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​The Prophetess Anna

· ​In the New Testament ·

The mention of the Prophetess Anna in the narrative of Jesus’ infancy in Luke’s Gospel is indeed surprising. The reasons for this vary: there are no biblical precedents for this person and her role, as the author describes it, does not show the characteristic traits of prophets: a vocation, oracles of judgement, messages of consolation, symbolic actions and visions.... So who then is the Prophetess Anna? And why does the author name her in this way? Was she really a prophetess? In the Gospel according to Luke Anna appears together with the aged Simeon who welcomes Jesus at the Presentation in the Temple (cf. 2:22-38). This is the moment of the circumcision, a common rite among Jews which is carried out on every male child on the eighth day after birth in accordance with the prescription of the Law. Thus Mary and Joseph took the Child to Jerusalem “to present him to the Lord” (2:22). With these words the Evangelist ushers the reader into the heart of the rite of circumcision whose profound meaning consists in fact of belonging to the Lord. Thus it is written in the Law: “Every male that opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord” (Lk 2:23; cf. Ex 13, 2.12.15)

Together with Mary and Joseph in the Temple there are two luminous figures: the righteous and devout Simeon and the Prophetess Anna: a just man and a woman prophetess, hence two different figures united by an extraordinarily significant task – recognition. Indeed their praise wells up from the depths of their faith and their hope. Both Simeon and Anna, very elderly, are inhabited by the Holy Spirit. And it is precisely this Spirit who inspires their praise, consisting of a hymn and a prophecy which no one until that moment in the Gospel narrative had been able to proclaim. However, the two old people react differently at the Presentation of the Child, each one in accordance with his or her role.

Simeon is the man of waiting (cf. Lk 2:25). In the Temple he watched and waited for the fulfilment of the messianic promise (cf. 2:26) proclaimed by the ancient prophets (cf. Is 40:1; 52:9). His heart exults for he is able to understand that Jesus is the salvation promised by God. In other words the divine promise is fulfilled in this Child presented to the Lord. Immersed in the Spirit, Simeon can see and understand the profound significance of what he is experiencing: “My eyes have seen your salvation which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel” (Lk 2:30). Luke the Evangelist offers us the key to understanding the facts narrated: recognition of Jesus as the fulfilment of the messianic promise depends on communion with the Holy Spirit, through whom we are given the ability to see in depth (cf. Is 52:10).

The Prophetess Anna shares fully in this gaze which is born from the depths, yet the author presents her as a very unusual figure: she is a woman prophetess, an elderly widow, the daughter of Phanuel of the tribe of Asher and lives in the Temple of the Holy City. These are not casual references. Phanuel calls to mind the name Peniel (“face of God”), given by Jacob to the place where in the night he had his inner struggle with the angel (cf. Gen 32:31 ). The tribe of Asher, in turn, evokes a prestigious ancestor, namely the son of the Matriarch Leah (cf. Gen 30:13). Therefore Anna is a woman with important biblical references, closely linked to Israel’s history. What is more surprising is that the author does not make her say anything – unlike Simeon – but simply describes her. Anna, unlike Simeon, does not burst into a hymn of praise in which Israel’s messianic hopes are mentioned and celebrated. We must see and imagine her there in the Temple, together with Simeon, Mary and Joseph, through the Evangelist’s veiled presentation of her.

One detail should be noted: Anna “did not depart from the Temple” (Lk 2:37). What is Luke telling us with this image: was she a widow who made the Temple her home? We think it is a way of saying that Anna had spent her long life (she was 84 years old) in prayer and thus in communion with God. She was not there by chance; she was there because she had chosen that place – God’s house – as her customary dwelling place. The Temple was the centre of her life. At this point the Evangelist adds a further piece of information: Anna served God “with fasting and prayer night and day” (Lk 2:37). This is a striking affirmation, the elderly widow was “always” employed in the same service, that is, she had dedicated herself fully and totally. This affirmation impresses us even more when we realize that nothing similar was ever said, before or afterwards, of another woman, not even of Mary or of Elizabeth. Both appear in a family environment. They do not detach themselves from their daily activities, while remaining focused on their own interiority and capable of opening themselves to the surprises of God. Anna instead has made the Temple her home. She remains there night and day, ceaselessly giving praise, fasting and praying. We can guess that for Anna this continuous praise has become the meaning of her life, the raison d’être of her existence. Even though she is a frail women, elderly and a widow, she experiences in her own flesh the authentic and inexhaustible joy which only the Lord can give.

