"Prophet Anna at Presentation of Jesus in Temple" by James Tissot (1836-1902). Photo by Brooklyn Museum. by James Tissot, Brooklyn Museum

Learning From Prophets — Luke 2:22-40

Kathleen Rushton describes Mary and Joseph's encounter with the prophets in Luke 2:22-40.

Matthew and Luke are our only sources about the infancy of Jesus. Christians familiar with the blending of these two stories can be shocked to discover how much the accounts differ. Rather than try to reconcile the differences, we can understand what the Holy Spirit is giving us with two different accounts. Worrying about historicity or sources of information can distract us from the religious message on which both evangelists agree.

Their religious message has two major points: the first centres around the identity of Jesus and the second on how Jesus, in his early life, sums up Israel’s history. We shall explore this message as embedded in Anna, who speaks out in Luke. The Spirit is prominent in this two-part story which features characters who are filled with the Spirit.

Jesus Is Recognised

Jesus’s identity is known only through God’s revelation which is recognised by those who wait faithfully. We hear that “the time came for her [Mary] to deliver her child” in Bethlehem (Lk 2:6). After eight days “it was time to circumcise the child” (Lk 2:21).

Then the location shifts: “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” (Lk 2:22). This scene takes place in the outer precincts of the temple. Only there could Mary be met by both a male and a female prophet. The gender pairing of two characters is typical of Luke.

Recognised by Simeon

Simeon is described as a “righteous and devout” person (anthropos) “looking forward to the consolation of Israel”. Although he is not called a prophet, we are told three times that Simeon is led by the Spirit. The Holy Spirit “rested on him and revealed to him that he would not die before he had seen the Messiah.” Guided by the Spirit “Simeon came to temple” and took the child in his arms and praised God.

Recognised by the Prophet Anna

And at that moment Anna, a prophet, is there. Though the text calls Anna “a prophet” it is often mistranslated as “prophetess” (eg, Jerusalem Bible). Anna is the only woman in the New Testament to be given the title prophet which is comparable to women prophets in Judaism – Miriam (Ex15:20), Deborah (Judg 4:4), Hulda (2 Kgs 22:14) and possibly the wife of Isaiah (Is 8:3).

Anna is very old and has been a widow for the greater part of her life. She is named in her own terms as the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher and not by her deceased husband’s name, family or tribe. “Daughter” evokes the prophet Joel quoted in Acts 2:17: “I will pour out my Spirit … your daughters will prophecy.” In addition, Philip’s daughters “had the gift of prophecy” (Acts 21:9). Anna’s presence with Simeon points to the understanding that in messianic times the outbreaking of the Spirit is characterised by the fact that both women and men prophecy. The women of Pentecost (Acts 1:14) have their forerunners in Mary, Elizabeth and Anna.

God Is Continuing to Act as in the Past

Luke’s infancy narrative is set in the context of Old Testament references and reminiscences. The hymns of praise attributed to Mary (Magnificat Lk 1:46-55), to Zechariah (Benedictus Lk 1:68-79) and to Simeon (Nunc Dimittis Lk 2:29-32) show that God acting through Jesus is behaving consistently as in the past. Whereas Simeon speaks only to Mary and Joseph, Anna makes a public declaration. In telling us that she “spoke about the child to all who were awaiting the redemption of Israel” (Lk 2:38), Luke presents her as the first evangelist.

Prophets Continue to Point to God’s Acting

In Luke the Spirit is the prophetic Spirit. A prophet is gifted by God with insight into the present — the now — and becomes aware of the need for change and for creating a new future in light of God’s revelation in the past. The prophet, therefore, learns to read present events and recognise God’s revelation as time unfolds. Anna’s declaration is a prophetic proclamation.

Once the identity of Jesus is known it is quickly shared with others. The revelation which Anna receives, like that of Mary and the shepherds, is not to be a private possession. God’s revelation of Jesus is to be proclaimed to others who are eager to receive it. The good news has an element of sadness — not all will believe.

Jesus to Continue God’s Liberating Work

Luke expresses the expectation that God would redeem/liberate Israel (Lk 1:68). We have Anna’s declaration. After Jesus’s resurrection the disciples on the way to Emmaus declare: “But we hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel” (Lk 24:21). The expectation begins with the redemption of Jerusalem and then after the resurrection moves from Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8).

Joining in God’s Work Today

The Advent season is our time of waiting and being present. We can poise ourselves to hear and act on the prophetic word for this time — to the signs of the times. What voices prompt God’s mission of liberation and healing today? Where do we feel the Spirit drawing us to participate? How is the Good News influencing us in our COVID-19 world? Do we hear and listen to the voices of women?

Christmas is our time of celebrating the humanity of the Risen Christ, who sharing our humanity and history, builds on all that went before and transforms it. The evolutionary challenge of our time is a new consciousness of being loving humans. In the Risen Jesus we do not meet God who “came down” for a visit, but God who emerges in the same Earth as ourselves. We can be open to the Spirit, the life-giving Breath of God, so that the Gospel of the Risen Jesus will permeate the way we live in our increasingly diverse societies. We all share a common humanity.

It is through the Gospel that we regenerate creation — including humanity. This Christmas we can ponder how we are friends and pilgrims with the people of our time. We can work on an attitude of respect for all, even if we do not agree with them. This creates a positive atmosphere for dialogue within our cultural setting in our common home.

Tui Motu Magazine. Issue 255 December 2020: 24-25