When I first met Caroline her paternal grandmother was still alive. She was a real character. Welsh to her finger-tips, Caroline and I called her Nain – and our children called her Hen-Nain. Her husband had been minister of a large Welsh-speaking Baptist church, before going to the South Wales Baptist College in Cardiff where he became its Principal. Unfortunately he had died in his early 60s, with the result that Caroline’s Nain, who by that stage was in her late 80s, had been widowed for a good number of years.
Caroline’s Nain reminds me of Anna (see Luke 2.36-38 GNB): Like Caroline’s Nain, she was an elderly widow. We are told that “she had been married for only seven years and was now 84 years old” (v37). In fact she might have been even older than 84, for the underlying Greek is ambiguous and could be translated: “she had been married for only seven years and had been a widow 84 years”. If this right, then would have been just over 100. For in those days girls tended to get married around 12 years old: add 7 years of marriage + another 84 years and we get 103! No wonder Luke speaks of her being “very old” (v36)!
At any time it’s hard to lose your life partner. But it must be particularly hard to lose a husband after only seven years of marriage, particularly in a society where there were no social security and widow’s benefits. Life must have been tough for Anna.
But significantly, her difficulties do not appear to have made her turn her back on God: rather she turned to God. Luke tells us that “she never left the Temple; day and night she worshipped God, fasting and praying” (v37). We must beware of being over-literal. Luke is not saying that she never ever went home. Indeed, on that particular day when Mary and Joseph came with Jesus it appears that she had just arrived in the Temple. She didn’t actually live in the Temple, but rather, she took every opportunity to be present at worship. In our terms, she was a lady who attended the Sunday services, belonged to a small home group, and was present at whatever was going on in the church.
Some people, when tragedy strikes and a loved one dies, give up on God. They become hard and bitter, and blame God for the injustice they feel they have suffered. The older they grow, the more resentful they become. They are not happy people to be around. Anna was different. Instead of turning away from God, she turned to God. In so doing I believe that she became a kinder, softer, more sympathetic woman. Indeed, I like to think she lived up to her name – Anna – Grace!
With the passing of the years most, if not all, of us will have experienced hard times. We have known the pain of sorrow and disappointment. How have we dealt with it? Or should I say: ‘How do we deal with it?’ Do we allow the difficulties of life to distance us from God – or to bring us to God? Let Anna be our model.
Then at the age of 84 – or was she even older? – something special happened to Anna. She met Jesus. There in the temple she met Mary and Joseph who had brought their new-born son “to present him to the Lord” (v22). In her time Anna must have seen hundreds of babies brought to the temple. But Anna, along with Simeon, was given the insight to realise that this was no ordinary baby. This was God’s Messiah. This was the one for whom she and Simeon and other devour Jews had been waiting for years – at last the one who was going to set God’s people free had arrived!
One of the things I remember most about Caroline’s Nain was that she often quoted some lines of Robert Browning, which apparently her husband had often quoted to her: “Grow old along with me/ The best is yet to be”. That was certainly true for Anna. Her last years were her best years; for it was then, in those closing years of her life, that she met the Saviour.
But Anna did not simply meet the Saviour. She went on to tell other people about the Saviour. “She spoke about the child to all who were waiting for God to set Jerusalem free” (v38). Actually, the English translation misleading, for it could imply that she only spoke once to others about Jesus; whereas the Greek uses a past continuous (imperfect) tense, Literally, “she kept speaking”! Yes, Anna provides us with quite a model.