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshipped night and day, fasting and praying. Coming up to them at that very moment, she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem.” (Luke 2: 36-38)
This tiny little moment is often missed within the bigger and more dramatic moments of the Christmas narrative. Why did Luke insist on its inclusion?
Obviously, because there is something of moment here, that shouldn’t be overlooked. The first point of emphasis, I think, is that the coming of Jesus is the perfect flowering of ancient promises. That is to say, this Jesus is the culmination point of the whole long story of Israel.
Sometimes we are tempted to over-emphasise the newness of what God was doing in Christ. There was even a move in the early Church, led by Marcion, to more-or-less ditch the Old Testament completely. They asked: “Why do we need all that stuff?”
Even today there is sometimes a tendency for preachers to so focus on New Testament texts that the Old Testament is seldom considered and much less well understood. But all of that complicated root system (a king like David, a prophet like Moses, a priest like Melchizedek… and so forth) intertwines and links together to produce the flower. So how can you cut off the roots without damaging the fruit?
And so, to make that emphasis, Luke includes the account of someone passionately devoted to the Temple, to its ways and rituals -a total Jewish insider- and notes how that very passion was looking forward, not stuck in the past, to something which Luke describes as the “redemption of Jerusalem.”
And there’s the point. The word “Jerusalem” signifies the old system of worship and sacrifice, the law and the prophets. But the word “redemption” signifies the new thing that was promised and is now happening – a release from bondage as the new seedling bursts out of the old soil. Much of the prophecy from the Old Testament centred on the coming of Messiah, the long-promised hero. And so Luke emphasises Anna’s extreme age and devotion. Her age means that she has lived with those promises a long long time! Her devotion means that she now recognises their fulfilment. “She never left the temple but worshipped night and day, fasting and praying…” This is the very quintessence of Old Testament faith.
But suddenly, everything has changed. “Jerusalem” is being redeeemed.
Second, as we consider Anna’s age and devotion, we should also note her gender. There are very few women who are designated “prophet” in the Bible. In the Old Testament we have Miriam, the sister of Aaron and Moses, who was a prophetess (Exodus 15:20). Deborah was another prophetess, and she was also the only woman that we know of to judge Israel (Judges 4:4). Another prophetess in the Bible is Huldah, who lived in Jerusalem during the reign of King Josiah (2 Kings 22:14; 2 Chronicles 34:22). An unnamed prophetess is mentioned in Isaiah 8:1–4. This prophetess bore Isaiah’s son Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz, whose name was prophetic.
In the New Testament, apart from Anna in Luke 2, four more prophetesses are mentioned in Acts 21:9. The four virgin daughters of Philip the evangelist were known for their prophecies.
The Bible also mentions two false prophetesses, women who claimed to speak God’s word but were lying. One of these false prophetesses is a woman named Noadiah who was part of the conspiracy to make Nehemiah afraid to follow God (Nehemiah 6:14). The other is an unnamed false prophetess referred to as “Jezebel” in Revelation 2:20.
So when Luke makes the point that Anna is a prophetess, he is anchoring that gifting of prophecy within the story of the People of God past present and future. Remember that it is Luke who will tell the story of Pentecost in Acts 2, underlining that non-gender specific bit: “I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy…”
Luke emphasises the importance of women among the People of God throughout his two-volume work. The high standing of women is evident from the beginning with two women playing enormously important roles in the history of salvation – Mary and Elizabeth, as well as Anna – roles which are described in such detail only by Luke 1-2.
There;s a constant mention of widows in Luke’s Gospel too; they are mentioned in Luke 2:37; 4:25-26; 7:12; 18:3; 20:47; 21:2. Mark 15:41 and Matt 27:55 relate that women accompanied Jesus during His ministry, but only Luke mentions that they provided for Him out of their own means (Luke 8:1-3). Martha and Mary received Jesus into their house and Mary sat at Jesus’ feet, the position of a disciple (Luke 10:38-42).
And finally, women are the first witnesses to the Resurrection. The angel said to the women in the tomb, “Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee...” (Luke 24:6), which reminds us that women accompanied Jesus since the time He was in Galilee.
And here, before any of that, it is an elderly, devout woman who recognises the truth about Jesus even when he was just a baby. In Giotto’s mural (above, from the Chapel of Scrovegni, in Padua), Anna stands quietly to one side, in a position which is easy to overlook. And yet she holds the scroll (the Old Testament promise) in one hand and with the other points to the Christ.
It was Giotto’s genius to portray those warmly human moments. And here he suggests the character of Anna as selfless, intelligent and gracious.