We read this text unironically. We live in a world in which Pastor Paula White—also known as President Trump’s spiritual advisor—prays for God to cause Satanic pregnancies to miscarry. We hear that and we all shake our heads at how crazy it sounds. And then we read—without a trace of irony—that a spirit led an old guy and a prophetess to go to a Temple and prophesy that a baby is God, thus interrupting his parents who were trying to drain the blood out of two doves because they read that God wanted that. So, I think we need to ask ourselves why Luke’s story is better than the alternative.
First, what was Paula White talking about, and does it matter? It matters. A couple of months ago Trinity got a call from a woman who said that our Reconciling In Christ identity was a sign we were possessed by an evil spirit. She was coming from the same neo-charismatic tradition as Paula White. Paula White does not think any woman is physically pregnant with Satan’s baby. In her faith tradition, spirits and demons are real, and they invade people, metaphorically growing like fetuses in the womb. For neo-charismatics, if you envision something and say with faith that it will happen, it will happen. If it does not happen, demons are against you. According to her, the only reason anyone accepts homosexuals or wants health care for women, or is okay with non-protestants immigrating to the United States, is that a demon has taken up residence in them. So, she prays that these “satanic pregnancies” miscarry, that is, that God destroy the demons making people thing equal rights and freedom of religion are good things.
So much for that. How are we to come at Luke’s story. My point of entry into this text is the mysterious prophetess, Anna. None of her words are written but her character tells us much. Luke says she is a widow. In the early church, Widow was an office like preacher or deacon. When a Christian woman’s husband died, she might prefer celibacy over the risk of marrying a jerk, dying in childbirth, or having to marry outside of the faith (if her family required it) and face a husband who forbade her to go to Church. Churches gave such women official jobs, like prophesying. I think this is what Luke has in mind when he describes Anna. Luke grew up in Church. He would have known official widows. She would have been someone who worked with the faithful, helping them discern what God wanted for them and the Church. She has done this to an advanced age.
It’s also possible, I think likely, that Luke bases Anna at least loosely on the Jewish folk hero Judith. Judith like Anna is widowed young. She is also gorgeous beyond description. She does not remarry but manages the estate, fasts, prays, and is honored by everyone for her devotion to God. In the story, Israel has been losing on the battlefield to Assyria, and now Assyria besieges Judith’s city. Judith convinces her desperate king to let her help. She makes herself up and rides out to the Assyrian camp, asking to see the general, Holofernes. (She’s rich and powerful and gorgeous, so that’s arranged.) She tells him that the city is starving and will be beaten easily. She comes on to him, and he decides to have a wild evening with her. She gets him drunk, and she decapitates him. She sneaks away with his head and the next day his head is on a pike outside of her city. The Assyrians panic, the Israelites defeat them. Judith is a hero. Judith glorifies God (like Anna), and then returns to widowhood, living to be 105 years old. Luke is not clear whether Anna lived to be 84 or lived 84 years after her husband died. New Testament scholar Raymond Brown thinks (and I agree with him) that it’s the latter, which means Anna’s age in this scene is close to Judith’s age at the end of Judith’s story.
With that long lifespan, Luke tells us even more about Anna. If Anna became a widow 84 years before the birth of Jesus, her husband died during the Judean Civil War, when Jews protesting the cruel King Alexander Jannaeus fought him for six years, until he triumphed and crucified 800 rebel soldiers. Anna observed mass crucifixions, possibly including her husband or one of those who killed him. Anna most certainly lived through the fall of Jerusalem to Pompey the Great. Pompey’s Roman legions besieged the Temple for three months before they overpowered the defenders. Pompey had 12,000 Jews slaughtered, and himself entered the Holy of Holies, profaning it. He ordered it cleansed and normal temple life resumed, but he had made it clear that he could do what he wanted when he wanted. Anna saw that. Anna saw the Roman triumvir Crassus loot the Temple when the Jews didn’t pay him his protection money. She saw Herod the Great, a brutal non-Jew, made King of the Jews by the Romans. Anna has seen horrible things happen. She has lived through devastating losses. And though on this day at the Temple everything is normal, the world is at peace, everybody’s happy, Anna has seen what can happen. This woman who saw mass crucifixions sees a baby who will be crucified. With Simeon, she speaks. Her words are not recorded, but if they’re anything like his, she tells mom and dad that hard times are coming, people will rise and fall because of this kid, and a sword of God’s judgment will pass even through Jesus’ family.
Anna is like an Auschwitz survivor speaking out, saying yes, it happened, it happened to me, it had happened before, it could happen again. She’s seen wars and crucifixions and desecrations. Or she’s like Judith, the unassuming old widow who that one time singlehandedly saved everyone by doing what the situation required. Or she’s like a prophet in the early church, helping the faithful decide what God is doing during a time when the future is uncertain and the faith is technically illegal. She’s all these things. And her presence with the baby Jesus is crucial to what Luke tells us: God is present. God is present even at dreadful times. The God who commands “Love God and love your neighbor” becomes your neighbor, becomes one loving you and deserving of your love. At The Presentation of our Lord, God—Jesus—hitches God to Anna and what she has seen. God was present in those horrible times of the past. God is present on this random winter morning, when maybe things are okay for you or maybe they’re not. God will be present when horrible things happen again, as they do because people can do horrible things to each other. And that is worlds apart from someone saying that people who differ from her and from what she wants must be possessed by evil spirits, from saying that if I don’t have what I want it is because demons are against me and are in those who differ from and scare me. Anna’s witness couldn’t be more different.
Anna’s witness shows us how to be Christian today, in a world that needs a viable alternative to what else there is. Anna’s life and her experience give lie to any theology that says whatever you want God will give you. Of course Anna prayed Alexander Jannaeus not crucify 800 men, prayed that Pompey not desecrate the Temple, that Crassus not loot it, that the Herods not come to power. What’s more, I’ll wager that Alexander Jannaeus prayed before he crucified 800, Pompey prayed to his gods that he win, Crassus prayed to his gods he get his loot, Herod thanked God he was king. Those are guys who saw what they wanted, prayed that they may have it, and took it. Didn’t care who they hurt or killed in the process. Anna’s witness is the opposite of their violence. The God Anna worships does not function that way. The God Anna worships and we worship is that day a baby, powerless. God will grow up to be crucified, joining not with those who cause suffering but with those who suffer.
Anna shows us how to be Christian today. Her character is a nod to the widow Judith, the folk hero. Judith does what the situation requires. That’s what God requests from us each day. A lot of days, that’s not that interesting. Go to work, feed the kids. Some days, it’s harder. Not everyone faces a challenge like Judith. Not everyone is a Bonhoeffer who sees a realistic opportunity to stop Hitler. But there are times in our faith journey when God calls us to be clever with our faith, to be clever in how we love our neighbor in a world that calls us to hate our neighbors as enemies.
Anna shows us how to be Christian today. Eighty-four years of prophesying, of praying with the faithful and discerning what God was doing in their lives and the life of the community. You know, we say Jesus is God’s light to the nations, and in our Eucharistic Prayer we pray that God may make of us light to the world. If Anna is an “official” prophesying widow—and I think she is—her prophesying serves as a light to those around her. Her witness that God is with the suffering and that we are to love even—especially—when it is risky to us, well, that is to be our witness. We live in a world in which some pray that violence and suffering be inflicted upon others. The world needs to hear why God’s alternative is better.