Reflecting on Anna and her significance for our riper years
Anna Chaplaincy network member Sally Bates, Associate minister at Frinton Free Church in Essex, has been thinking about the prophet Anna in St Luke's gospel.
She shares with us her talk More Than Enough: Encounters with God’s Grace – Anna inspired by the reading from Luke 2:36-38:
Anna, a prophet, was also there in the Temple. She was the daughter of Phanuel from the tribe of Asher, and she was very old. Her husband died when they had been married only seven years. Then she lived as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the Temple but stayed there day and night, worshiping God with fasting and prayer. She came along just as Simeon was talking with Mary and Joseph, and she began praising God. She talked about the child to everyone who had been waiting expectantly for God to rescue Jerusalem.
'Anna, whose name means ‘grace’, is only mentioned in three verses in Luke 2 and she is probably best-known because she was very old - I have to confess, that’s why I’ve chosen to speak about her today. She is the inspiration for the wonderful work of Anna Chaplaincy, an interdenominational network which works to promote and support spiritual care amongst older people.
I wonder what you would define as ‘very old’? Probably about 20-30 years older than you are now! We don’t know exactly how old she was - it’s hard to work out from the text whether she was 84 years old, or whether she’d been a widow for 84 years, which, assuming she married at 14, would make her 105. Either way, she is described as ‘very old’. Other references to ‘very old’ people in the Bible include Abraham & Sarah, who had Isaac when they were ‘very old’ and Zechariah & Elizabeth, who had John the Baptist when they were ‘very old’.
Let’s take a moment to remind ourselves how God sees older people:
‘The ways of right-living people glow with light; the longer they live, the brighter they shine.’ (Proverbs 4:18, Message translation)
‘Even to your old age and grey hairs I am He, I am He who will sustain you. I have made you and I will carry you; I will sustain you and I will rescue you.’ (Isaiah 46:4)
‘The righteous will still bear fruit in old age, they will stay fresh and green.‘ (Psalm 92:14)
God values older people! He has plans for them! They are an essential part of his family and his kingdom. And writing about that verse from Psalm 92, John Piper asks, ‘Why would God tell us that? Because he wants us to dream that; he wants us to pray for that!’ To pray that we’ll still bear fruit in old age, that we’ll stay fresh and green! If you’re ever stuck on how to pray for your parents or grandparents, pray that! In her book What’s Age got to do with it?, Louise Morse writes that, contrary to what society may want to tell us, ‘God did not make a mistake when he designed old age. Old people are his seniors and they are here on purpose… The Lord designed it that way so we would mature and become ‘ripe’, emotionally and spiritually. Ripe fruit yields more juice, contains more nutrients and is usually sweeter.’ And James Woodward wrote, ‘Growing old is about adding life to your years rather than just adding years to your life.’
So, what else do we know about Anna?
1. Anna was a widow, and so she was one of the most vulnerable people in society, without a husband to provide for her. We can assume she had no surviving family, otherwise they’d have taken care of her. Instead, she was dependent on charity, on the generosity of those working at or visiting the temple, who presumably gave her enough food and drink to survive on. Anna is an excellent example of the type of widow Paul describes in his letter to Timothy: ‘The widow who is really in need and left all alone puts her hope in God and continues night and day to pray and to ask God for help.’ (1 Timothy 5:5) She is a wonderful role-model for all widows and widowers.
2. Anna was a prophet. At this time there had been no prophets for hundreds of years so the fact that she is described in this way is even more remarkable. Anna is living proof of what Joel had prophesied: ‘I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men – and women – will dream dreams, your young men will see visions. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days.’’ (Joel 2:28-9) Paul considered the spiritual gift of prophecy as being highly desirable (1 Corinthians 14:1) and Anna had this gift and had the opportunity to use it at just the right moment when Jesus was brought into the temple by his parents.
3. Anna never left the temple – either because she lived there, or because she spent all her time in public and private worship. Think of all the people she’d have got to know… other worshippers, visitors to Jerusalem, possibly the priests and other employees of the temple. Think how many lives she was able to influence with her presence, her smile, her words and, most importantly, her prayers.
