Anna is described with greater detail in Luke 2 than her actual experience might indicate deems necessary. For she spent a fleeting few minutes with the infant Jesus, without ever holding him or speaking directly to him or his parents, and yet we know a great deal about her.
The name Anna means grace. And how fitting. This woman, please don’t miss that important detail, was named after the gift of God given to people because of his goodness not theirs. I am sure, whatever her birth circumstances were, that her parents were profoundly moved with gratitude to God for Anna’s presence in their lives. An infant who would become a woman through whom the entire church is represented. She looks on the promise of the Messiah and then goes to tell others. She experienced grace and then became a grace giver.
A prophet, or prophetess in this case, is one who hears from God and then speaks to others. Martin Luther points out that,
“Divine truth wants to have quiet hearts which listen and desire to learn; but those who storm and are noisy, who are obstinate or first want to know signs and reasons, before they catch the truth, they are in the confusion of Babylon and not in Jerusalem, with its vision of peace.”.Martin Luther
Prophets must be good listeners for their worth is bound up not in their own initiative but God’s. Martin Luther expressed that divine truth desires “quiet hearts which listen and desire to learn.” They must be willing to wait and willing to act. A prophetess must be willing to submit her will to God’s with patience of attention. How fascinating that Anna is more known for not what she said, for that is not recorded, but how she listened! Praying, fasting, watching, waiting, in the Temple, among the people without losing sight of the one who created the Temple.
Anna is the daughter of Phanuel of the tribe of Asher. In Genesis 32:30, after Jacob had wrestled and fought with the angel, he called that place “Peniel” or “Phanuel” and said: “I have seen God face to face, and because of it my soul has been saved.” From the little known tribe of Asher and from the line of people named for the very place that Jacob wrestled with God, saw him face to face, and had his soul saved. The name of her father would be the prophetic impulse of her life. Whether she knew it or not makes no difference. God was about to once again make known that seeing his face is worth the greatest of sacrifices.
Anna was married for 7 years. Faithful in marriage as she had been in her raising in the house of Phanuel. Her early life unfolded as we would have expected. Married and beginning to live the life of a regular, typical, normal Israelite woman. And then…
Tragedy strikes as her husband dies after only a few years of marriage. And here we find Anna’s story taking on a twist. Not remarrying and finding security in a relationship with another husband is an act that reminds us of the story of Naomi who was the mother-in-law of Ruth who rather than remarrying to find security returns to her hometown of Bethlehem and her people. Anna, too, is determined to find life’s security and purpose not in earthly arrangements but in eternal ones. We don’t need to know anything more to know that Anna was a deeply faithful person.
And then at the age of 84 it happens. Decades. Decades and decades. That is the length of time Anna spends in the Temple praying, fasting, and watching. Faithful in singleness. Faithful in marriage. Faithful in widowhood. Faithful in waiting. And now her faithfulness is met with God’s favor as she is given a fleeting glimpse of God’s face in the person of Jesus. And this life changing moment in time was brought about by her lifetime of faithful moments.
And now the prophetic task is not a blueprint or program or even advocacy. It is the elusiveness of possibility out beyond evidence, an act of imagination that authorizes the listening assembly to imagine even out beyond the ken of the speaker.[from Reality, Grief, and Hope by Walter Brueggeman]
Anna’s act of imagination confronts those who are in the Temple with the possibility of Messiah. The potential of an anointed one from God being sent to all of Israel and beyond. The fulfillment of Abraham’s covenant that the Israelites would bless all others. She, not in word but in deed, not in program but presence, not by force but by meekness is a reliable witness of what it means to wait on the Lord. For her, the Scriptures are not to be read and forgotten but embodied.
There is so much to be discovered and examined in this little known saint. But that may miss the main point of her life and indeed inclusion in Scripture. She points the people of God to the hard work of waiting for and on God. Waiting is not only what we do, but who we are. We are waiters. Those who spend their life’s energies making a place for others to be nourished. Waiting is not glamorous. It is the difficult work of going against the grain for a really long time. So long that we look out of step with the culture around us. And that might just be the point. That’s why waiting is difficult for those needing instant gratification. For we are not waiting on a train whose schedule is published but a God whose purposes exceed any schedule. Besides, if God arrived on our time table it would be us not God who would be in control. If God showed up well before it became awkward who would even take notice? It is the awkwardness that highlights faith.
Especially in this day and time, the world needs people with quiet hearts who are willing to listen and learn the promises of God. The world needs these same people to perform acts of heroic patience. Now, those two words don’t normally go together do they? Heroic. Patience. Waiting on the Lord and trusting in his promises is the essence of heroic patience. The world needs people unwilling to succumb to the pressures, fears and the anxieties of this world as it moves through times of trial. It needs, and indeed we need, a group of people willing to be prophetically imaginative by maintaining that God is able and willing. A group who will say in word and deed that our deliverance is not a question of “if” but “when”.