Jesus was named according to the custom of the Israelites. On the eighth day after birth, a boy was circumcised and his name was decided by his father, often honouring a dead relative. The name of Jesus however, was presented to Mary direct from the mouth of the Living One–before she had even conceived!
Not long after these events, a most unusual meeting came to pass. It happened like this …
Mary observed the forty days stated in the law of the Lord before approaching the temple in Jerusalem. This was the period set aside for purification; she could not touch what was sacred. As you know, the temple was the place where God’s presence had been most evident and where ceremonies and sacrifices were made in keeping with the law presented to Moses.
Joseph and Mary both brought the child to present him to the Lord. For the word spoken by God and written in the law of the Lord was this: ‘Every firstborn male who opens the womb, is to be acknowledged as the Lord’s child’.
The couple joined together in making this special pledge and sacrifice. The law of the Lord allowed for a woman not wealthy enough to offer up a lamb, to present ‘a pair of doves or two young pigeons’. In doing so, they remembered that the Lord God supplies all liberty and freedom from captivity.
Just as the parents were performing what was required of them, a man came and carefully relieved Mary of the child. Perhaps it would be best to tell his story.
Simeon was known for his dedication to God and for doing what was right. The restoration of Israel was utmost in his mind and he longed for Israel to be under one king again, free and prospering. The Holy Spirit was with him. Indeed, the Holy Spirit had impressed upon him that he would not die before laying eyes on God’s Chosen One.
So on this day, he sensed the Spirit was doing something new. He went into the temple courts, where he saw a couple with their firstborn. He recognised this as God’s handiwork. He took the child from his mother and cradled him. Do you know the most unusual words that came out of Simeon’s mouth? He said,
You have made good on your promise! I have been your confidant,
and have spent myself for your peace.
Now as my physical eyes grow dim, my spiritual eyes have been awakened – See, here is your salvation! –
What you have been preparing in the shadows has come into the light,
for all people to see and understand.
Gentiles, yes those blessed you would least expect,
given the complete picture –direct access to God!
Is this not Israel’s crowning glory?
To bring God’s blessing to all nations!
Still looking at the child in Simeon’s arms, both father and mother were caught up in wonder as they listened to these profound words. Simeon prayed for God’s blessings on each of the family in turn and addressed Mary especially, saying: “One thing is most assured: this child will show the power-hungry how empty they are, while sustaining the God-hungry. All Israel will know it–and many will point accusingly and say, ‘Snake!’ Then you will see what truly motivates people; their lives will be opened as if in the hands of a skilled fishmonger who divides bone from flesh. And you also, will know the deep sorrow of God.”
Suddenly a very old woman approached the small meeting as if she was somehow invited. Her face wrinkled into a smile and then praise for God flowed out of her mouth–full of life and vitality. She began gathering other worshippers from the temple to address them. She could not contain her excitement as she spoke about the significance of this child to those who were eagerly expecting peace in Jerusalem.
As Joseph and Mary found out, this woman was Anna, from the northern tribe of Asher, the daughter of Phanuel. She was very old and held in high regard. This is how old she was: married to her husband seven years until he died, and then a widow for eighty-four years. This made her 105 years old (the age of Judith the Hebrew heroine). This is how esteemed she was: a prophetess of the Lord and of the community in Jerusalem. She had been attentive to God; responding in continual worship night and day, month after month, year after year and decade after decade. She fasted and prayed, expecting God to act. This is how aware she was: her finger was always on the spiritual pulse of the temple of the Lord. This certainly proved to be true in this moment. I’m told she sang this beautiful song of gratitude–not with a frail warble, but with a voice so elegant and true and potent that it could best be described as otherworldly. Where Simeon had spoken of God-scale peace and of God-deep sorrow, Anna opened every heart to the spine-tingling wonder and eternal reality of who was before all–the fullness of God in firstborn flesh!
I cannot tell you what she sang. All I know is that it was the song of an entirely new union between God and people; this child was the One who would grow to lead us into a radically new way of being–yes, the best was yet to come. Indeed, Anna sang of something beyond herself, of someone beyond all of us, but at the same time absolutely within reach of ordinary men and women, rich and poor, Jew and Gentile, slave and free. Perhaps that’s why she came to be at this extraordinary meeting.
When all of this was over, having fulfilled all that was asked of them according to God’s law, Joseph and Mary returned to their own town of Nazareth in Galilee. But their life raising the Son of God had just begun. They were all blessed with this growing maturity and Anna-like vitality. And as for Jesus–he flourished under the hand of his parents and under the hand of God.