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I was at my dad’s church for Christmas Eve and my own on New Year’s Day—and both times the stories of Anna and Simeon were read. That made me pay attention. For only thirteen verses, it’s a very rich passage. Here it is again from Luke 2, if you need a refresher: 

25 Now there was a man in Jerusalem called Simeon, who was righteous and devout. He was waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was on him. 26 It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. 27 Moved by the Spirit, he went into the temple courts. When the parents brought in the child Jesus to do for him what the custom of the Law required, 28 Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying:

29 “Sovereign Lord, as you have promised,
    you may now dismiss your servant in peace.
30 For my eyes have seen your salvation,
31     which you have prepared in the sight of all nations:
32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
    and the glory of your people Israel.”

33 The child’s father and mother marveled at what was said about him. 34 Then Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, his mother: “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, 35 so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

36 There was also a prophet, Anna, the daughter of Penuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was very old; she had lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, 37 and then was a widow until she was eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped night and day, fasting and praying. 38 Coming up to them at that very moment, she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem.

How wonderful to remember that Christ’s presentation at the temple is a multi-generational moment–and one that includes both men and women, Jews and Gentiles (at least tacitly in Simeon’s blessing). The beginning of Jesus’s public ministry is really here, and in this moment, the articulation of Jesus’s radical inclusivity is established.

While both of these elderly saints give testimony to the newborn Messiah, their differences are striking. Simeon sounds a bit like Eeyore, effectively focusing on the end of his life (aka “well, I can die now”) and giving a warning with his gorgeous declaration that salvation has now come to the whole world. Simeon gives the important “spoiler alert” of what this salvation with cost both Christ and Mary. That’s vitally important, of course. The good news is the bad news first. 

But (as a Tigger myself), I’m more drawn to Anna, the energetic widow. She strikes me as the bookend to Mary Magdalene and the other women who proclaim the resurrection of Jesus. Women are always central to Jesus’s ministry–and here is where that begins (outside of his family). Simeon applies the wonder of the birth of Christ to his own circumstances and converses with Mary and Joseph, but it is Anna who publicly “spoke to all,” her status as a prophet uncontested. 

And although Simeon gets more verses, Anna gets more backstory. She’s the daughter of a righteous man–whose name means “face of God.” It’s clear that Anna sought to see that face her whole life. After her early widowhood (if she married in her teens, she had been a widow for over sixty years), she had lived a life all in, completely devoted to God. Based on Luke’s telling, she had no home but the Temple (I imagine that’s metaphorical, but still telling). And it’s curious to me that the Holy Spirit is mentioned three times in Simeon’s story–almost as if the writer was trying to explain Simeon’s ability to recognize Jesus–and yet, the Holy Spirit is not mentioned at all with Anna, perhaps because her life had been so publicly consistent in her worship that the Spirit was already in such evidence that it would have been redundant to mention.

Anna’s long, faithful life is something to ponder as we begin the new year. Luke 2 focuses on the amazing culminating moment of her life, but it’s salutary to imagine her life through all the long years of waiting. For eighty-four years she did the same thing: worship, fast, pray. She didn’t need to change it up, didn’t need a resolution. What might have seemed like an uneventful life instead prepared Anna to recognize the God she loved come to Earth and to be one of the first to boldly proclaim his work of salvation. That feels like a challenge and a comfort all in one.

Jennifer L. Holberg

I am professor and chair of the Calvin University English department, where I have taught a range of courses in literature and composition since 1998. An Army brat, I have come to love my adopted hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan. Along with my wonderful colleague, Jane Zwart, I am the co-director of the Calvin Center for Faith and Writing, which is the home of the Festival of Faith and Writing as well as a number of other exciting endeavors. Given my interest in teaching, I’m also the founding co-editor of the Duke University Press journal Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition and Culture. My book, Nourishing Narratives: The Power of Story to Shape Our Faith, was published in July 2023 by Intervarsity Press.

6 Comments

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Hear, hear!

  • John K says:

    Loved this meditation.
    Luke, the theologian of the Holy Spirit. Both the gospel and the Acts of the Holy Spirit later.

  • Carol R says:

    Thanks Jennifer for reminding me of an age-mate, role model!

  • Scott Hoezee says:

    Great stuff, Jennifer! And Seminary graduate, pastor, and teacher that I am, I am sheepish to admit I had never noted that the name of Anna’s father was Penuel or the Hebrew “Peniel” which is of course what Jacob named the spot at the Jabbok River where he wrestled with God and got re-named Israel. A whole lot of biblical history wraps in right behind that realization and connection to Anna! Thanks!

  • Helen says:

    Anna’s story has always been one of my favorites. She was the one to publicly proclaim Jesus as the Redeemer…just as Mary Magdalene proclaimed his resurrection.

  • Cathy Smith says:

    So good! Thank you.

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