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At the fresh faced age of 15, while looking at his father and grandfather, while looking at his future, aging, being… old, Paul McCartney wrote “When I’m 64”–a song that reflects on the imperfections of being ancient in the eyes of a 15 year old, and wondering if anyone will like him anymore, if he would will be useful or needed.
Of course, at 81 and living his best life, Paul McCartney has answered those questions and now has to shift what “old” is.
I wonder what our young couple thought when Simeon and then Anna walked up to them in the temple that day, how old they might have looked.
Simeon isn’t our person for the day but from the Eastern Orthodox tradition, we’re told Simeon was 200 years old, which was well past the life expectancy of the day. Simeon gets all the attention, all the quotable lines, he’s the one who talks to Mary about the falling and rising of many and how her heart, like so many other mother, will break.
And sneaking right in is Anna, at a comparably reasonable age of 84 years. We’re told so little about her. She’s from the tribe of Asher, a northern tribe of Israel that, by that time, had been called lost for more than 700 years, the power structures destroyed and deported by the Assyrian Empire. She herself seems kind of lost–her husband had died while she was still young and seems to have had no children, at least no sons; she should have married one of her husband’s brothers or cousins or someone to carry on the family name and to care for her. None of that happened for her.
It would have been easy for her to focus on the struggle, to accept that this is as good as it gets. It is easy to look around the world and see the trouble, see the despair in the world; it can be easy to focus on the difficulties in our own lives, the griefs and struggles.
And it is hard. it is hard to see the good, or to see the best or to see the glass half full when there often is only a few drops, let alone! it is hard to see the face of God, the face of Christ in a loved one, a stranger, the person we try to avoid, the reflection in the mirror. It is hard to see the movement of God.
Where I might have gotten caught in the cycle of woo-is-me,
Anna went to the temple, spends years in the temple, spent years in prayer in the temple.
Anna lived with some trauma, as there must be around her husband’s death, no doubt felt sudden and unexpected given how short their time together. When Naomi lost her husband and sons she told the women to call her Bitter, for that was her life now. Anna chose a different path, presumably not one that was blind optimism but one that fell into the arms of God again and again, trusted that she would be received and home, and that the same God would welcome all her community.
Decades past. Families would come with their children, their first born, and go with promises to raise them well. Families would come with the sacrifices and then return to their homes. Priests would come for the time of service at the temple and then go home, then return again. But Anna remained.
She lived in God’s house. She spent her days in prayer and praise. I wonder if she greeted every child she could with prayer and celebration, hearing their names and speaking blessing over them. Maybe she spoke the hope of God to those who walked in down by the oppression of Rome, by their poverty, by their desperation.
She was a prophet, not in the tell the future kind of way, and no necessarily opposing the powerful kind of way, but in the speaking truth way. Anna was so connected with God in her prayers and in her praise that she knew the heart of God and was known. I don’t think it gave her special access to God, but it meant that she was in tune with God and what God was doing in the world around her. She could see the face of God in the people around her, she could see the hand of God in presence of another, she could see God at work.
There are many ways to imagine how Anna came to stand before Mary, Joseph, and their 2 week old Jesus, but I like to imagine that she was drawn to the small family. From the far side of the temple she knew something had shifted and he had to go. A voice, a feeling, an intuition lead her from wherever she was directly to Jesus.
We have no words spoken between the women, but of course there were. How could she not comment on how lovely the child was, how well Mary was doing? How could she not ask about how the birth was and listen to the story of the manger and the shepherds? She listened and prayed and heard and knew that God was doing something special here.
Now, we make a big deal of the women at the end of the story being the first evangelists of the Good News of Jesus resurrection, but here, Anna is one of the first to be an evangelist of Jesus the messiah. She met the new born baby and when they parted ways, she told everyone about the child would save them, this child would confirm their hope. She knew God so well that she could see what God was doing and she pointed back to God, helping others see.
