In our Christmas celebrations, we think of shepherds, the magi and, of course, Mary and Joseph. Many manger scenes contain sheep, donkeys and camels. But what about two other characters, Simeon and Anna, who were present at Jesus’ baby dedication in Luke 2, after “Mary pondered these things in her heart”?
I imagine Simeon as sort of an odd duck. People depicted as “devout” often are. He was a constant presence at the synagogue – always there on all the holy days, always asking questions and mouthing the prayers along with the priests. Whether it was the spirit of the times or the Holy Spirit, Simeon believed he would see the Messiah in the flesh before his death.
Mary likely did not know Simeon. When he gestured to take her baby, we can imagine what her immediate reaction may have been. So perhaps it was a mother’s intuition that led her to gently place Jesus in Simeon’s arms.
Then Simeon began saying some weird things – great things, but also ominous things. He prophesies that her son, this tiny, seven-day old baby, is the promise of Israel who will be a light to the nations and salvation to the Gentiles.
But Simeon also says some upsetting things. This tiny baby will be a Savior who will bring heartbreak and cause trouble among the nations. This baby will bring deep pain to Mary. (I wonder if Luke knew when he penned those words that they would still ring true today.)
Not long afterward, an old woman wandered toward Mary and Joseph. Luke identifies her as the prophet Anna. After her husband died, she sought her vocation in the temple, praying and speaking words of truth. The temple had become her family when she had none. The priests were like her kids, the congregants like her siblings, the children who celebrated their bar mitzvahs like her grandchildren.
“We don’t hear often about the Simeons and Annas in our day.”
Unlike Simeon’s prophecy, Anna’s words aren’t recorded by Luke. Unlike Simeon, she doesn’t beckon Mary and Joseph to allow her to hold the baby. She just begins to speak, strongly and clearly. She had prayed for this moment over and over, early in the morning before breakfast and late in the evening before sleep. She knew who this baby was.
She told them this baby would confront the empire which had long oppressed them. This was the empire that in essence had made Mary travel with Joseph while nine months pregnant. This baby, like Isaiah spoke of long ago, would save Jerusalem, she told them. He was the one Israel had hoped for.
As biblical interpreters have noted, isn’t it odd that these two older adults, who have little to no family connections and no children of their own, are the first people to recognize who Jesus is, apart from divine interventions?
In Luke 1 an angel appears to Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, explaining why John would be special. Another angel appears to Mary to tell her she would be the mother of God.
But Simeon and Anna needed no angels. They had been listening to the Spirit all along, hoping and praying for something to happen. Their bodies had become weak, their steps slowed. Yet they had never ceased praising God.
The in-breaking of the kingdom of God (or what the mujerista theologian Ada María Isasi-Díaz called kin-dom) becomes real. The new breaks into the old; the old welcomes the new.
The incarnation isn’t just for the young. The older people, Anna and Simeon, see their faith come alive in the face of Jesus.
That does not mean that their disappointments and heartbreaks went away. The pain in Simeon’s body remained. Anna, at 84, still grieved the loss of her husband and her dreams for children.
We don’t hear often about the Simeons and Annas in our day. Or even in the Christmas story. Dominant society, which highlights the beautiful and new, has a habit of dismissing these saints as untimely, unfashionable, unhelpful. Yet, the years of prayer which came from their lips formed not only them, but their community.
The Simeons and Annas keep the faith when we cannot. Their praises become our praises. Their disappointments reflect ours. Their hopes become our hopes. When everything seems hopeless, their constant murmured prayers help sustain us.
Perhaps, as we enter the long stretch of winter and experience some of the anxieties of the Christmas season, we can embrace the Simeons and Annas in our midst – and maybe within ourselves.