36 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 seven years after her marriage, 37 then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. 38 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.— Luke 2:36–38 (NRSV)
The Text in Its Context
Like other Jewish parents, Joseph and Mary brought their newborn son, Jesus, to be presented in the temple. It was Simeon, a devout and righteous man, and Anna, a prophet, who received and revealed the long-awaited Messiah.
Surprisingly, more personal details are recorded about Anna than about Simeon by the gospel writer Luke. We are aware of Anna’s parental and tribal heritage, her marital status, and her age. We also know that, for most of her life, Anna remained in the temple and dedicated herself as an Asherite Hebrew in full devotion to God.
This was a time when the wellbeing and livelihood of Hebrew women was solely dependent on the men in their lives—fathers, husbands, or sons. When Anna experienced the loss of a husband—and, based on the biblical text, had no children—in her context she was not only a woman in mourning but could have been vulnerable, defenceless, and even fearful. But, neither the path of remarrying to appease family (Luke 20:27–40) nor of living in poverty and being at the mercy of society (Acts 6:1–4) was chosen by Anna. Nevertheless, by God’s grace, she lived a purposeful destiny.
The Text in Our Context
There remains yet today, in many cultures, the definition of woman as the daughter, wife, or mother of a male. In many instances the male is the breadwinner or a significant contributor to the finances. Therefore, in times of loss, women, like Anna, can become vulnerable and anxious. As women create their own sense of determination, worth, and definition, they are also empowered by the Holy Spirit to choose what gives meaning to life and affirms usefulness.
Women have come a long way, but they still have to fight against the expectations of society. On the one hand, widows who have resolved to remain single are often pressured to remarry, as they are deemed incomplete without a male figure in their life. On the other hand, the integrity and loyalty of those who choose to remarry are questioned.
God’s word gives encouragement to women today to choose their destiny. Widows are admonished to discern God’s will for their lives. It is God who directs their time, provides for their wellbeing, and makes a way for affection.
According to Luke, Anna remained single and dedicated herself to full-time ministry. She prayed, she fasted, and she prophesied of the coming Messiah. Lest one should think that this was a monastic, laborious, and joyless life, remember that the temple was the centre of activity for the whole community. At any given time, hundreds were living and working in the temple of the Lord. Through this dedication to service in the temple, Anna served God and served humanity in ways we may not know.
There are other women in the new covenant who did not live in the temple but chose to use their time in service unto God. Take, for example, Dorcas, whose skill sets gave leadership to other women. We do not know for sure that she was a widow, but we believe that she was.
36 Now in Joppa there was a disciple named Tabitha, which in Greek is Dorcas. She was devoted to good works and acts of charity. 37 At that time she became ill and died. When they had washed her, they laid her in a room upstairs. 38 Since Lydda was near Joppa, the disciples, who heard that Peter was there, sent two men to him with the request, “Please come to us without delay.”39 So Peter got up and went with them; and when he arrived, they took him to the room upstairs. All the widows stood beside him, weeping and showing tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was with them.—Acts 9:36–39
In service to God, widows gave of their time praying and helping others. “The real widow, left alone, has set her hope on God and continues in supplications and prayers night and day” (1 Tim. 5:5).
It is likely that Anna as a member of the household in the temple would have been taken care of through the gifts and offerings presented to the Lord (Num. 18:25–32). For other widows who were unconnected to a male, their plight might have been different. The result was hardship and suffering.
At Zarephath, Elijah met such a woman (1 Kings 17:7–16). Suspicious of Elijah’s unreasonable request to give him the meal she was about to prepare, the impoverished and desperate widow told him that it would be the last meal for her and her son, and then they would starve to death. The miraculous provision of meal and oil according to Elijah’s prophesy affirmed God’s commitment to care for the widows who have struggled to provide for themselves.
Under the old and new covenants, the religious community was required to take care of daily needs: “You shall not abuse any widow or orphan” (Ex. 22:22), and “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress …” (James 1:27).
Paul admonished Timothy: “Honour widows who are really widows. If a widow has children or grandchildren, they should first learn their religious duty to their own family and make some repayment to their parents; for this is pleasing in God’s sight” (1 Tim. 5:3–4).
There are some widows today who earn their living and can take care of themselves financially. Others experience adversity with the loss of one, or the only, breadwinner of the household. God uses churches and families to meet financial needs.
A spirit of contentment and generosity can be a testimony of God’s providence, like the widow in Luke 21:1–4 who gave back from what little she had: “1 [Jesus] looked up and saw rich people putting their gifts into the treasury; 2 he also saw a poor widow put in two small copper coins. 3 He said, ‘Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them; 4 for all of them have contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in all she had to live on.”