We do not know why the Evangelist calls her a prophetess. Our understanding of prophets is linked instead to inner listening, to the proclamation of salvation and to the denunciation of offences; in short, to speaking explicitly in God’s name. This is something Anna does not do. The reader is astounded at Anna’s silence, failing to realize that a prophetess might not prophesy. And immediately Huldah springs to mind, the prophetess who, as well as confirming the authenticity of the scroll found in the Temple during the reign of Josiah, proclaimed the fall of the kingdom of the South (cf. 2Kings 22). Then how is it that we do not hear Anna’s voice? Why is she silent before the Saviour of the world? The answers to these questions must be sought in the manner of Luke’s narrative. His way of presenting prophecy is different from the way in which the authors of the prophetic books present it. For Luke prophecy does not happen in public squares or in the courts of kings, but in God’s presence and in the intimate relationship with him, thus becoming a totality of life, as in the case of our prophetess. Anna corresponds perfectly to this “new type” of prophesy.

The prophetic dimension of many Christians, of the early times and of all times, consists precisely in this. To put it differently, prophecy is a free decision to be and to remain in a personal and intimate relationship with God; a relationship of love from which emerges the eloquent testimony of faith and praise. Perhaps the author realized that Simeon’s testimony lacked that of Anna; the prophetic words of Simeon who proclaims to Mary the dramatic destiny of her Son and of herself as his mother (cf. Lk 2:34-35) lacked Anna’s testimony of faith, which had matured in the immeasurable interiority of a life. Anna is the first in a long list of prophets and prophetesses who played a fundamental role in the proclamation of Jesus Christ, even though they remain to this day unheeded and unknown by many Christians.

Ambrogio di Stefano da Fossano, known as Bergognone (1453–1523)

Like Elizabeth and Mary, Anna is a woman who communicates a truth that is not confused with others: the recognition of Jesus as a gift of salvation needs a heart capable of waiting in silence and interiority night and day. Anna’s role does not have the newness of Elizabeth’s or the greatness of Mary’s, but in her are anticipated the most relevant features of both the men and the women disciples of Jesus. As a prophetess, Anna continues the long tradition of women prophetesses in the Old Testament whose presence, while very discreet, is attested in various biblical writings and should be interpreted within the general context of prophecy in Israel. Let us think of Miriam, the sister of Moses and Aaron (cf. Ex 15:20), a figure much admired in rabbinic literature; of Deborah, a prophetess and judge, who announced proclaimed to Barak Israel’s victory through God’s will (cf. Judg 4:4,9); of Huldah, of whom we have spoken above (cf. 2 Kings 22:14); or even of Isaiah’s wife, known as “the prophetess” (cf. Is 8:3). However, our protagonist, in making the Temple her home, crosses the threshold of the Old Testament, anticipating the role of the women prophetesses in the early days of the Church (cf. Acts of the Apostles 2:17; 21:9; 1 Cor 11:5). Anna’s blessing consists of praising God and of speaking of the Child “to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem” (Lk 2:38). Indeed, Joseph and Mary, in their desire to obey the Law on the circumcision of the child and the purification of the mother, receive God’s blessing through Simeon and Anna. Yet what is underscored is their attitude of waiting and of praise. Mary and Joseph remain in the shadows. It seems that Luke wants to alert his readers who are about to begin a new time in which praise and proclamation come first.

The biblical account is permeated on the one hand by the beauty of the Jewish rite and, on the other, by the faith of Mary and Joseph through the words of Simeon and the presence of the Prophetess Anna. The words of the aged Simeon constitute the centre of the account, even though they emerge in a context marked by theological elements laden with meaning: obedience to the Law, the celebration of a birth and adoration in the Temple are not intrusions into their lives, but rather the realization of their faith. Mary and Joseph lived in a context of alliance and wanted to introduce their Son into the same environment. Simeon and Anna, sensitive to God’s presence in the events of Israel’s past, respond to the obedience of Joseph and Mary with words of blessing. Their blessing gave the celebration of the Presentation of the Child a significance which otherwise it would never have had. Let us imagine that Mary and Joseph always remembered this blessing, a sign of a God who is in our midst, but this remains an inexpressible mystery. Jesus is a God who came into history to give us joy but is ever waiting for our intimacy and hope.

Luísa Maria Almendra

 

The author

Luísa Maria Almendra teaches at the Faculty of Theology of the Portuguese Catholic University. She holds a doctorate in biblical theology in the field of sapiential writings. She gives courses and seminars on the Old and New Testaments and teaches biblical languages. She is a member of the Society for the Study of Biblical and Semitic Rhetoric, of the Association Catholique Française pour l’étude de la Bible and of the Society of Biblical Literature. She is in charge of the Faculty’s theology course and of its international relations.

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