“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.”