Anna is described in just a few words, in a total of three verses in the Bible. A very old lady, a prophet, a widow, who never left the temple. I wonder how you’d be described if you had just three verses written about you. What would you like to be known for? Billy Graham once said, ‘I hope I will remembered as someone who was faithful – faithful to God’s call, faithful to the Gospel, faithful to the responsibilities and opportunities God gave me.’
We’ve looked at who Anna was, but how did she respond to her situation? How did she spend her time? What did she do? Well, I believe she had found the right balance between being and doing. Louise Morse writes, ‘The human cycle moves us from a state of being, as a child, to doing as an adult, and to being-doing as a senior... This is part of God’s life design, as it leads us into reflecting more on Him and developing our relationship with him.’ I believe Anna achieved this balance of being and doing perfectly.
1. Anna prayed. We read that she worshipped God, with fasting and prayer. Anna was deeply involved in that most vital work of prayer and is such an encouragement to those of us who might be tempted to say, ‘There’s nothing I can do these days.’ Older people have the gift of time. How will you use that gift? I recently visited an older member of our church, herself in her late 80s, who told me about her grandmother. This was a woman who’d grown up in a Christian household, married a Christian man, raised several children and taken on a range of different roles within the church over the years at different ages and stages of her life. Now in her 90s, she would spend every day sitting in a chair and every day she would read the newspaper from cover to cover, praying her way through each page. She once told her granddaughter, ‘The Lord has kept my most important ministry until now.’
2. Anna praised. When she sees Jesus, she gives thanks to God. The implication from this passage is that she thanks God because she had a prophetic insight into who Jesus was, the promised Messiah, the saviour of the world. But I’m sure this was not a one-off event for Anna – I’m sure that in her life of worship, she had an ongoing attitude of thankfulness and gratitude towards God. Have you ever made a list – whether mental or actual - of the things you want to thank God for? Today? This week? This month? This year? Or even throughout your life? It’s a wonderful way to keep motivated and stay full of hope, as we consider all that God has already done for us.
3. Anna proclaimed. We read that she spoke about Jesus to all who were expecting him. This too was part of her spiritual gift of prophecy. God gave her words of revelation and she followed his prompting and spoke them out. It’s as though the words of Psalm 71 (v18) were written about her: ‘Now that I am old and grey, do not abandon me, O God. Let me proclaim your power to this new generation, your mighty miracles to all who come after me.’ This is part of a poem called ‘A litany of voices’, by Janet Crawford and Eric Webb (in Celebrating Women) and it captures the spirit of this verse perfectly:
I am Anna.
I knew what to say.
I did not keep silent in the temple.
I knew God when I saw him and said so.
Let’s pray that will be true of us too: that at the prompting of the Holy Spirit we’ll know what to say and that we won’t keep silent. The Bible is full of people who lived life full of the Spirit right until the end of their lives. St Augustine wrote, ‘The new is not behind us. It is ahead of us no matter how old we are. We must be careful not to let ‘oldness’ take over our lives. We must grow and make progress. Our bodies may be falling apart, but our spirit can be renewed day by day. Let us not age in a way that makes us become old spiritually. Let newness grow in us.’
In her book Three Score Years – and then?, Rhena Taylor suggests a kind of ‘mission statement’ for older people:
• I believe old age is a blessing from God.
• I believe I have a rightful place in the body of God.
• I believe in spiritual growth.
• I believe that God is with me at all times and in all circumstances.
• I believe that death is the gateway to heaven.
I am sure that, if she’d been asked, Anna would have agreed with all of these statements. In his grace, God encountered Anna in her old age, and gave her an incredible prophetic revelation about the identity of Jesus. Like the grandmother I mentioned earlier, God reserved Anna’s most important ministry for the very end of her life.
In his book, Finishing Well, Ian Knox asks, ‘What are we, who have been spared to live right now, going to do with our gift of life?’ Some of you will easily be able to identify with Anna – perhaps because of your age, or because you’re widowed. You may not be very old, you may not be a widow, but can I encourage you, like Anna, to pray, praise and proclaim Jesus each day for the rest of your life, so that ‘the longer you live, the brighter you shine'.'
Sally Bates, August 2021