There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband for seven years after her marriage, then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshipped there with fasting and prayer night and day. 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.
Someone had been there all the time. Anna is a fantastic character, this prophet who lived in the Temple, this widow for most of her life, living a consecrated life with God. She is one of those, like Simeon, who steps onto the stage of the gospels just for a moment and then fades back into the shadows. But she is also one of those who bring someone else with her.
When Mark tells us about Simon of Cyrene on the way of the cross he just mentions that he is the father of Alexander and Rufus – as though we should know who they were – perhaps because his original readers did know who they were and thought ‘oh, them’, ‘oh, him.’ In a similar way Luke mentions that Anna is the daughter of Pahnuel. That means nothing to us of course, a man, a random name. But that name, fixing her in history, fixing her in a family and a line, also does something else.
This is the only mention we get of Phanuel but the interesting thing is what his name means. Any Hebrew name ending in –el has some reference to God and this name is no exception. The name means ‘Face of God’. When I learnt that I was thrilled. It’s just an incidental, almost throw away part of the story but there in that name is something so significant for this final act of the Christmas narrative. There is nothing spare or throw away in the scriptures!
Why were we Bethlehem bound? We made the journey to see the face of God in the child in the crib, just as we will be Jerusalem bound in just a few weeks time and will see the face of God in Jesus on the cross. The feast we celebrate today, the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, is another moment of epiphany, of seeing who Jesus is and in Simeon’s song so much of this is expressed.
Jesus is the one for whom we have been waiting; Jesus is the light that will lighten all people; Jesus is, in the words of the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews
‘the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being’. (Hebrews 1.3)
Jesus is the face of God.
That reading from the Letter to the Hebrews takes us back to Christmas morning when we looked for the first time into the crib and saw the face of Jesus and saw the face of God, and as Anna speaks of the child she does so as the daughter of the one whose name was ‘Face of God’.
In the musical ‘Les Miserables’ the final song ends with these amazing words
Take my hand
I’ll lead you to salvation
Take my love
For love is everlasting
The truth that once was spoken
To love another person
Is to see the face of God.
Today, we too look for the face of God in the faces around us.
Lord Jesus, may I see your face,
in the faces around me.