The consolation of the prophetess Anna.
There are multiple options for the first and second readings and the psalm of this feast, but the gospel reading is common, in both a long and a short form: Luke 2:22-40 and Luke 2:22, 39-40.
As the first reading, psalm, and second reading are variable, these seeds concentrate on the gospel.
The feast of the Holy Family – Jesus, Mary, and Joseph – is celebrated today, the Sunday after Christmas. Like Christmas, the liturgy offers us a plethora of readings, so I will concentrate on the gospel reading in this reflection, which is common, whichever other readings are chosen in your local community.
But, like my Christmas reflection, I’d like to do something slightly different. I want to focus on a figure in our gospel reading today who is highlighted to us as someone without a family: the prophetess Anna.
I find it fascinating that Anna appears in Luke’s gospel here for such a brief moment. She walks onto the stage, and disappears again, her life having been transformed in a moment by her fleeting encounter with Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. But what we learn of her in that brief moment is illuminating.
We’re initially told about her heritage:
The Scriptures tell us nothing about Phanuel; we only know of him as the father of Anna. The Tribe of Asher, as well, was remote and largely disconnected from the political life of Israel. Historically, Asher held the territory around Tyre and Sidon on the west coast of Israel. They held the land furthest north in the old Kingdom of Israel and, like the rest of that Kingdom, were conquered by Assyria and sent into exile. Anna’s roots are highlighted for us, but they are ephemeral and elusive.
This theme becomes more evident when we are told that Anna’s husband died in her youth and that she has spent much of her long life as a widow in the Jerusalem Temple. Anna is a figure presented to us with the lack of a human family, a woman whose roots are difficult to bring to much light.
It’s worth pausing to consider what Anna’s life may have been like for the 80-plus years of her life that is hinted at in the text of Scripture but not elaborated on. Imagine being widowed at a young age in a patriarchal society where your status as a woman was dependent upon that of your husband. Was Anna looked down upon as well for not being of Judaic heritage? She was of one of the lost tribes of the north; did people consider her like a Samaritan?
How many social and economic trials Anna must have faced! I can’t help but think of the figure of the widow that Jesus sees later in his ministry who put all she had into the Temple treasury. That lonely, frail figure whom Jesus singled out for praise. Was Anna like that?
I find Anna such a consoling figure on a day like today that focuses so much on family. The perfection of family life presented in the Holy Family can seem distant and difficult to relate to in our modern context. Pope Francis has highlighted this pastoral reality in his document Amoris Laetitia; so many have very different experiences of family or know of people who have had very different experiences: experiences of loss, loneliness, divorce, and stress. In many ways, Anna walks into the picture of the Holy Family, bearing the burden of this earthly brokenness of the family experience. Her encounter with Jesus, Mary, and Joseph is our encounter with them.
There is more to say about Anna; how she mirrors the figures of Judith and Hannah, how she dedicated her life to God in the Temple with prayer and fasting, but I’m running out of space! Instead, let me conclude with this: Anna’s encounter with the Holy Family could have gone a number of ways. What St. Luke says actually happened is perhaps the most surprising of those possibilities. Anna happened upon Mary and Joseph just as Simeon prophesied over the baby Jesus. We don’t know if she overheard or if the Holy Spirit inspired her; either way, she recognized who Jesus was. Remember, from our Christmas reflection, nothing outward in Jesus’ appearance gave his identity away – it took spiritual sight to recognize him for who he was. Anna did recognise him, and her response was twofold:
Whatever your experience of family, as you encounter Jesus today, what will be your response? Anna’s life was changed in an instant by that encounter; yours can be, too.