Not much is known about Anna the prophetess except the roughest sketch of her life. But nevertheless there is a hint of enormous pain in what we do know, as well as great joy.
And there was a prophetess, Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was advanced in years, having lived with her husband seven years from when she was a virgin, and then as a widow until she was eighty-four. She did not depart from the temple, worshiping with fasting and prayer night and day. And coming up at that very hour she began to give thanks to God and to speak of him to all who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem.
What was it like to have been married seven years (doubtless from when she was very young) and then live as a widow for some six or seven decades after? On a human scale it is tragic, and given the social structure of first century Israel to be husbandless was to be marginal in society. We do not know if she had any children, but we do know that she dedicated her time and energy to the temple, “worshiping with fasting and prayer night and day”.
When I thought of Anna, an image of her as a Chinese “Dama” came to mind. These middle-aged to elderly ladies are often the butt of jokes here in China, as people poke fun at them for investing in the stock market (because it is assumed they can’t possibly know what they are doing), for dancing en masse in public squares, for sporting unfashionable threads, for being generally dowdy and unhip. People find them “cute”, but in a dismissive, condescending kind of way.
But I am also thinking of a particular “Dama” I know who has a pure and intense faith. When she prays, it is with a fervent, intimate voice to a God who she knows so very well, who has seen her through thick and thin. Her education was truncated by the Cultural Revolution, and yet instead of resenting this she still returns to the village where she was sent down to the countryside, bearing gifts and chocolates for her old neighbours. In her I see the very special grace of the humble, and doubtless her diminutive frame hides the soul of great strength.
Anna fasted, worshipped and prayed with anticipation. It was not just for herself, but for all of Israel, and even the world, that she waited. At eighty-four, she could not have lived long enough to see Jesus, the infant, so full of promise like any other infant, fulfil his mission and come into power in his ministry and resurrection. But her faith, and her prophetic gift, showed her that he was indeed the One.
What a wonderful thing it must have been, in the twilight of her life, to see the beginning of the world’s redemption! And what a wonderful thing that God rewarded her faithfulness with this strange and sweet foretaste!
I think of all the Annas –ourselves perhaps to be included – who look forward to the second coming of Jesus, in the world today, in all our various guises. We are of every race and nation, every socio-economic class. We may not look significant. We may look silly, or our outlook too otherworldly, to hope for such grand and infinite things as the salvation of the world.
But perhaps that little, insignificant bundle is precisely the thing that will change the world, in all its dirty, human potentiality. Because his name is Jesus – and he was born on this earth so that the meek would inherit the earth.