There were a surprising number of women in Jesus’ life, but he would have had no personal memory of Anna, though it’s possible that she figured in his “Tell me about when I was a baby” stories.
When a Jewish baby was born there were certain traditions to follow. After the home birth the mother was given 40 days to recover physically and to concentrate on her baby. Then, if they lived close enough to Jerusalem and the first-born baby was a boy, the young family went off to the Temple to carry out the customary religious rites. It was there that Anna and Jesus met each other.
Luke’s Gospel tells it like this:
There was also a prophet, Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. At that moment she came in, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem. (Luke 2:36-38)
Over the years she had become a fixture in the Jerusalem Temple, watching families grow, blessing the babies of former babies, a model of prayer, to be admired but not copied. She might have been old and skinny, (well you would be if part of your religious practice had been fasting), but she was fit enough; scooting around the temple precincts 24/7, greeting people, encouraging them, praying for them. From a twenty first century viewpoint she might come across as eccentric or pious, a religious crank who doesn’t seem to have a life outside of religious practices. Then, as now, lots of us have trouble accepting those who are not only different, but old!
There was nothing much wrong with her eyesight and hearing, because she not only saw from a distance her friend Simeon focusing in on one particular baby, but she heard his prophetic words about a sword piercing the heart of the young mother. She knew that bringing up children could be heartbreaking, and words like that weren’t something any new mum would like to hear.
Long before John the Baptizer pointed out Jesus as ‘the one who is to come’ Anna gazed at this six week old baby boy and felt, rather than saw, that this baby would be a light that would flood the darkness of a world groping towards God. Knowing that she had lived to see this day filled her with hope and spilled over into joy, a joy as she shared this with Mary, that young mother, and for the rest of her life with everyone she met. In this baby named Jesus she had glimpsed the face of God.
As I get older it saddens me, and angers me too, that I’ve spent all my life in a church that doesn’t permit me to proclaim the good news of the Gospel whenever Mass is celebrated, that women , the bearers of life are not permitted welcome others into God’s life at Baptism or hand them back into God’s loving care when they die. Because we are women!
Anna sits on the edge of Old Testament as it edges into the New. An elderly woman recognising Jesus as the light of the world, to be followed a generation later by a young woman, Mary of Magdala, proclaiming his resurrection. Now, as then, could God be telling the world something?