Today’s post continues St Luke’s account of Jesus’s Presentation at the Temple, which some denominations commemorate on February 2, Candlemas Day.
Unfortunately, the beautiful and bittersweet prophecies of Simeon (Simon) and Anna are not to be found in the three-year Lectionary used in public worship. More is the pity; not only does St Luke illustrate the wisdom of our elders, which Mary and Joseph rightly took to heart, but also that, before Jesus began His public ministry, there were holy people who understood that He was the Messiah, the ‘consolation of Israel’ (Luke 2:25), the ancient Jewish saying which anticipates the Saviour.
Today’s reading is from the English Standard Version with commentary by Matthew Henry.
33And his father and his mother marveled at what was said about him. 34And Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, “Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed 35(and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.”
36And there was a prophetess, Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was advanced in years, having lived with her husband seven years from when she was a virgin, 37and then as a widow until she was eighty-four. She did not depart from the temple, worshiping with fasting and prayer night and day. 38And coming up at that very hour she began to give thanks to God and to speak of him to all who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem.
The Return to Nazareth
39And when they had performed everything according to the Law of the Lord, they returned into Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. 40 And the child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom. And the favor of God was upon him.
Last week’s post discussed Simeon, his life, his piety, his love of the infant Jesus and his being filled with the Holy Spirit.
As he held the Christ Child in his arms, Simeon knew the babe was the ‘consolation of Israel’. This saying, used in Jewish prayer, developed from the following Old Testament verses, among others, expressing praise to God and anticipating the Messiah’s redemption of His people –
1 Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.
12“I, I am he who comforts you;
who are you that you are afraid of man who dies,
of the son of man who is made like grass,
18I have seen his ways, but I will heal him;
I will lead him and restore comfort to him and his mourners,
3 to grant to those who mourn in Zion—
to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit;
that they may be called oaks of righteousness,
the planting of the LORD, that he may be glorified.
7 you have loved righteousness and hated wickedness.
Therefore God, your God, has anointed you
with the oil of gladness beyond your companions;
In today’s reading, St Luke (verse 33) tells us that Mary and Joseph marvelled at Simeon’s prophecy and prayer of praise. Simeon blessed both, then, in one sentence addressed to Mary, foretold Jesus’s life (verses 34 and 35).
What must she have thought? Simeon acknowledged that Jesus was appointed — by God — to condemn many and to save many. As students of the Gospels know, these were two different groups of people in Jesus’s ministry. (This continues to be true in the Church: the Law convicts and the Gospel saves.) Simeon foretold that as Jesus would reveal what was in people’s hearts, He would be ‘opposed’ and that Mary, too, eventually would be wounded, as if a sword had pierced her soul.
With that prophecy, that is the last we hear from Simeon. St Luke is the only Gospel writer to mention the Presentation and the presence of these two holy people, Simeon and Anna.
Luke’s account goes on to Anna (verse 36). We discover that she was of the tribe of Asher and that her father’s name was Phanuel. Church historians and doctors, Henry tells us, surmised that Luke deliberately included these details.
Henry’s commentary states that Luke’s account mentions the name Phanuel to remind the reader of Genesis 32:30. Genesis 32:22-32 tells the story of Jacob’s wrestling with a man for several hours ‘until the breaking of the day’ (verse 24). This story is popularly known as Jacob’s wrestling with the angel. The man put out Jacob’s hip joint but could not best him. The man asked Jacob to stop wrestling. Jacob refused until the man blessed him. The man asked Jacob’s name and renamed him Israel because not only did Jacob prevail against man, but also God. The man then blessed Jacob and, at that point, Jacob realised that he had been wrestling with God. To mark the significance of that amazing occasion (emphases mine):
30So Jacob called the name of the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life has been delivered.” 31The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip. 32Therefore to this day the people of Israel do not eat the sinew of the thigh that is on the hip socket, because he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip on the sinew of the thigh.
Peniel, Penuel and Anna’s father’s name — the derivative Phanuel — mean ‘the face of God’.
As to the mention of the tribe of Asher, they lived in Galilee, where Jesus would have His ministry. Historically, however, tradition had it that no prophet came from Galilee. Yet, here was Anna in the temple, about to prophesy. Henry notes the four-hundred year period of no prophecy, then the renewal of it coming from Galilee.
Luke tells us (verse 36) that Anna had been married for only seven years before her husband died. When she was in the temple with the Holy Family, she was either 84 years old or had been a widow for that period of time (verse 37). Once she became a widow, she dedicated her life to God and to prayer. Henry explains that she probably lived in quarters in one of the Temple’s outbuildings and spent most of her time in the Temple every day praying as well as teaching women more about God in Scripture.
Note how her widowhood caused her to devote her life to God. These days, many who lose their spouses or other family members prematurely become angry with God. ‘How could a God of good do this to me?’ We do not know; there is no answer. Yet, Anna’s faith in and love of God drew her nearer to Him. Instead of being angry, she grew in faith, wisdom and righteousness. Perhaps her parents taught her early in childhood to love the Lord. As such, it is possible that she became a devout child, then a holy woman. She accepted her husband’s death — difficult as it must have been — as part of God’s plan for her. Her lifelong devotion to Him helped her to realise that, as great as her temporal loss of a beloved companion must have been, ultimately, she longed to be with God and for others to love Him the way she did.
