Whenever I read Luke’s account of the presentation of the infant Jesus in the temple (Luke 2:25-38), I always picture a late afternoon in winter. Nature has slowed down. The day is dying. Things are slowing down in the temple, but Simeon and Anna—two faithful old people—are there.
Their long lives are drawing to a close. Maybe they are still physically robust, or maybe their bodies are trembly and their joints creaky; Luke doesn’t tell us. We know, though, that their spirits are strong and their faith is powerful. We know that their priorities are clear: They are looking forward in hope, not backward in bitterness and despair.
Luke’s story is a grandparent story. This is a story of the coming together of the great thresholds—birth and approaching death, beginnings and endings. Endings that are, in truth, new beginnings. Simeon and Anna—do they know each other? Maybe it’s a first time at the temple for Simeon, righteous and devout. Luke tells us that he has been waiting for a bittersweet message: looking forward to the consolation of Israel and the promise that he will not die until he has seen the Lord’s messiah. Even as he yearns for the good news, he knows that it presages the end of his earthly life. So now he has come in response to the message.
Anna, on the other hand, has been around seemingly forever—a fixture in the temple. She’s not just a pious old lady—she is a prophet. I have to wonder: Who conferred that identity upon her? Female prophets in the Bible are few and far between. Of course, there was Miriam, Moses’ sister, who saved her infant brother by a timely deception. Years later she joined him in a song of triumph. Spunky, she argued with the menfolk and was stricken with leprosy as a divinely ordained punishment. Anna is no Miriam, but she is spunky in her own distinctive way: Decades of faithful presence in the temple, a patriarchal place par excellence, cannot have been easy.
I am a little miffed that Luke doesn’t give her equal time. We have a full report of Simeon’s words—the “Nunc Dimittis” (the Canticle of Simeon), that glorious, gentle hymn of surrender and fulfillment. “Dear God,” he prays or sings, “I’m ready to go now. You have given me all that I could desire. I’m ready to come home.”
I, who sing like a crow rather than a nightingale, remember a Good Friday evening, decades ago, when I was on overnight chaplain duty in a New York hospital. On my rounds, I visited an aged priest, clearly at the point of death. Rallying a bit, he asked me and his two middle-aged, nonobservant children to sing the Nunc Dimittis. I found a hymnal in the hospital chapel, and somehow we sang. We really sang. Without self-consciousness we sang Simeon’s prayer of release. Coincidentally (or perhaps not), the patient—who lives in my memory as a 20th-century Simeon—died at dawn on Easter.
Simeon has wise words for Mary. He tells her what she already knows from her memorable conversation with the angel Gabriel: This is no ordinary child. (Of course, for all mothers there are no ordinary children.) But then he speaks a poignant truth: “A sword will pierce your own soul.” How could he know this? This is a mother-truth about experience never to be sought, but impossible to avoid.
Simeon’s words come to me unbidden (and unwelcome) when I watch our much-loved parish children rollicking on the playground or when I spend a morning with our young mothers’ group, where there are always a few babies greedily nursing, or when I think of the inevitable sufferings—great and small, and mostly still to come—of my own grown-up children. Maybe Simeon’s words were news to Mary. Perhaps she was still in that euphoria of the fulfillment of the angel’s promise. Certainly, she could not have imagined a spring afternoon on a hillside outside Jerusalem about 30 years in the future.
That piercing sword is an inevitable part of motherhood. Maybe Anna knew more about it than Simeon but just refrained from saying it. Because we don’t know what Anna said! Luke tells us, “At that moment she came and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.” But what did she say? Was she cradling the baby in her arms as she spoke? Did she fall into that natural easy rocking movement as she held him close to her own body? Did she look into his face and speak softly, or did she raise her voice and attract a crowd of onlookers? Greedily, I want more of the story. I want the whole story!
A FEW WEEKS AGO I was making a routine hospital visit to a parishioner who was recovering nicely from minor surgery. As I waited to step into the elevator, a young man stepped out and greeted me by name. It took me a minute; then I remembered that we had met only once at a church newcomers gathering. Now he was so excited that his words tumbled out, almost faster than he could say them. “We’ve just had a baby! Do you want to see her?” There was only one answer: Of course! As we rode to the maternity ward, I began to remember this endearing young couple—earnest, vibrant, and much in love—who had just moved to our neighborhood and found their way to our parish.
Marta was in bed, beautiful and exhausted. Her mother was sitting in a chair by the window. Dave introduced me, and Marta added, “I’m afraid my mother doesn’t speak English.” “Thank God,” I thought, “for the universal language of grandmothers. And thank God, too, for my rusty housewife Spanish.” So while Dave went to fetch the baby Gabriela, we had a few minutes of warm mother-talk. The prophet Anna would have fit right in, and Simeon would have been welcome to listen unobtrusively and maybe offer a word or two.
Then Dave came back with a tiny bundle that was this family’s holy child. “Do you want to hold her?” he asked. Of course I did, so he tucked her into my arms. Then like my great role model from the Jerusalem temple, I praised God and spoke about this child who maybe would have nothing to do with the redemption of Jerusalem but was clearly a manifestation of God’s love. I felt every minute of my age as I rocked Gabriela gently, and I rejoiced in every one of those minutes. Together we were complete, bringing the two great thresholds together.
Approaching the end of my eighth decade, I feel a sisterly kinship with Simeon and Anna—with a slight bias toward Anna. I think she knew more about grandmothers. Moreover, she shares the name that tradition has given to Mary’s mother, Jesus’ apocryphal grandmother, St. Anne. But together these two old people in the temple are splendid teachers of vital subjects for which we have no textbooks or formal courses.
By their very being they embody holy aging. They show us how to move toward the second threshold with strength and style. Bodies wear out, faculties may and probably will diminish, physical energy decreases, but our souls can only grow stronger. We can grow in that wisdom that is quite beyond words. With a rich past, joy and pain interwoven, and the divine promise of the ultimate homecoming, we can live truly in the moment. We can savor what my 14th-century friend Meister Eckhart called “this present now.” Letting go of distractions, we can concentrate—con-centrate, center ourselves—on what really matters. The scene in the temple is clear, almost stark. Simeon and Anna show us the way: Between them and uniting them is the Holy Child.
Margaret Guenther, lecturer, retreat leader, and author most recently of At Home in the World: A Rule of Life for the Rest of Us (Seabury, 2006), was associate rector at St. Columba’s Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C. when this article appeared.