Luke 2: 36-40
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 and began to praise God and to speak about the child [Jesus] to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.
When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom, and the favor of God was upon him.
We close our look at the Prophets with one of the final prophets named in scripture. While a few more crop up in Acts, they are given even more passing a mention than Anna is given here. Anna is a prophet, a daughter of Phanuel, and a member of the tribe of Asher. She is given no voice in scripture, and yet we know her name and lineage and that she was among the first to publicly proclaim the work that Jesus was going to begin, some thirty years before any of it took place. Anna, Prophet of the Most High God, holds less than a paragraph of space in our gospel, but she must take an important place in our discussion of what a prophet is.
A prophet is the one who tells us to turn before we fall. They reveal the name and nature of God. They show us God’s very own emotions. They tell us the mysteries that even they can only begin to grasp. The final revelation of a prophet, at least that we will be discussing in our series, is just as important as all others. The Prophet reveals to us, the width and breadth and all-consuming nature of God’s love. This is achieved, not only in what the prophet says, but who the prophet is. Anna, Prophet of God, shows us that God calls people of all backgrounds and places in life to bring about Heaven on Earth.
Anna is described as being the daughter of Phanuel, the name doesn’t point to any specific person we know from history, but it is an interesting name to have. Phanuel, is a Greek spelling of the Hebrew Panuel, or “The face of God.” It is one of those names that shows God’s closeness to us. Not only is Anna’s father mentioned in her background, but that she is from the tribe of Asher, a Northern tribe. One of the things we come up to again and again in our discussion of scripture is the disappearance of the Northern tribe after the Assyrian conquest. Her family survived that conquest, and she stands as a descendant of those lost tribes.
The identification of Anna with the Northern Kingdom probably seems incidental to us. As people who do not hold tightly to our locative self-definitions, place is just a thing we find ourselves in. However, in the ancient world, place was one of the most important things a person held onto. When you were born in a town and probably never left it, then the most minute separation between one area and another had profound meaning. To tie the history of a person to something lost to the original audience of the gospels, of a people long dispersed and all but erased, is to tie Anna to something far older and far beyond the present troubles of the Roman occupation.
More than that, Anna is ancient herself. The Greek is unclear, and so she may be 87 years old or have lived 87 as a widow, in which case she’d be well over 100 years old at the time of Jesus’s visit to the Temple as an infant. Either way, she would remember when Judah was free from Rome, when it lived as an independent people. She would have been told the stories of her people, Asher, and life before the monarchy split and the monarchy fell. She was a great holder of lore that would define the people of God’s struggle now, in the past, and forever more. She dreamt of the day God would bring back, not a free Judah like in her youth, but a complete restoration of God’s people.
The people of God closest to her, at least by relation, were probably Samaritans, those people in what once was the Northern Kingdom. It is unclear how many of the Samaritans were Israelite or were shipped in by Assyria after the conquest, but they were people of Israel, or Samaria as the Assyrians, Babylonians, and many others called it. It was not till Ezra’s tenure as scribe in Judea that they were considered a separate people to the exilic community. So even in her identification here, she brings yet another community closer to God through her work as a prophet seated in the temple day after day, after day.
Anna also completes Luke’s tendency of uplifting women, while also highlighting his bad habit of stealing their words. Luke speaks more about women than any other Gospel, but he also will give things that women say in other Gospels to male speakers. He is a great collector of stories, but it seems that when a woman spoke, he sometimes doubted her eloquence could belong to her, and so shifted her voice to someone else in the scene. Anna is a prophet, defined by her speaking God’s word, and yet Luke tells us nothing that she said. Maybe Simeon, a prophet who speaks just before her, did not say every good word Luke puts in his mouth after all.
I could go on about Anna and the many hats that she wears, but I think I have made my point. She brings together different categories of gender, ethnicity, familial status, income, place, et cetera, et cetera. In her is an inflection point, a fulcrum, on which the Gospel must turn. God does not use one kind of person to bring about God’s will, but all people in all ways. We cannot begin to understand the largeness of God if we do not also consider the wideness of God’s love. There is no one who is not called and no one who cannot answer God’s call.
Now here, we may start saying, “God can use, even me!” And I want us to stop with the word, “Even.” Though God’s love is astounding in its inclusivity and its ability to make holy what was once mundane, I do not think it is helpful to say, “God can use, even,” anything. The call of God to all people is equalizing, and that means that it truly makes equitable what the world has made hierarchical. Anna is a poor widow, and a prophet of God. Full stop. God is not calling, “Even a poor widow!” He is calling a prophet who is a poor widow. You see what I mean? Our identity matters, our stories must be told, but if we demean ourselves in the process of celebrating God’s great love and strength and mercy, then we ultimately work against what God is trying to do in the world.
There is room to be honest, and to, like Paul, cry out, “Sinner that I am, who can free me from this body of death?!” But only insomuch as we acknowledge our present faults, and not see our inherent being or circumstance as any reason to mourn. God did not call a woman despite her womanhood, but because she was a woman. God does not call any of us, despite ourselves, but because of who we are. This woman, of the tribe of Asher, widowed at a young age, and now older than most anyone around her, was called to be a prophet because of each of those things, and not one of them was any less valuable or precious a status to God.
We all face unique challenges in life because of who we are, some more than others, and all at the whims of society and culture. Some of us are blessed to face very little opposition, others do not have that privilege. There are many still who are in danger simply for being who they are, and until we live in a world where the essential nature and the momentary circumstances of a person’s life are not seen as elevating or denigrating their dignity, there will always be work to do to draw the circle wider. Justice is a difficult thing, and the restoration of our Edenic bliss will not be found in anything but the restoration of all people to a place where they are seen as beloved of God, for nothing other than the fact that God so chooses to love the world, and in so doing gives us the only Begotten Son.
Let Anna, and her words that we can only imagine, be for us a call to take on the roles of the prophet as God calls us to do. Some to proclaim mystery, so to warn against idolatry, and some still simply to testify the name of a God who calls himself Jesus. Wherever the prophetic call leads, know the Spirit of God blazes a path on ahead of us. May we all find our way, not despite, but because of what God has called us to be in this world. – Amen.