The Great Feast of the Meeting of the Lord, which we celebrated on February 2, commemorates the time when Simeon and Anna met Christ in the Temple after His Mother came there to present Him to the Lord and to offer the sacrifices for her ritual purification after childbirth. On February 3, we celebrated the post-feast of this great event. And, like all post-feasts, the day focused upon the secondary characters in the story, namely Simeon and Anna. (The whole story may be read in Luke 2:22-40.)
I have always felt that here Saint Anna the Prophetess gets a bit short-changed. Everyone is excited about Saint Simeon the God-Receiver. He gets to say the prophetic hymn, “Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace,” which forms a part of every Vespers service, and which the priest says every time he churches a new baby, taking the child in his arms as Simeon took the Child Jesus in his. He seems to be in the foreground of the festal icon in a more prominent position than Anna. And both the troparion and kontakion for the Feast mention Simeon alone, completely ignoring Anna. Many Orthodox people named “Anna,” when asked, “For which saint are you named?” reply “Anna of Joachim and Anna.” One imagines that if they made a movie of the Meeting, the ad for it would say, “Starring the Lord Jesus, the holy Theotokos, and Saint Joseph, and costarring Saint Simeon the God-Receiver—with a cameo appearance by Saint Anna the Prophetess.” Though I think it doubtful that Saint Anna cares one bit about this lack of attention from where she sits in heaven, I sort of feel for her, at least a little. Accordingly, I would like to offer a few thoughts about this sometimes neglected saint.
Scripture describes her as living with her husband seven years from her virginity, and as a widow until she was eighty-four years of age. During this time, she did not depart from the Temple, but spent all her time there, worshipping with fasting and prayer, night and day (Luke 2:36-37). Why she did this and why she never remarried (as would have been customary for women in her situation) we are not told. But we are allowed to speculate. It is at least possible that being widowed a mere seven years after marriage (when she was about twenty years of age—and possibly being childless?—no children are mentioned in the text) left a tremendous mark of pain and trauma on her young heart. Such was the pain that she spent all her available time seeking the face and solace of God in His Temple. Some people allow pain to turn them against God, demanding to know “Why me?” and blaming the Most High for their troubles, coping with their pain by turning into anger. (This was the counsel of Job’s wife, who urged him to turn against the Lord, saying, “Curse God and die!”; Job 2:9). Anna chose another path, refusing to turn her pain into anger. Instead, she turned her pain into prayer, making it an offering to God, pouring out her heart to the Lord. In her life, the words of the Psalmist found fulfillment: “The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, Thou wilt not despise” (Psalm 51:17). In so doing, she speaks to us in our times of pain and trauma too. Everyone eventually comes to a place of pain, a pit that seems to have no bottom, a well so deep we can scarcely see the sky when we look up. We feel irreparably damaged by life, hopeless, far from any possibility of future joy or healing. The path counselled by Job’s wife beckons; we want to lash out, to strike back, to curse God and die. Saint Anna shows us another way: bring your pain to the Temple and seek God there. Pour out all your anguish and confusion on the altar, worshipping God in the dark and trusting that the impossible dawn will one day arise. That is the time to retreat into one’s prayer corner and close the door, to light the candle before the icons and cling to God. When we do so, after much time, we will discover what Saint Anna discovered: “the secret (or friendship) of the Lord is for those who fear Him and He makes known to them His covenant” (Psalm 25:14). This is the experience of the prophets, who clung to God so that He told them His secrets, and shared His hidden counsel with them as a man speaks to his friend. This state is called “spiritual maturity,” and there is no short-cut to it. But if we reach this maturity, then we will have something to share with those around us, even as Saint Anna shared the Word of the Lord with all those around her who came to the Temple looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.
Saint Anna has an important message for us, whatever our lot in life. God is willing to share His friendship with us as He shared it with the prophets. All we need to do is what Saint Anna did—worship the Lord with fasting and prayer, and His seek His Presence all the days of our life.