Anna is a form of ‘Hannah’. The name means ‘grace’ or ‘favor’. She is identified as the daughter of Phan’u-el
Phan’u-el means ‘face of God’; this may be a play on words, since Anna will be among the first to recognise the face of God when she sees the infant Jesus. Phan’u-el, her husband, was from the tribe of Asher, one of the northern tribes from the so-called ten lost tribes of Israel.
Main themes of the story
Like many stories in the New Testament, this is not about the woman Anna but about Jesus. Its purpose is to show who Jesus is.
Anna, a holy and wise woman, can see what is not yet apparent to others: the destiny of the small child she holds in her arms
The story of Anna has just one episode:
She sees the infant Jesus at the Temple in Jerusalem, brought there by his parents (Luke 2:36-38, see this text at the bottom of the page). Anna had divine insight into things normally hidden from ordinary people, and so could recognise something other people did not see. She sees the infant Jesus in the Temple and knows immediately who he is, and how significant he will be.
Who was she?
Stained glass window of Anna, prophetess
We are given a surprising amount of detail about Anna. We find out about
her tribe and family, and that after seven years of marriage she had become a widow; there is a nice parallel here: the Jewish heroine Judith likewise did not remarry after her husband’s death, and lived to be about the same age; her way of life was similar to Anna’s.
her advanced age; she is an elderly Jewish woman of at least eighty-four years, possibly more.
It’s odd that her age is mentioned: talking about the age of a person, man or woman, in the New Testament is rare. I can’t think of another example. But here the text dwells on how long she has lived, the long, long years she has waited, for the Holy One of God. The reader (or listener) knows more than she does: that the Holy One has come. Not only that, but she holds him in her arms.
Perhaps the point of telling us how old she is, is twofold:
to parallel the long years the Jewish people have waited for their Messiah
as if the waiting, and the certainty of an eventual reward, has kept her alive
Anna at the Temple in Jerusalem
The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple, by James Tissot
Mary and Joseph are there at the Temple because they have brought their newborn son Jesus for the customary ceremony. After the birth of a male child, the mother was ritually unclean for seven days and had to remain at home for a further thirty-three after which, on the fortieth day, a purification sacrifice had to be offered (see Leviticus 12:2-8).
As well as this a first-born child, male or female, had to be ‘redeemed’. Each firstborn was regarded as holy or consecrated to God. The firstborn of animals was sacrificed, but the firstborn of men and women were redeemed by a payment of 5 shekels when thery were one month old (Exodus 13:13, Numbers 18:15, 16). The Law did not require the child’s presence at the Temple when payment was made, but on this occasion the two ceremonies were held together.
Anna came in just after Simeon proclaimed Jesus to be the long-awaited ‘salvation which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel’. (Luke 2:30-33) It is not clear from the text whether Anna has heard these words, or not.
What happened when she saw Jesus?
Anna in the Temple, by Jerry Bacik
What is she doing there? We are told that Anna was constantly at the Temple, day and night. The words do not mean that she never left it, rather that prayer in the Temple was the focus of her whole life. She is a holy woman concentrating all her remaining energy on communion with God.
At that moment described in Luke’s gospel, Anna steps forward and overcome with sublime joy, begins praising God for what she knows has happened. The Greek word used suggests the idea of recognition. She ‘sees’ what others cannot. Her reaction is immediate and dramatic: she speaks in as loud a voice as she can muster, telling anyone near her about this extraordinary child. Here, in front of their eyes, is the Being who will bring redemption to Israel.
The Bible text, Luke 2:36-38
36 And there was a prophetess, Anna, the daughter of Phan’u-el, of the tribe of Asher; she was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years from her virginity, 37 and as a widow till she was eighty-four. She did not depart from the temple, worshiping with fasting and prayer night and day. 38 And coming up at that very hour she gave thanks to God, and spoke of him to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.