This Sunday’s celebration of the Feast of the Holy Family relates how Mary and Joseph to Jesus to the Temple as prescribed by the Law forty days after his birth. There they meet two characters who have always been favorites of mine; namely, Simeon and Anna. St. Luke tells us directly that Anna was elderly (84 years old), and intimates the same about Simeon.
Simeon, we are told, is waiting for “the consolation of Israel” (Luke 2:25c). In other words, Simeon, devout and in “right relationship” with God, looks forward to the day when all of Israel will return to the covenant relationship established so long ago on Mt. Sinai. He represents the hopes and expectations of the “remnant” of Israel. These hopes and expectations refer to the Messianic prophecies of Isaiah and, in particular, of Zephaniah. The Holy Spirit inspires him when he encounters the family of Nazareth so that he realizes that those hopes and expectations are about to be fulfilled.
Anna can justly be called a victim of the Law. As a widow without a son, she is completely without a voice. She is reduced to begging since the Law prevented her from inheriting her husband’s property. You might even refer to her as one of the “street people” of Jerusalem. Like Simeon, she too realizes that something wonderful has happened in the birth of this child.
What endears me to these two characters is that they could have become bitter and disappointed people. I am sure that we all know such characters – men and women who long for “the good old days,” who bemoan the current state of affairs and spend a great deal of time and energy convinced that all that lies ahead is more disappointment, more disillusionment.
That does not seem to be the case with these two. Rather than give in to the natural inclination to despair at their current situation, these two look at this tiny little baby and realize that God has been faithful. In contrast to the many people who will experience the adult Jesus with all his power and his moving words, these two look at this very vulnerable and powerless baby and give praise and thanks to God for God’s faithfulness.
This story and the one that comes directly after it take place in the Temple of Jerusalem. St. Luke began his story in this very place as Zechariah went into the Holy of Holies to offer incense. Zechariah and Elizabeth, also two elderly people, and Simeon and Anna form a frame that holds the infancy narrative together. St. Luke’s skill as a writer is very evident here. These four individuals stand as representatives of the faithful people of Israel who have never lost hope and who have preserved the covenant relationship even though most of the people around them have forsaken it long ago. Consequently, I see them as potent reminders every time I am confronted with the naysayers and prophets of doom of our own times. They are the people who, in the words of Pope Francis, present us with “funereal” faces.
The Feast of the Holy Family offers us an opportunity to join with Simeon and Anna in proclaiming the truth that God keeps promises.