The Myth of Simeon and Anna

Lessons Malachi 3: 1 – 4 St Luke 2: 22 – 40

Prayer of Illumination

Open our hearts, O God, to the movement and leading of Your Holy Spirit. May Your hand rest upon us, sustaining and comforting us. In the name of Jesus, we pray. Amen.,

They brought Jesus up to the temple. His parents, Joseph and Mary, carried their eight day old son to the most sacred site of the Jewish people. The temple towered above the ancient city of Jerusalem, a name synonymous with sanctity, spirituality and sublime beauty. Known as axis mundi, the navel of the world, the Temple Mount was, and remains, of supreme importance to the Abrahamic faiths: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Today, the Temple Mount is known to Muslims as al-Haram al-Sharif (the Noble Sanctuary).

Within Jewish history, the Temple Mount is the sacred site on which King Solomon built his grand and ostentatious temple. In the poetry of Judaism, it was from the Temple Mount that God had lifted the dust of the earth to create Adam, humanity. According to tradition, it was here that Abraham bound his son, Isaac, and raised a knife as if to slay him. In Islam, it was on the Temple Mount that the Prophet experienced a mystical journey in which he ascended to heaven. Today, Muslims turn to Mecca as they bow in prayer. In the earliest period of the Prophet’s life, Muslims faced Jerusalem, the Temple Mount.

In the time of Jesus, situated at the centre of the Jewish Temple was the room which housed the Ark of the Covenant; a large box containing the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments. Known as the ‘Holy of Holies’, it was in this still and darkened room that the Shekinah, the Divine Presence, had her dwelling-place. The Jews understood that God was maker of heaven and earth but, at the same time, they believed that the God who delivered them from Egypt, who journeyed with them for forty years, somehow, mysteriously, dwelt in the Holy of Holies. For the purposes of Jewish Law, for circumcision, Joseph and Mary brought their eight day old son to Jerusalem, the Temple Mount and into the precincts of the temple itself.

In this carefully crafted faith narrative, there is much depth for us to ponder. For me, poetry is the only language which religion has; it is the vocabulary of the soul. Metaphor is everywhere and names, places and phrases are pregnant with meaning. On arrival at the sacred Temple, the holy family was greeted by Simeon, an upright and devout man. It is said Simeon watched and waited long for the restoration of Israel. The name Simeon or Shimon means ‘God has heard’. In the Book of Genesis, in the story of Joseph, it was Simeon who was held prisoner by Joseph while the remaining brothers returned to their father Jacob. The brothers returned to their home, the land of Judah, in order to bring their youngest brother Benjamin to Egypt; Joseph wanted to see Benjamin. Once the brothers finally reached Egypt with Benjamin, it was then that Joseph revealed his true identity and the twelve brothers, the twelve patriarchs, stood together as one. Simeon was released from his imprisonment, his long wait. Israel had been restored. Does the presence of a man named Simeon suggest that with the arrival of the Christ-Child Israel will be restored?

Alongside Simeon, the holy family was greeted by the prophet, Anna, who was eighty-four years old. In Hebrew, the name Anna is Hannah. In the Old Testament, there is a Hannah in the First Book of Samuel. For many years, Hannah was childless but, in the end, she bore a son, whose name was Samuel. Samuel or Shemu’el means ‘son of God.’ From this allusion in the Anna story, there is another.

The prophet Anna is the daughter of Phanuel. The name Phanuel takes us back to the Book of Genesis, to the encounter of Jacob wrestling with God. It is at the river Jabbok that Jacob endures a night of struggle with the Divine. The place of encounter with God is called Peniel or Phanuel; it was there in the darkness that Jacob saw God face to face. Anna is Hannah, a name which leads us to Samuel, son of God. Phanuel or Peniel is the place of encounter with the Divine, where in the darkness Jacob saw God face to face. These carefully crafted faith narratives possess enormous depth. Are we to see in the Anna story that she and Simeon saw the face of God as they gazed into the eyes of Jesus?

If we take ourselves into the Anna story, are we able to stand before the Christ Child, see in Him the essence of the Divine and, in a moment of private meditation, realise that we are face to face with the Holy, one with the Ultimate Reality of the universe? Scripture has to penetrate the soul: we have to enter it and it has to enter us. Standing where Anna stood, we are filled to overflowing with the presence, love and tenderness of God. Stand there. These stories are not about information, but transformation. In the mind’s eye, as we gaze on the infant, may we too sense the presence of the Sacred, the nearness of Jesus. If we stand in the temple, Christ has come to us. The point of the spiritual journey is to be with Jesus, at one with the Eternal, soaked in the Mystery. The significance of the location and the names of Simeon and Anna would not be lost on a first century hearer.

For me, what is most beautiful in the Simeon narrative is that the old man takes the Child in his arms. It is in his arms that Simeon praises God and sings to God. It is in the context of an intimate embrace that Simeon sings to the Eternal. What is our praise if not to raise our voices while enveloped, embraced by the Divine? The salvation of which Simeon sings amounts to much more than life beyond this life; it means wholeness; oneness and union with God in this life. That sense of completion and wholeness is hinted at by the age of Anna. Anna was eighty-four years old. Eighty-four is twelve times seven. Twelve represents the totality of the Hebrew people (the twelve tribes) while seven is the divine number of completion. It was on the seventh day that God rested. At the temple, the Holy Spirit rested on Simeon. Encounter with the Sacred brings wholeness and completion.

On one level, the story of the infant at the Temple is straightforward and a duty of Jewish Law. But, at a deeper, spiritual level, it is about encounter with the Eternity. Not only is Simeon led by the Spirit, but we too are led and nourished. The author of Luke repeatedly, gently, honours the place and importance of women in the life of Jesus. From the earliest chapters with Zechariah and Elizabeth, and Joseph and Mary, we are told that as the adult Jesus travelled to towns and villages, He was accompanied by women: Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Susanna, and many others. Unlike most of the male disciples, the women followed Jesus to the Cross and waited with Him in His suffering and final hours. In the Gospel of Luke, the first evangelists, the first people to share the news of the resurrection, were the women. It says in the Gospel that the men did not believe them and thought they were talking nonsense: does that sound likely to you? Men thinking women are talking nonsense?

Throughout the Gospel of Luke, women are present and are faithful followers of Jesus. Through the doorway of Scripture, we, like Simeon, may embrace Jesus and, from Anna, learn that in Christ we find our wholeness, fulfilment and completion.