In verse 38, Anna begins to give thanks to God for the infant Jesus. She understood. She spoke of — prophesied — that He was the Messiah, ‘the redemption of Jerusalem’. She would ‘speak of him to all’ who were awaiting the consolation of Israel. Henry explains the example Anna shows to us:
Some there were in Jerusalem that looked for redemption; yet but a few, for Anna, it should seem, had acquaintance with all them that were joint-expectants with her of the Messiah; she knew where to find them, or they where to find her, and she told them all the good news, that she had seen the Lord; and it was great news, this of his birth now, as afterwards that of his resurrection. Note, Those that have an acquaintance with Christ themselves should do all they can to bring others acquainted with him.
Afterward, according to Luke, the Holy Family returned to Nazareth in Galilee (verse 39). Note that Luke inserts that they ‘had performed everything according to the Law of the Lord’. They did not exempt themselves. He also used the words ‘according to the Law of Moses’ earlier (Luke 2:22) when beginning his account of the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple.
Their example should resonate with us. Henry says later in discussing the end of Luke 2, when they go to the Temple for Passover:
It was their constant practice to attend there, according to the law, though it was a long journey, and they were poor, and perhaps not well able, without straitening themselves, to bear the expenses of it. Note, Public ordinances must be frequented, and we must not forsake the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is. Worldly business must give way to spiritual concerns. Joseph and Mary had a son in the house with them, that was able to teach them better than all the rabbin at Jerusalem; yet they went up thither, after the custom of the feast.
Verse 40 tells us that as Jesus grew physically, He also grew in wisdom, finding favour with God. We are also called to be holy –
44For I am the LORD your God. Consecrate yourselves therefore, and be holy, for I am holy …
16since it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.”
As I wrote last week, this holiness and subsequent journey to sanctification should begin when we are young children. We have Simeon’s and Anna’s examples, which must have started early in their lives.
Looking at the spiritual lives of our young with regard to Jesus’s accompanying His parents to the Temple for Passover at the age of 12, Henry says:
The child Jesus, at twelve years old, went up with them. The Jewish doctors say that at twelve years old children must begin to fast from time to time, that they may learn to fast on the day of atonement; and that at thirteen years old a child begins to be a son of the commandment, that is, obliged to the duties of adult church-membership, having been from his infancy, by virtue of his circumcision, a son of the covenant. It is not said that this was the first time that Jesus went up to Jerusalem to worship at the feast: probably he had done it for some years before, having spirit and wisdom above his years; and all should attend on public worship that can hear with understanding, Neh. 8:2. Those children that are forward in other things should be put forward in religion. It is for the honour of Christ that children should attend on public worship, and he is pleased with their hosannas; and those children that were in their infancy dedicated to God should be called upon, when they are grown up, to come to the gospel passover, to the Lord’s supper, that they make it their own act and deed to join themselves to the Lord.
I have neighbours who expect their CofE or Catholic school to explain the Christian faith to their children. Nothing happens — or has happened — at home in this regard. Waiting for school to take care of this solemn responsibility is misguided. Children raised with no Christian example in terms of worship and prayer will view their Religious Education classes as imparting theoretical information at best. It becomes just another course, no different from Mathematics or History. Their souls are potentially lost.
In closing, on the chronology of Luke’s account here, some might wonder about Herod, the Magi and the exile of the Holy Family to Egypt. This is found in Matthew 2. Henry says:
… it appears by St. Matthew’s gospel (ch. 2) that from Jerusalem they returned to Bethlehem, where the wise men of the east found them, and there they continued till they were directed to flee into Egypt, to escape the malice and rage of Herod; and, returning thence when Herod was dead, they were directed to go to their old quarters in Nazareth, whence they had been perhaps some years absent. It is here called their own city, because there they had lived a great while, and their relations were there. He was ordered further from Jerusalem, because his kingdom and priesthood were to have no affinity with the present government of the Jewish church or state. He is sent into a place of obscurity and reproach; for in this, as in other things, he must humble himself and make himself of no reputation.
This is why Jesus was not a big man on campus from the capital, Jerusalem. Note that after He tarried for hours talking with the teachers at the Temple, which frightened his parents when they could not find Him, He returned home with them and obeyed them from that point (Luke 2:51). He, no doubt, could have made many excuses to go back to the Temple to spend extended time with the rabbis but did not. He went to Temple with His family, then returned home with them to distant Nazareth, an unexceptional place:
Though once, to show that he was more than a man, he withdrew himself from his parents, to attend his heavenly Father’s business, yet he did not, as yet, make that his constant practice, nor for many years after, but was subject to them, observed their order, and went and came as they directed, and, as it should seem, worked with his father at the trade of a carpenter. Herein he hath given an example to children to be dutiful and obedient to their parents in the Lord. Being made of a woman, he was made under the law of the fifth commandment, to teach the seed of the faithful thus to approve themselves to him a faithful seed. Though his parents were poor and mean, though his father was only his supposed father, yet he was subject to them; though he was strong in spirit, and filled with wisdom nay though he was the Son of God, yet he was subject to his parents; how then will they answer it who, though foolish and weak, yet are disobedient to their parents?
Jesus’s obedience, even when He knew He was called to save the world, serves as an example to our children today.
Next time: Luke 3:19-20