The nativity and early life of Jesus has some heroes we have all heard of. Mary, Joseph, the Magi, Shepherds – but on the edges of the story are some fascinating individuals who play a minor – but significant part. Anna is one of them. We only have 2 verses worth of information about her but there’s a lot in there, and she is a remarkable woman.
There was also a prophetess, Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, 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 worshiped 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.
So – what can we deduce from just 2 verses? Firstly;
We also know from 1 Kings 9.10-14 that Solomon gave away 20 of the Asherite cities and a large area of their land to Hiram King of Tyre who aided him in building the temple. Hiram complained that the land was rubbish and named it ‘Cabul’ – ‘good for nothing’. So it is perhaps understandable that the Asherites would be resentful & cynical towards both the Kings of Israel, the nation as a whole & consequently God.
However later, when Hezekiah brought revival to the land, restored the temple (which had fallen into disrepair through neglect) and called the people to Jerusalem to celebrate the long defunct Passover, the people of Asher had a mixed response. 2 Chronicles 30.11 says that although some of them were cynical and mocked the idea, a small number of them did make the long journey to worship God. In fact, from only 3 of the tribes did anyone come at all – so the faithful remnant from Asher is all the more commendable!
A descendant of the first child Jacob had with Zilpah (Leah’s maid servant); a child who was named Happy.
A little bit of research reveals that the Asherites had had a mixed history amongst the people of God. Their share of the Promised Land was to the North, on the coast. They had, however, failed to drive out the Canaanites who lived there and quickly became corrupted by their pagan religious practices. Refusing to fight with Barak and Deborah they did turn up to support Gideon but in general had a pretty half hearted attitude towards their nation, and God himself.
By the time of our story though, the Tribe of Asher had all but disappeared. Conquered and assimilated by the Assyrians they had become one of Israel’s lost tribes – only a handful left.
So... this is the family back ground of Anna, from a cynical and unreliable tribe;
For that time her 84 years were positively ancient! That anyone 2000 years ago made it past 80 was good going. She was also pretty sprightly for her great age. Still in and around the temple, prophesying, praying and telling people who this little baby is.
There is something about older people that they love to chat isn’t there?
In our culture it’s often because people are lonely, isolated – but that’s not the case here. Anna was around people in the temple all the time, and was clearly revered and respected – known as a prophetess; someone in touch with God. However she does have great confidence to speak out – to not bother what anyone thinks, but rather just speak her mind. In fact, she is the very first evangelist. She is the first to tell the people who Jesus is, what he is for. Simeon had told Mary & Joseph who their baby was – Anna tells anyone who will listen!
The first public witness to the saviour of the world was an 84 year old woman!
Most Jewish girls married at the age of 13-14, and Anna’s marriage had lasted only 7 years before her husband died, leaving her a widow in her early 20’s.
Why she hadn’t re-married we are not told. Perhaps she hadn’t wanted to; perhaps no-one had wanted her. Whatever the reason, a widow was vulnerable, likely to be impoverished and considered to be stricken by God – some sort of punishment for sin. In the same way that the childless were considered cursed, widows were to be pitied at best, despised at worst. God’s laws made it clear that that wasn’t HIS view, but none the less the social stigma Anna had lived with for over 60 years was considerable.
“She never left the temple but worshipped night and day, fasting and praying.”
Anna devoted her life to the worship and service of God. Rather than following the pattern of her tribe and becoming cynical and half hearted about her faith, Anna has spent every day of 60 or more years to getting as close to God as she could.
Had her husband lived she would have probably had children, a home to run, other responsibilities and concerns. But through her suffering she has become the living embodiment of the ideal Paul later describes to the Corinthians.
1 Cor 7.34
‘The unmarried woman and the virgin are anxious about the affairs of the Lord, so that they may be holy in body and spirit, but the married woman is anxious about the affairs of the world, how to please her husband.’
Whether we are not yet married, never will be, have lost a partner through bereavement or divorce. Anna is a great example of someone who uses her freedom to devote her life to God and his kingdom. She is someone with more time, less distraction and responsibilities. That can be true of the unmarried. It isn’t always, especially if we are single parents. But for those without partner or children there is the opportunity to draw close to God, to invest in our relationship with him. To give time and energy to him in a way others simply can’t. Paul wasn’t wrong you know... singleness can make us really, really useful from an eternal perspective! And God does promise a reward for those who serve him with their lives – there is pay back for the things we’ve gone without.
Most families have their complications – one way or another. But Anna shows that we don’t simply have to follow the established pattern. We don’t have to just replicate the way it’s ‘always been’ in our family. Whether it’s broken relationships, money issues, cynicism, faithlessness, violence – whatever has been ‘the issue’. As individuals we do not have to be defined by that and perpetuate negative cycles.
Anna shows us that when we give our lives to follow Jesus, we are still a member of our biological family, but we are adopted into God’s family and can live by its values and patterns. He gives grace to his children to be like their heavenly father and older brother Jesus, rather than their earthly father and siblings.
We can learn to appreciate and love the good things about our family but not hang onto the destructive things. Anna was full of faith and wholehearted in her devotion to God – the opposite of her people. God’s spirit, and the support of our spiritual family, can help us to do the same, to get free of the negative cycles we all inherit.
Finally (although there is more I’m sure)
“She gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem.”
I have discovered as I get older that I do worry less about what other people think of me.
But I still admire those with overt gifts of evangelism that just chat about Jesus to everyone they meet. Anna inspires me to ask ‘what’s the worst that could happen?’ and speak to anyone who is interested. Those who are seeking truth, looking for God will respond. Those who aren’t – well, that’s between them and God.
I do think her maturity, her faith, her courage was born through her suffering – her need to hold tight to God for 60 years of being alone, but none the less it’s still inspiring – she could have given up. Turned her back on God because her life had been hard – but she didn’t, she pressed into him instead.
Anna is a great encouragement; An inspiring woman; Someone close to God’s heart, of whom he is clearly so, so proud (look at the way his word describes her!) I’d like to have an epitaph like this... got a way to go yet though.
Let’s start with today.
© Ruth Perrin 2010. Last revised on 26 January 2010