Geoff Thomas (Pastor of Alfred Place Baptist Church, Aberystwyth, 1965-2016) has written, ‘I do believe that losing a husband is the greatest loss a woman can experience’. No doubt Anna felt like that (Luke 2:36-40). She was a widow for more years than she’d been a wife.
Widowhood in Bible days, with no Welfare State, was no picnic. Even the very word ‘widow’ means ‘forsaken’ or ‘left desolate’. Problems began soon after the burial of their husbands – no paid employment, no welfare benefits, their means of visible support had gone. Unless someone from the family stepped forward, widows could be reduced to begging and gleaning (as in Ruth), unless their husbands had left them an inheritance, or they were wealthy in their own right. Jewish law allowed widows a share of the third year tithe (Deut. 26:12-13). It seems that the Jews did not always take their obligation to widows seriously and later Jesus was to denounce the Pharisees who ‘devoured widows’. Re-marriage was the best option for younger widows. Without protection widows could be denied their legal rights.
The Old Testament gives us a glimpse of God’s gracious love for widows and his provision for them (see for example: Deut. 10:18; Deut. 24:17-21: Exod. 22:22-23; Ps. 146:9). And of course the greatest example of love and compassion to widows was seen in the ministry of Jesus (to the widow of Nain, to name just one example) and of course to his own mother. In the pain and agony of the cross, Jesus made provision for his Mum (John 19:26-27) and we should do the same (Ps. 68:5).
Anna the prophetess
Anna was a member of one of the so-called ‘lost tribes’, the tribe of Asher, Jacob’s eighth son. In identifying who she is, Luke slips in that she was a prophetess (Luke 2:36). We can pass this by but it was a bit of a ‘wow’ moment. Up to this point there had been years and years of silence, no prophesy. And now suddenly there is a prophetess – God is speaking once more. What God said through Anna we do not know; she was not a writing prophet and there is no record. But we do know that she was one of those who were ‘looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem’ (Luke 2:38), so it is likely that hers was a message of hope. God was on the move!
There is no indication that widowhood had made Anna bitter, as was the case with Naomi (Ruth 1:20). How easy it is to doubt the painful providences of God in our lives and to think that he has made a mistake. Maybe Anna has discovered the reality of Isaiah 54:5 ‘for your maker is your husband – the Lord Almighty is his name – the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer’ and she was looking to God for her protection and provision. It is useful for Christian women to remember that they gain their identity, not by being Mrs X but by being in Christ, part of his bride.
Anna might have been ‘very old’ (Luke 2:36) but it is clear that she was very active. The Temple in Jerusalem was her favourite place to be. She may have lived there but more likely ‘she never left the Temple’ refers to the frequency of her presence there. She was present at both the public and private services. Her occupation was the worship, fasting and prayer in the service of God. She was undistracted by worldly cares (1 Cor. 7:34-35) and was able to be single-minded in her spiritual service. In widowhood we can look down at our circumstances and at the size of our losses or we can look up at and trust in the huge capability of our great big God.
Anna’s daily reality was the place that spoke most of the Lord who was to come. The Temple artefacts, the daily sacrifices and offerings – all spoke of sin and redemption, of cleansing and forgiveness and foreshadowed the hope that was to come. This was where she spent most of her time – in the place of dedication to God, to his laws and to his worship. For her it was also a place of watching and waiting – for the hope of redemption. She was watching and waiting for God to come and when he did she saw immediately, with the eye of faith, the person of her Saviour, in the baby before her.
Her immediate response is one of thanks; and then an act of fellowship, as she turns and speaks of the child to like-minded people in the Temple, those who were also watching and waiting for redemption. How sweet is Christian fellowship to those who are widowed. How easy it is in times of trial, to stay away from people or to slip in and out of church services so that no one speaks to us. For Anna, it was God’s people who were ‘God with skin on’ to her in her period of desolation due to bereavement.
The early church cared for widows and distributed food to them (Acts 6:1-4 and 1 Tim. 5:1-5). But as time moved on it seems that widows were set apart as servants of the church, prototype women’s workers (see 1 Tim. 5:9-10). These widows, at this new stage in their lives, were taking on opportunities for service. I wonder how many of the women commended by the Apostle Paul, for their gospel labours were widows? Historians of the early church write of the ‘order of virgins and of widows’ as women set apart for service.
Hard though it is, here is a challenge for our widows of today – what new opportunities will come your way now that you are widowed? Does that help you to see light at the end of the tunnel of widowhood? And a challenge for church leaders to see the potential of these ‘older women’ (Titus 2:3-4) and to set them apart and train them to ‘teach what is good’ (Titus 2:3) and train the next generation of godly women (Titus 2:4).
I know a family of missionary veterans. The older generation were home from the field, in reluctant retirement. The second generation were back on the mission field. The grandpa died. In her widowhood in her 80s, grandma went back to the mission field to minister to the widows of the land. She died there. She had grasped the opportunity for service to the Lord that came through suffering and loss.