"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." Luke 2:36-38
Widows show up in surprising places in scripture, and one of the most surprising is in the recounting of the early days of Jesus' earthly life. We are familiar with the shepherds, angels and wise men- they are present in our carols and nativities- but the presence of an elderly widowed woman doesn't fit our notions of Christmas.
Eight days after Jesus is born, his parents take him to the temple to fulfill the Mosaic law of purification. The hubub of his birth is over: the shepherds have gone home, the angel chorus has stopped it's singing and it will be years before the wise men appear to give gifts to the young King. I wonder what Mary and Joseph were thinking. Did they wonder if all that had happened was a figment of their imagination? Did they crave another sign from God of their child's true identity because he cried and kept them awake like every other baby?
If so, they were about to be blown away by an old man and an elderly widow.
We're told that God had revealed to Simeon that he would see the Messiah before he died. As he grew older and older, with all the aches and pains that come with age (and none of the modern interventions to sooth his aging body), I wonder if the urgency of his prayers increased. Time was dwindling as the years went by with baby after baby brought to the temple, none of whom were the promised one. Until one day, as he faithfully serves the Lord, the promised baby appears and Simeon recognizes him immediately, rejoicing in his presence and prophesying of his death to come.
Then, a widow named Anna shows up. Anna's presence in the story of Jesus' infant days takes up just 3 verses but there is much we can learn from her.
She, like many of my friends, was widowed young. After just 7 years of marriage, her husband died, leaving her alone in a society in which widows were vulnerable. There were no social programs or protections for widows, and only those who took seriously God's commands to care for the orphan and widow would provide protection. No children are mentioned and it's likely that Anna was barren. 7 years of marriage in a society that valued offspring and didn't have birth control should have led to a number of children during her short marriage, but she had none. What sorrow she must've known; what longing would've filled her heart. The children she likely prayed for never came and then all her hopes were dashed by the death of her husband. Anna was left alone.
But Anna was not forsaken. We don't know what led her to serve as a prophetess in the temple, only that she did so faithfully for more than six decades. What makes her presence in the temple more surprising is that we learn that she is from the tribe of Asher. Her tribe, one of the "lost tribes of Israel" had been wiped out over 700 years before. Yet here she stands, a remanant of her predecessors who had been cut off from God's blessing. The tribe of Asher had not been forsaken either. Generations later, a widow from this tribe is serving God in the temple and one of the first people to recognize Jesus as the Messiah. Not only that but she goes on to proclaim to "all who were waiting for the redemption of Israel" that the Messiah was here.
How beautiful. A woman from a lost tribe, with no children and no husband, is right at the heart of the Christmas story. She is another of the unlikely band of characters who receive the honor of being one of the first to see and recognize Jesus. She may have seemed forsaken, but she was blessed. She may have looked forgotten, but God was placing her in the heart of his story of salvation. Her life did not look the way she or her parents had planned, but she was given something far better: she saw Jesus.
Anna's blessing is a blessing available to us all. There are no promises in this life. Marriage, children, financial security, and good health are elusive. We may receive the things we ask for only to have them snatched away by disaster, death and disease. But Anna was the first of many widows to experience the greater gift from God and the fulfillment of His promises: a child born to save us and bring us back to the heart of God.