Text: Luke 2:22-40;
In the name of the +Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Well, Christmas is well and truly over, the decorations are safely packed away, and the more enterprising amongst you may already have bought next year’s Christmas cards cheaply in the January sales, I know we have! Soon after Christmas the next two high points of the Christian story turn to the Epiphany and now Candlemas – the presentation of Christ in the temple.
It does seem rather strange, with only three days to go before Lent – Ash Wednesday is the earliest it can possibly be this year and the earliest since 1854 – for us to still swell on Christmas, but this feast of Candlemas – the presentation of Christ is the final part of that chapter of the Incarnation.
So, as far as the closing events of Christmas go, Epiphany gets quite a bit more attention than Candlemas, and in the Orthodox tradition, Epiphany is the date for the exchanging of presents. Yet it is Candlemas which marks the true end of Christmastide, and the last revelation of the incarnation to us all for some years, until the finding in the temple and then Our Lord’s adult ministry.
I am sure you can all name the three Wise Men: Kaspar, Melchior, and Balthasar- at least, that is what we call them, because of course there is only a couple of paltry lines of Scripture about them. However, tradition has created names, reputations, hymns and histories about them: we dress these boys up in fancy robes, we imagine them as very successful, wealthy, world travellers, spiritually insightful, prime specimens, we give them names, and we plunk them down, just off centre stage in the crib. We all know about, we all love the three wise men.
So – who are the three wise women of the biblical, birth narratives? Who are the three wise women of Christmastide? …I am sure you weren’t expecting a quiz this morning, but who were the three wise women… ?
I’m sure we’d all want to include firstly, Our Lady, the Theotokos – the bearer of God – and, if we think we might remember Elizabeth. But who might we identify as the third wise woman of these birth narratives? Well, my dear friends, I’d like to nominate Anna for this privilege.
We often miss her… It’s easy to read her as not much more than a supporting player to Simeon but she’s really someone very important. So important, in fact, that scripture records not only name, but also details of her genealogy and scripture pointedly tells us that even among her own people, in the context of a male-dominated society, she was regarded as a prophet: and hence, we can assume she was held in some kind of high spiritual regard – perhaps not by the Scribes and Pharisees, but certainly by the ordinary folk.
Perhaps this Anna deserves a second look as today we consider the wider narratives of the birth of Jesus. So – who was this woman?
Luke uses two full verses to give us details about Anna. Besides her name, Luke tells us that she was a prophetess, he tells us her father’s name, he tells us that she came from the tribe of Asher. He tells us that she was very old, that she had been married for seven years and that she’d been a widow for 84 years. We’re also told that she never left the temple and that day and night she served God with fasting and prayers… So, what good news we can unpack from all these details.
We must start by considering her ancestry.
Her father gave her the name Anna: or, as it would have been in Hebrew, Hannah. She was given the same name as the mother of Samuel – a name that means “gracious.”
Her father’s name was Phanuel. This name is the Hebrew equivalent of the word Penuel. Penuel, you may recall, in the dim and distant days of your Sunday School, was the name that Jacob gave to the place where he had wrestled with an angel of the Lord in Genesis Chapter 32). The name, literally means, “face of God.”
Anna could trace her ancestry back to the tribe of Asher: the eighth of Jacob’s twelve sons. When Jacob blessed his twelve sons before his death, he said of Asher that his tribe would be materially well off and yield “royal dainties (Gen. 49:20).”
Moses spoke in similar terms of Asher suggesting that Asher would “dip his foot in oil (Deut 33:24).” When Joshua divided the Promised Land among the twelve tribes, Asher received an inheritance in the far north of the land, beside the waters of the Mediterranean Sea. Over time, along with the material blessings that the tribe of Asher enjoyed, there came temptation.
The people of Asher did not have the strength of faith to obey God’s command that they drive out the Canaanites in the book of Judges (Chapter 1); instead, they dwelt and prospered along side the Canaanites: Their spiritual shallowness and lack of devotion to the good of God’s people was highlighted some years later in the Bible in a story that tells us that when Deborah called on all of Israel to rally to fight for their survival against Jabin the King of Cannan. Asher declined to help. The scriptures say that “Asher continued at the shore and stayed by the inlets (Judges 5:17).”
In time of peril, the tribe of Asher stayed at home, continued their daily work and preoccupation with profit and prosperity and offered no help to their brethren in Israel…. After this, the tribe of Asher disappears from the biblical scene and, eventually, whatever was left of them was carried off into bondage when the Assyrians conquered their land. The story of the tribe of Asher ends, right there – with the notable exception of Anna…
God, long ago, made a covenant with the people of Israel, with all twelve tribes and although Anna’s kinfolk merged into secular society and were lost, God (as God always does) kept the covenant and ensured that a remnant remained. Though her people had been unfaithful to God and had ultimately paid the price for it, there was at least one family steeped in faith and faithfulness. Anna’s grandfather gave his son the name Phanuel: Face of God, a recollection of the struggles of Jacob to know himself and God. Phanuel, in his turn, gave to his daughter the name Anna recalling how Anna gave birth to a son who, in his day, rebuilt and strengthened the people of Israel. Here, played out over many generations is God’s faithfulness to his Covenent. We so often expect God to deliver immediately, within the hour, whereas in God’s timeframe, God chooses to work across the generations, across the millennia.
What else do we know about Anna? Luke tells us that she was a widow.
Being a widow is not easy. There are a lot of ladies sitting here today who could testify to that. For Anna, all of this would have been compounded by the cultural, economic and everyday realities of her life. Israel had no Social Security or Private Pension Plan. Being a woman, in an era thousands of years before any notion of equal opportunities meant that she faced a tough life.
Eighty-four years as a lonely, impoverished, there can be no doubt, single woman…. Clearly, Anna was a survivor! A role model of persistence and hope: and, of charity!
Luke tells us that she spent her time at the temple busy at “fasting and prayer” and she was regarded, by ordinary folk at least, as a “prophet.” As a prophet, she must have had knowledge of scripture that was quite unusual for a woman of her day: spiritual depth and insight. To be known as a prophet and as a very devout lady, she must not only have been AT the temple, but have been noticed at the temple: a friend, teacher, and spiritual guide.
Anna was a remarkable lady in a hierarchical, male-dominated society and religious milieu. She was a true evangelist, in the sense of someone who spreads the euangelion or good news – Luke tells us that she “went out and spoke of the child Jesus to all who would listen”
She was certainly remarkable: as a woman, as a widow, as a person of poverty; as a survivor; as the faithful, redressing remnant of the tribe of Asher: a testament to God’s enduring faithfulness; as a devout person, a student of the word; as a teacher and a prophet; as an evangelist of Jesus Christ:
Yes, it is certainly no wonder that God caused Anna’s name to be remembered and the story of her ministry to be preserved.
Anna, the third of the wise women of Christmas. Anna, the gracious giver.
Anna, our sister in Christ: and, as her words reveal the truth of the Christ Child, we thank God for her.