In the second chapter of Luke we meet two new characters, both old age pensioners, although there was presumably no old age pension in those days. They both are extraordinary people. The first is Simeon, a man described as righteous and devout, “waiting for the consolation of Israel.” The second is Anna, an ageing prophetess, who “never left the temple but worshiped night and day, fasting and praying.”
Simeon, for me, is a picture of the transition from anticipation to contentment in old age, fulfilment of a life well lived. He had spent years close to God, reading the Scriptures, speaking and listening to God, singing songs of appreciation and adoration to God, fellowshipping with like minded people, practicing what he knew of the will of God in the community around him. The result of this practice of the reality and presence of God was what Luke calls righteousness and devoutness. Devoutness refers to an attitude of the mind, a devotedness to God, living for that which was he believed to be true even if it was unseen, a life of faith. Righteousness refers to a way of conduct; what we would call “a good life.” He cared for the people around him, not simply himself. And he was committed to the reputation of God: he wanted people to know that God was real, that God cared, that God was interested and involved.
But even if he was devout and righteous, though he was old he was not ready to die. He had not “done it all,” he had not “made it.” He was not waiting for the inevitable – death – to take him, but was waiting for something else to happen, something that he felt sure would come to pass in his lifetime. Those of us who work with the dying observe that people on the verge of death from incurable disease sometimes seem to just hang on, day after day, week after week, and we find ourselves wondering why they don’t just give up and pass away. Sometimes we become aware that there is something unresolved, something they need to say, a person they need to meet. They are simply not ready to die. Then the thing is said, the person arrives, the conflict is resolved, and seemingly suddenly the patient smiles in contentment, lets go, and slips away into eternity.
There is nothing to say Simeon was sick or dying, but he was waiting. And then one day under the guidance of the Holy Spirit he goes to the Temple. He sees a young girl and her husband with a newborn baby, and he knows in an instant that this baby is the one: the Messiah, the consolation of Israel, the thing he has been waiting for. He smiles and takes the baby in his arms, speaks out the words of God, a prophecy over this little person, and knows in that moment that his life has reached its fulfilment, that from here on everything is simply a bonus. There is nothing else left to do and he is ready to die. He has seen God’s salvation in a tiny person, and he is filled with joy. He is content. He has come to the place that we long to see all our patients come to, a place of contentment and joy, a place of readiness to embark on the next exciting journey, the journey into eternity. Simeon has passed the final milestone in life and sees the destination ahead with great joy.
Anna, 84 years old, is the second old age pensioner we meet in the narrative of chapter 2. She is a woman full of the excitement that comes from knowing God. She is described as a prophet, a person who had the special gift of speaking God’s words to people. She, like Simeon, was a person who had spent many decades in devotion to God, “worshiping night and day, fasting and praying.” These are the practices of a prophet. We should not forget that the key to practicing prophecy is devotion to God, worshiping, fasting, praying, not just occasionally, but day and night, as Anna did. It is true that the gifts of the Spirit are not given as a reward for devotion, but the nurturing of the gifts and the growth of their effectiveness for the good of the people around us, will only happen through careful cultivation, and the life of Anna teaches us what is involved in such cultivation.
Anna may well have been the prophet in the story, but she seems to be the supporting act on this occasion. She and Simeon no doubt knew each other. They were both old, they both lived in Jerusalem, they had both frequented the temple for many years. Anna practically lived in the temple. Simeon, though a frequent visitor, had a “life outside.” Anna was very possibly the one who did the most “preaching” – speaking God’s words to the public. Simeon may well have been one who people in the general community recognised as always being there, ready to serve, ready to encourage, ready to come alongside people in need.
But on this occasion it was Simeon who spoke, prophesying under the power of the Holy Spirit. Anna heard what he said and saw the baby that he carried in his arms. Her heart was filled with joy, because she knew in that instant that Simeon was right. When he had stopped speaking she took over: “coming up to them at that very moment, she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem.” She was so filled with excitement that she couldn’t help speaking to the people around her. The temple in those days was not a place that people only went on Sundays, as many of our modern church buildings are. It was a central part of daily life for the people of Jerusalem. There would have been many people around and many would have recognised Anna because she was well know as a woman who spoke the words of God. She was respected and her words were listened to. If Anna was excited about a baby, people knew that this was a baby to be excited about. There must have been a lot of talking going on that day and in the days afterwards in Jerusalem. A baby had appeared in the temple, the newborn child of an unknown teenager from Nazareth, and this baby would grow into a man that would change the world.
We live in a youth orientated world. Youth has the advantage of beauty, and beauty is worshiped in contemporary society more than wisdom. This can even happen in the church. When we talk about worship it is easy for us to associate it with crowds of young and attractive people singing up beat songs with their hands raised to the sky. When we talk about the gifts of the Holy Spirit, it is easy for us to think of young people speaking in strange tongues, praying for healing in big meetings, practicing the gift of prophecy.
But this story reminds us that the old have as much to offer to the world as the young and beautiful. They need not be “past it.” They can be as passionate and involved in worship as those who are young and fresh in their faith. They have the advantage not just of years of faith, but also years of experience of the world. In many cases they have circumstances that allow even greater involvement and devotion to God – they need not be distracted so much by the need to find a partner, the urgency of sexual attraction, the desire for family, career, possessions. There is much that we can learn from this story about our attitude to old age, whether we are young or old ourselves. If we are young we need to be willing to listen in respect to people who have seen much and have used their many years to learn the ways of God. If we are old we should not be proud or arrogant and imagine that maturity in faith is the automatic effect of the passing of years and that people should listen to us just because we are old. We need to be willing to keep going with our devotion, our involvement, our willingness to be used by God, to speak his words, to obey his commandments. Old age need not be a time of passivity. We are never “past it.” Devotion, commitment, involvement, passion, excitement – these are all things that belong as much to the ageing Christian as the one young in her faith.