Often, we forget, however, that the need is much more than a paid utility bill or a bag of groceries, for women also have emotional, recreational, and sexual needs. This is the kind of affection that can be found in marital unions. It is for this reason that widows are free to remarry.
Anna chose not to remarry. But there are also those who have chosen to remarry and have found fulfilment and purpose in this.
Take for example the story of Elisabeth Elliot. Elisabeth was an influential missionary author and speaker of the 20th century. Elisabeth was born in Belgium in 1926 and moved to the United States of America as a child with her family.
In 1953 Elisabeth married Jim Elliot. They were both missionaries in Ecuador and had one daughter. Jim was murdered in 1956. Elisabeth remained a missionary there for two years after his death. In 1969 she married Addison Leitch, a professor at a theological seminary. Addison died in 1973. Elisabeth became a professor after his death. In 1977 Elisabeth married Lars Gren, a student at the seminary. This was her longest marriage. She died in 2015 at age 88.
Paul discouraged believers from placing women below the age of 60 on the “list” of widows (1 Tim. 5:9). While Paul encouraged widows to remain single, he also believed that they should be released to remarriage: “8 To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is well for them to remain unmarried as I am. 9 But if they are not practicing self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion” (1 Cor. 7:8–9).
Elisabeth experienced loss, but, unlike Anna, she remarried. Her marriages were affectionate partnerships. She did not stop being a bearer of the good news of Jesus Christ.
The challenge is that others seem to want to choose which path a woman should take. For example, Judah felt a sense of obligation to choose a path for Tamar according to Jewish practices:
6 Judah took a wife for Er his firstborn; her name was Tamar. 7 But Er, Judah’s firstborn, was wicked in the sight of the LORD, and the LORD put him to death…. 8 Then Judah said to Onan, “Go in to your brother’s wife and perform the duty of a brother-in-law to her; raise up offspring for your brother.”…. 9 But since Onan knew that the offspring would not be his, he spilled his semen on the ground whenever he went in to his brother’s wife, so that he would not give offspring to his brother. 10 What he did was displeasing in the sight of the LORD, and he put him to death also. 11 Then Judah said to his daughter-in-law Tamar, “Remain a widow in your father’s house until my son Shelah grows up”—for he feared that he too would die, like his brothers. So Tamar went to live in her father’s house.—Genesis 38:6–11
Yet, in the case of Ruth, it was her choice to journey with her mother-in law Naomi (Ruth 1:15–18), and her remarriage brought fulfilment to her (Ruth 4:13–15). Under the new covenant, women have a choice. For example, as we read in Romans 7:2: “Thus a married woman is bound by the law to her husband as long as he lives; but if her husband dies, she is discharged from the law concerning the husband.”
For women, it was and is intensely challenging to lose a spouse. The story of Anna teaches us that, while it would be a time of recalibration and reflection, it is not to be one without hope or help. Empowered by the Holy Spirit, women choose to use their time to serve, being assured that their needs will be taken care of, or to remarry and continue their lives.
• How would you imagine the journey of Anna from the loss of her husband to the celebration of the birth of the Redeemer? What may have been her daily thoughts and communication with God?
• Based on the Pauline view on widows expressed in his letter to Timothy, how does the widow know “what is right” (1 Tim. 5:7) for her?
• How does the 21st century church reform stereotypes of widowhood?
Gracious Lord, you are the God of all. We place before you all those who have experienced the loss of a loved one, like Anna did. Grant them your shalom so that they may have the wholeness that you can give. May they be empowered and strengthened by your Spirit to discern and do your will. Amen.
Short Bio of the Author
Rev. Dr Winelle Kirton Roberts is a native of Barbados. She earned a BA and Diploma in Ministerial Studies from the University of the West Indies and the United Theological College of the West Indies in Jamaica, respectively. In 1996 she graduated from Princeton Theological Seminary in the US with a master of theology (ThM) in Church History and in 2009 completed her PhD in History from the University of the West Indies, Barbados.
Kirton Roberts has taught history, philosophy, ethics, and religion. She is the author of Created in Their Image: Evangelical Protestantism in Antigua and Barbados, 1834-1914 and contributed entries on Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, Dominica, and Saint Kitts and Nevis to the Encyclopedia of Christianity in the Global South (2018). She is an editor of the Journal of Moravian History.
An ordained minister in the Moravian Church, Eastern West Indies Province, Kirton Roberts served in pastoral and administrative positions with her church from 1993 to 2019. At present, she is the pastor of the Geneva Moravian Fellowship in Switzerland. She is married to the Rev. Dr Mikie Roberts, and they have three daughters.