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The Women of Christmas (3): Anna (Luke 2:36-38; Psalm 84)

Anna, daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher, never met Jonathan Edwards, son of Timothy Edwards, Puritan pastor. Although their lives were separated by some 1,700 years, they were assuredly of the same spirit, gripped by the same passion, and devoted to the same God.

Consider Edwards’ famous Resolutions, a list of some 70 duties to which he joyfully and by God’s grace committed himself to fulfill. A brief sampling will make my point:

“Resolved, never to lose one moment of time; but improve it the most profitable way I possibly can” (#5).

“Resolved, to live with all my might, while I do live” (#6).

“Resolved, never to do anything, which I should be afraid to do, if it were the last hour of my life” (#7).

“Resolved, to strive to my utmost every week to be brought higher in religion, and to a higher exercise of grace, than I was the week before” (#30).

“I frequently hear persons in old age say how they would live, if they were to live their lives over again. Resolved, that I will live just so as I can think I shall wish I had done, supposing I live to old age” (#52).

Anna could easily have written these resolutions, having faithfully abided by them for the duration of her life. But who is Anna, and why is she important to us today? The only mention of her in Scripture is found in Luke’s gospel in connection with the birth of Jesus and his presentation in the Temple according to the Law of Moses.

“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)

Anna is the Greek form of the Hebrew name “Hannah” (Samuel’s mother), which means grace. Luke tells us that she was a prophetess, not unlike five other women so described in the Old Testament: Miriam (Ex. 15:20), Deborah (Judges 4:4), Huldah (2 Kings 22:14), Isaiah’s wife (Isa. 8:3), and Noadiah (Neh. 6:14) (for female prophets in the NT, see Acts 2:17-18; 21:9; 1 Cor. 11).

Her age has been an issue of some debate. She evidently became a widow after only seven years of marriage. The next phrase means either that she lived to the age of 84 or that she had been a widow for 84 years. If the latter is true, having probably gotten married at the age of 14, she would now be 105. In either case, she’s old!

Notwithstanding her age, she worshiped and fasted and prayed, night and day. As far as Anna was concerned, much like Jonathan Edwards, there was no place in her vocabulary for “spiritual retirement” or growing out of one’s responsibilities to God or coasting in one’s golden years or being too old to be spiritually intense and relentlessly committed to the pursuit of God.

What better way to spend one’s final years (as Anna had spent her entire life) than in prayer and praise and proclamation of the coming of Christ! Anna was old, but quite active. Her hope had not grown dim. Her zeal had not waned. Her love had not cooled. Her joy had not diminished. Her boldness had not disappeared. Anna refused to succumb to cynicism or burnout.

“Night and day,” says Luke, she spent her hours in worship and intercessory prayer, regularly turning from food to whole-hearted reliance on God as the sustenance of her life. Did Anna live and sleep in the Temple? Whereas there were living quarters surrounding the Temple precincts, no one was permitted to sleep within the Temple itself, nor were women allowed to stay there at night. Luke’s point is simply that she was there at every available hour, attending every service, observing every sacrifice, faithfully in worship and prayer each time the doors opened. Such was her life.

What motivated her to live this way? After all, there was bridge club and the sewing guild and collecting sea shells and browsing antique stores that awaited her (well, you get my point). None would have denounced her had she spent her final years in rest and relaxation. None but Anna! I strongly suspect Psalm 84 was written with people like Anna in mind:

“How lovely is your dwelling place, O LORD of hosts! My soul longs, yes, faints for the courts of the LORD; my heart and flesh sing for joy to the living God. Even the sparrow finds a home, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young, at your altars, O LORD of hosts, my King and my God. Blessed are those who dwell in your house, ever singing your praise!” (Psalm 84:1-4).

No words can express the beauty of this experience, so the psalmist is left with unashamed exclamation: “How lovely!” Lovely to the mind, lovely to the heart, lovely to the soul, to the eye, to the emotions. Nothing in all creation could compare with the beauty of God’s presence. Said Spurgeon:

“Earth contains no sight so refreshing to us as the gathering of believers for worship. Those are sorry saints who see nothing amiable in the services of the Lord’s house” (432).

Sorry saints indeed! Yet, the word “love” itself seems inadequate to express the intensity of the psalmist’s language (and Anna’s devotion). This is an appetite for God that can only be likened to the desperation of a starving man for food. The language here speaks of a desire so deep and insatiable that if not soon satisfied will result in the fainting of God’s child, exhausted by such passionate longings. “He had a holy lovesickness upon him,” said Spurgeon, “and was wasted with an inward consumption because he was debarred [from] the worship of the Lord in the appointed place” (433).

And let us not forget that it was for God himself (“the living God,” v. 2) that he (and she) longed:

“Some need to be whipped to church, while here is David crying for it. He needed no clatter of bells from the belfry to ring him in, he carried his bell in his own bosom: holy appetite is a better call to worship than a full chime” (433).

The psalmist looks into the heights of the temple walls and envies the sparrows who make their nests in its eaves. The sparrow and swallow are common birds, yet they raise their young and have their home close to the “altars” of the Lord. If they are blessed for such proximity to God, how much more the people who knowingly praise him there.

Are you still befuddled by Anna’s devotion? Then read Psalm 84:10,

“For a day in your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere. I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of wickedness” (v. 10).

Even under the most favorable circumstances, nothing earth affords can rival the pleasures of praising God in God’s house with God’s people. Spurgeon:

“To feel his love, to rejoice in the person of the anointed Savior, to survey the promises and feel the power of the Holy Spirit in applying precious truth to the soul, is a joy which worldlings cannot understand, but which true believers are ravished with” (435).

The psalmist (and Anna) would rather serve at the lowest and most menial job in the house of God than sit in the grandest and most lavish seat the world has to offer. “To bear burdens and open doors for the Lord,” said Spurgeon, “is more honour than to reign among the wicked. . . . God’s worst is better than the devil’s best” (435).

One day, after many, many years of no doubt unacknowledged faithfulness in the house of God, at the very moment when Simeon took up Jesus in his arms (Luke 2:25-35), through the divinely orchestrated and providential work of the Holy Spirit, Anna finally sees him whom she has long awaited. She knows who is. She listens attentively to Simeon’s song of praise (vv. 29-32), and turns to proclaim him to all, giving thanks that the long awaited redemption from sin is nigh!