Thursday, September 1, 2011

The feast of the prophetess Anna - Who was she?

Blessed Anna is on the right, holding a scroll

September 1st, Feast of St. Anna
“At Jerusalem, blessed Anna, the prophetess, whose holiness is recounted in the Gospel.” (from The Roman Martyrology)
And there was one Anna, a prophetess, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Aser; she was far advanced in years, and had lived with her husband seven years from her virginity. And she was a widow until fourscore and four years; who departed not from the temple, by fastings and prayers serving night and day. Now she, at the same hour, coming in, confessed to the Lord; and spoke of him to all that looked for the redemption of Israel. (Luke 2:36-38)
St. Anna was gifted with prophecy that she might welcome the Christ in his coming and proclaim his name to the people. Behold her very name, in Hebrew, means “Grace”! And so, she is a special patron of all those women who share this name with her.
Though St. Luke only devotes three lines of his Gospel to her history, it will greatly aid our devotion if we consider what we know of this saintly woman from both Scripture and Tradition.
What we learn from our first glance at the Gospel
We immediately notice several things about Anna:
1) She was a prophetess.
2) She was the daughter of Phanuel.
3) Of the tribe of Aser.
4) She was a widow, who had been married for seven years (and had lived chastely before marriage).
5) And had not remarried even after eighty-four years. [there are various interpretation of this point]
6) She was a holy and devout woman who was constantly in the Temple and at prayer. She often fasted.
What we learn from a closer look at the sacred text
1) She was a prophetess: This means that she foretold the future, not simply in general, but specifically about the Christ. And it seems that she took on this prophetic role only after the presentation of Jesus in the Temple, when she went out and spoke to all about the Child.
2) The daughter of Phanuel: Fr. Cornelius a’ Lapide points out that Phanuel means the face of God while Anna means Grace. “For grace proceeds from the face and from the mouth of God, and is breathed into the faithful. The place where Jacob saw God face to face, was called by him Peniel or “Phanuel,” Gen. xxxii. 30.”
3) The tribe of Aser (or Asher) is among the ten lost tribes of Israel, who originally inhabited the western portion of the region of Galilee. [it is west of Naphtali and north-west of Zebulun]
4) When Luke tells us that Anna was married for seven years from her virginity, we learn that she was probably married at about the age of fifteen (which was considered the proper time to end one’s virginity and become a woman). Thus we learn that she was about twenty-two when her husband died.
5) Some hold that Anna was eighty-four (i.e. fourscore and four years) when she met the Christ, but St. Ambrose holds that St. Luke is telling us that blessed Anna had been a widow for eighty-four years before the presentation of our Savior. If St. Ambrose is correct, then Anna would have been extremely old (about one hundred and six years)! Certainly, it is possible that God gave her the special grace of a long life in order that she might see the Christ Child.
6) Anna did not actually live inside the Temple, but rather frequented it daily. Regarding her prayers and fastings by which she worshiped God, Fr. Cornelius a’ Lapide responds to a common heresy among the Protestants: “Hence is plain the falsehood of the teaching of the heretics, that fasting is only a mortification of the body, and no worship of God, except in so far as it is understood to mean prayer; for S. Luke here says that Anna served God both with fastings and prayers.”
Blessed Anna in iconography
Anna the prophetess holds a scroll and raises her right hand toward heaven
St. Anna stands behind our Blessed Lady
The blessed widow and prophetess St. Anna is often pictured in iconography and religious art at the moment of the Presentation of the Lord in the Temple. Anna is often placed behind our Lady, and usually either has her hands raised up to heaven (proclaiming the Messiah) or stands holding a scroll (as a sign that she is a true prophetess).


Cathy said...

Thanks so much for this in-depth explanation of St. Anna. I have a three-month-old daughter named Anna, so it's great to know more about her patron saint!

Unknown said...

St. Anna, of a long line of prophetesses from Miriam to our very day, pray for us.

Angela said...

Fr. Ryan,you mentioned that Anna belonged to the tribe of Asher, one of the Lost tribes. Does this mean that some, if not all, of the lost tribes finally went back to Jerusalem? Was their return mentioned in the Bible? I had always wondered if the lost tribes remained lost forever.
I am learning a lot from your post especially because I follow up on the Biblical references that you cite to give me a better understanding of the point you are coming across. Overall, I wish I just have a bit of St. Anna's faith and to witness! Thank you, Father.

ann said...

One of the most interesting articles I've read today - though I may be a bit biased ;)

Anonymous said...

What a beautiful, stirring analysis of who Anna was. I'd never taken the time to think upon her or research who she truly was. What a dynamic woman of God's grace! Thank you, Father, for sharing this with us. May Anna be an example to us all, that we must listen and watch for Jesus in our everyday lives so as not to miss Him!

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

The question of what happened to the 10 lost tribes remains a mystery.
Many people believe that they simply became incorporated into the nations ... it is very possible that many of the European nationalities have some ancient Semitic blood from these 10 tribes.

Blessings to you! +

James said...

Father, thanks for touching on one of the most frustrating passages in the new testament. I keep thinking there must be some deep significance to Anna's presence in this situation. The fact that she is:

1) a woman
2) a member of tribe that no longer exists;
3) someone without visible means of support (no mention of children or other family)

paint her as someone truly incredible. But I keep coming back to why? Why single out the tribe of Asher, a tribe that had been gone for 700 years? And why Asher, and not another tribe? She's probably not a Samaritan, because that would have been noteworthy, and there didn't seem to be tribal distinctions.

Why was it necessary in the salvation story for Luke to introduce the one and only character that shouldn't have been there?

Anonymous said...

I don't know why, but I find her to be one of my favorite saints. Maybe it's because she is a woman prophet which isn't so common or because she waited for the Lord in her old age and rejoiced in seeing him. Great Post!!

Mary R said...

The Prophetess Anna is special to me - I took her name for my confirmation. I look for her in sacred paintings and my favorite is by Rembrandt, The Prophetess Anna Reading the Bible. The paining is in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, Netherlands.

In this painting a light, the source out of view, illuminates the Bible, which in turn lights the face of Anna. Her hand gently caresses the page as she reads.
Here we have a painting the shows the a way to knowledge and understanding of Scacred Scripture, "She never left the temple, but worshiped night and day with fasting and prayer." LK 2:37

Mary R

Chatto said...


you wrote, "Why was it necessary in the salvation story for Luke to introduce the one and only character that shouldn't have been there?"

I'm sure this isn't the intention behind your comment, but it reads like St. Luke has introduced a fictional character into his novel who serves no purpose to the plot. Perhaps he includes Anna because she was actually there?

As for her significance, maybe St. Luke includes this historical event because the Messiah was supposed to gather the tribes of Israel together, and where better than the Temple ("It is there that the tribes go up, the tribes of the Lord" Ps 122:4)? Here is a woman from a lost tribe, who "spoke of him to all that looked for the redemption of Israel". Just a thought.

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