The following was written by Dr. Doug Hood’s son, Nathanael Hood, a second year student at Princeton Theological Seminary.
“There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, who belonged to the tribe of Asher. She was very old. After she married, she lived with her husband for seven years. She was now an eighty-four-year-old widow. She never left the temple area but worshipped God with fasting and prayer night and day. She approached at that very moment and began to praise God and to speak about Jesus to everyone who was looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem.”
Luke 2:36-38 (Common English Bible)
Of all the things in the Bible that puzzle and frustrate historians and theologians, perhaps the greatest is the nearly thirty-year gap in the story of Jesus’ life between his birth and the start of his ministry. What happened during these lost years? The Bible only gives us a few details. One of the most significant happens in the second chapter of Luke when Mary and Joseph take the infant Jesus to the Temple in Jerusalem for the first time. During this presentation, the Holy Family meets a man named Simeon. The text doesn’t tell us much about Simeon—all we know for certain is that he was a “righteous and devout” man who had received a promise from the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he laid eyes on the Messiah. And indeed, on that day, that promise was fulfilled. The text tells us that the Holy Spirit itself came to Simeon and guided him to the Temple whereupon he took the infant Jesus in his arms and praised God, proclaiming him a revelation to the Gentiles and a glory for Israel.
Although he may have fallen a little out of importance in our Protestant tradition, Simeon is a very important figure in both Catholic and Orthodox Christianity. In addition to being canonized as a saint in both traditions with multiple feast days, he is also venerated as a prophet. He has been immortalized in paintings, stained glass, and altarpieces all over Christendom, and he has been the subject of music from some of the greatest composers in history, such as Johann Sebastian Bach. Not just that, but the aforementioned blessing Simeon gave while holding the Infant Jesus—known as the Nunc Dimittis—has been used by the Catholic Church as a prayer since the fourth century. Truly, Simeon is a model for steadfast faith being richly rewarded.
But I suspect Simeon’s story provides small comfort for most people looking for evidence of God’s presence in the world. Most of us will never witness a miracle like Simeon. Most of us will live lives like Anna. For you see, Simeon wasn’t the only one who recognized the infant Jesus when he was first brought to the Temple. There was another—there was an old woman named Anna who lived in the Temple courtyard. She was unique in her familiarity with loss and heartbreak. According to the text, she was widowed only seven years after getting married. According to Luke, she never remarried, and depending on how you translate the original text, she spent either the next sixty-odd or eighty-four years living in the temple courtyard without means or family which, in the time of ancient Israel, made her a non-person. She was a prophet, yes, but a prophet on the margins, well familiar with all the pains, and disappointments, and injustices of life.
And yet! Anna recognized the Messiah. Unlike Simeon, Anna recognized the Christ all by herself. Then she did something even more extraordinary: she spread the Word! Shortly after his blessings, Simeon disappears from the biblical record. But not Anna. She stayed. She witnessed. Indeed, most of us will not live lives like Simeon. Most of us will live quiet, unseen, under-appreciated lives. Most of us will wonder if the world ever will get any better, if our prayers truly mean anything, if our lives are being used by God at all. One can’t help but wonder if Anna, in her loneliness, ever felt the same. But again, it was Anna who recognized the Messiah and witnessed to the world. Perhaps it was because of her difficult life, not despite it, that she was so capable. We cannot all be Simeon. But we can all strive to be Anna. And in that striving, by touching others with our quiet Christian compassion and love, we can create a chain of healing greater than anything any of us will ever be able to comprehend. It takes a Simeon to shock the world. But only a multitude of Anna’s can save it.