It’s a weird thing, I listen to a lot of former evangelicals tell their stories and one of the triggering lessons or phrases was about “quiet time with God.” “Have you been having your quiet time?” as a response to one’s struggles or questions. But like so many things, it’s rooted in something good. Jesus, when grown, would go away from the crowds to pray, in the example of scores of Biblical characters and probably other folks he knew. There is something special that can happen in those moments away, in the quiet–we meet God, even in what seems like silence. We meet God in ourselves, in nature, in reflection, in breath that gives life, and it is found in the writings that reveal God, the Spirit, and what it means to be human, which includes but not exclusively so, the Bible, but also poetry and novels and memoirs and biographies.
We get to know God in those times. We become known to God, to ourselves, and we grow in relationship with the Creator of all things.
And when it says that Anna prayed all day, that couldn’t mean that she was always sitting formally with her hands folded and isolated on her own, no, she interacted with others while she prayed. Her breath became a prayer–perhaps of gratitude that every exhale became a breath of thanks. Or to breathe in peace and breathe out peace. Or to breathe in love and breathe out hope. Her prayers became her steps as she moved in the world fully enveloped in God, walking in union with God.
Her whole life was prayer bring her to God, to see God in the world, and to point to what God was doing. And this day, it was in Jesus, God in Jesus was going to bring hope and liberation. Anna pointed back to Jesus.
In the 80’s and 90’s there was a Christian singer and song writer Rich Mullins. Most people know him by the song Awesome God, which was never his own favorite. In one of his last professional photographs he was standing on cliff, at some ruins. His photographer called to him to hold his arms out, not like Jesus, but a little lower. Said Rich looked like an arrow, pointing to heaven. Rich was a poet and singer. He was committed to prayer and generosity, he was committed to compassion and transformation. Rich, like King David, was a man after God’s own heart and pursued God with all he muster all his years on earth. He might fall and falter and he would get up, keep going, and then write about those experiences, trusting that God was there, that Jesus was hope.
When the Bible Study was invited to name folks who radiate their relationship with God, who point back to God, who can see Christ in the world around them and in the face of another–they named Mother Theresa (maybe because this image is modeled after her), Archbishop Tutu, big names, famous names–helps when they are not alive to mess up and let us down.
And here’s the thing. I think about Mother Theresa. There was all this controversy when she died and she had wanted all her personal writing destroyed… and they, the people who had control or legal authority or spiritual responsibility for her legacy published them anyway. In those pages was revealed someone who was fully human, who doubted and struggled and feared and grieved and traveled through the dark night of the soul–the kind that lasted for far longer than she thought she could stand. It seems like she didn’t want anyone to know that was part of how she experienced life for whatever reason, be it pride, fear it would lead others to doubt, shame.
But what is revealed in her writing is what is revealed in the life of Anna, is revealed in the songs of Rich Mullins when he began a song, “Sometimes my life just don’t make sense at all, when the mountains look so big and my faith just seems so small.” It doesn’t end there, just like it didn’t end there for Mother Theresa or Anna or for us. The chorus goes on to say, “So hold me Jesus, cause I’m shaking like a leaf. You have been my king of glory, won’t you be my prince of peace.”
It’s in the hymn: Come O Fount we sing “prone to wander… to leave the God I love. Here’s my heart, take and seal it.”
It is the trust in the relationship in the dark time, the difficult time, the uncertain times, in the times of doubt and fear and questions, it is having spent that time in prayer, in reflection, in medication, in relationship with God, with Jesus, with the Spirit that we can fall into the arms of the God in Christ who knows us and loves us, and trust that we will be held.
And they were right, it takes time, quiet or otherwise. It takes knowing what to look for to see the face of Christ in creation. It takes practice moving in unison, dancing with God–learning the steps. It takes time. But it isn’t just for those who are celebrated as saints, icons we put on pedestals of the truly holy. It is each of us, praying, learning, growing, failing, getting up, learning, and growing again. That is how we trust in a relationship and that is how we trust with God in Christ. It is then that–even in our struggles, our doubts, our griefs, our uncertainties, our joys, our celebrations, our years be they many or few–it is then in all parts of our lives that we can trust the Christ who is born into this world, see Christ in all of creation including the face of each other and the stranger, and point out the good, point out where Christ is showing up, point to the hope that we have in a complicated world.