Lectionary Reflection for the First Sunday after Christmas Day

This excerpt comes from Luke (BTCB) by David Lyle Jeffrey, commenting on Luke 2:22-40:

Strikingly, even before the offering for the firstborn can be accomplished by his parents, Simeon takes Jesus up in his arms, blessing God and saying, “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word. For my eyes have seen thy salvation, which thou hast prepared before the face of all people; a light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel” (Luke 2:29–32 KJV).

I cite the KJV here because of its proximity to the language of the liturgy in the Book of Common Prayer (1662) and thus primarily to draw attention among English speakers to this passage being the fourth poetic or hymnic passage encountered thus far in Luke to have entered into Christian liturgy. It has been part of daily prayers since the fourth century; in the Eastern church it is said at vespers, in Western use generally at compline, from which it enters the Book of Common Prayer. Simeon’s benedictional praise poem has thus also itself become a “sign to many” for two millennia.

Now suddenly appears yet another surprising figure, namely Anna (Hebrew Hannah, meaning “grace”). Luke tells us that she is a prophetess and, more remarkably, that she has spent most of her long life in the temple precincts, “serv[ing] God with fastings and prayers night and day” (Luke 2:37). She is a widow, her husband having died seven years after her marriage. She is of the tribe of Asher and a daughter of Phanuel (whose name is a variant of “Peniel,” recalling Gen. 32:30: “face to face [panîm el-panîm] with God”), and it appears that, most unusually for any woman, she has effectively been an intercessor at the temple for more than sixty years.

She is eighty-four at least (the syntax here is ambiguous); for Luke it is evidently a fact of interest that she is so advanced in age. Later commentators, possessed of the conviction that no apparently incidental number would have been included in the narrative by the biblical writers unless there was a spiritual reason for it, sometimes treat the number as symbolic or figural and see Anna’s responsive thanksgiving as constituting her as a mystical sign of the church (e.g., Bede, Homilies on the Gospels 2.38: seven [a number for the “fullness of time”] multiplied by twelve [a biblical number for revelation of God’s purposes]).

Be that as it may, all commentators see her appearance as highly significant to Luke. In some deep sense, Jesus is an answer to the prayers of Anna, even as to those of Simeon. Arriving on the scene precisely at the moment of Simeon’s prayer she acts as what dramaturgists call “fifth business”; in her words she not only gives thanks to God but, Luke adds, like the shepherds, also immediately begins to spread the good word “to all those who looked for redemption in Jerusalem” (2:38).

Calvin sees the examples of Simeon and Anna also as prefiguring the evangelical joy of the church, “that the faithful may encourage each other to sing God’s praises with one voice, and mutually to take up the strain” (1972: 1.98).

 

©2012 by David Lyle Jeffrey. Published by Brazos Press. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.