The Prophetess Anna

22 And when the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord 23 (as it is written in the law of the Lord, "Every male that opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord") 24 and to offer a sacrifice according to what is said in the law of the Lord, "a pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons."

25 Now there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon, and this man was righteous and devout, looking for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. 26 And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he should not see death before he had seen the Lord's Christ. 27 And inspired by the Spirit he came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him according to the custom of the law, 28 he took him up in his arms and blessed God and said,
29 "Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace,
   according to thy word;
30 for mine eyes have seen thy salvation
   31 which thou hast prepared in the presence of all peoples,
32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
   and for glory to thy people Israel."
33 And his father and his mother marveled at what was said about him; 34 and Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, "Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is spoken against 35 (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), that thoughts out of many hearts may be revealed."

36 And there was a prophetess, Anna, the daughter of Phanu-el, of the tribe of Asher; she was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years from her virginity, 37 and as a widow till she was eighty-four. She did not depart from the temple, worshiping with fasting and prayer night and day. 38 And coming up at that very hour she gave thanks to God, and spoke of him to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem. (Lk 2:22-38)

There is something interesting going on here. Mary and Joseph take Jesus to the Temple in Jerusalem for His consecration as first-born son, and her purification, both forty days after Jesus’ birth. We should note how ironic it is for the Son of God, born of the Father before all ages, to be “consecrated” as a first-born, and for our Immaculate Mother, conceived without sin, to be “purified.” It’s really quite laughable; yet they both obeyed the Law, even as the law dissolved before their eyes.

This consecration/purification was done, per the Law, forty days after Jesus’ birth. As we recall from another essay, that number forty should remind us of our lives in this world. (But also remember that after the forty days comes refreshment.)

The Holy family meet two characters in this narrative. The first is Simeon. Of interest is his name: Its Hebrew meaning is he who hears. He who hears what? According to an ancient midrash, Genesis Rabbah, he hears the word of God, i.e., the Law. According to some Fathers of the Church, Simeon here represents the Law, the Old Covenant. Therefore, upon the arrival of Christ, he can “depart in peace.” The New Covenant of grace has arrived.

This brings us to our second character, Anna. Her name means “grace” and she represents the New Covenant of grace. She was a widow, which points to the death of her spouse; anagogically, the spouse of New Covenant grace is Christ who will, in fact, die. She lived with her spouse for seven years, seven referring to the covenant. She lived to the age of eighty-four, which is seven times twelve. Again, from another essay, we know the number twelve means God in this world, God with us (Emmanuel). God is with us, in this world, through the grace of the New Covenant.

So, we see here an anagogical image of “this world in which we live,” at first under the Old Covenant of the Law, then succeeded by the New Covenant of grace, wherein the Lord will be with us. Simeon, representing the old, was happy to die now that the new had arrived, and we heard his words clearly, as the Law was heard clearly. Anna, representing the new, lived long and we did not hear any specific words from her, save that she “spoke of him to all,” pointing to the spread of the Gospel.

This entire anagogical understanding is from the Fathers of Church, perhaps mainly from St. Bede. We can go a bit further, though, noting Simeon’s prophecy regarding Mary. Let’s recall from another essay that Mary is a type of the Church. And, as we’ve seen, this passage provides many images of the Old Covenant Temple giving way to the New Covenant Church. Then, Mary’s typology serves a dual purpose here: she images God’s people before and after this covenantal change. Then yes, a sword will pierce her soul: literally when she grieves over her beloved son, and anagogically when the Temple covenant must give way to the Covenant of grace. Likewise, many will rise and fall in Israel – because a new Israel is on the way and some will accept it and others will not. And finally “thoughts out of many hearts will be revealed” – following the Law does not require a devout heart, does not require love of God. The new era of grace does require both, however; intention, even desire, is the necessity of every Christian.

A final comment, which is liturgical. The words of Simeon noted above in verses 29 through 32 are called the Nunc Dimittis (first two words of these verses in Latin). It is recited by priests and religious every day as part of the liturgy of night prayer (compline) just before retiring.