Friday 24th December
In Luke 2: 36 -38 we get a very brief glimpse into the life of an elderly woman called Anna. Take a couple of minutes to read the passage if you can. What do you notice?
I was struck by the mention of her father’s name. ‘Penuel’ – it means ‘the face of God’. I found myself imagining what it would be like to have a father with such a name. How you would constantly live in that tension between the hope for God’s likeness and encounter when you were with that person…and meet the reality with at least some degree of disappointment? Poor Penuel, surely destined to never quite live up to the name he had been given.
For Anna, I imagine even the loving gaze of a daughter couldn’t disguise that her dad wasn’t perfect, wasn’t beyond reproach. Yet, like every single one of us, his very being also reflected the likeness of God. Perhaps she encountered God’s goodness and love through her father, even imperfectly. Perhaps she experienced the freedom of forgiveness in how she was parented, the delight of being valued and loved for who she was. Perhaps not – and perhaps that too opened in her a yearning to be fully loved and known. I began to wonder if this might have been part of her desire to dwell in the temple for all those decades of widowhood. Was she longing to find more of the goodness and likeness of God in this place of worship? I also began to wonder how this framing would inform the way she saw the world. Would she have become attuned to the divine likeness present in every face she met, over the years learning to see each person she encountered with the loving eyes of God? We also learn that Anna wasn’t just living in the temple, she was waiting there, praying and fasting, and presumably sleeping and eating there too.
A day came, many, many years into her waiting, when it seems the one she had been waiting for – the one who would bring the redemption of Israel – arrives in the form of a tiny child held in the arms of a very ordinary young couple. I’m not sure if she knew this is how her waiting would end, or if this were a beautiful, shocking holy surprise.
This mysterious and singular woman is named a prophet in the passage, one of the few insights we have about her. She is significant, one of the relatively few women named in the bible, and even here we do not know what words she actually spoke. It is in this space of the untold that I found myself asking questions of Anna; these words are a sort of imaginative answer.
The face of God in my father was
not so very easy to see -
most days no more than a man.
The worst days he was
a little less.
I saw all his many faces, and sometimes
in some of them
I saw Love.
He was named ‘face of God’
the naming not so much prophecy
perhaps hope is enough.
And this obscuring, this revealing
of divine identity
grew a longing
Longing for the face of God in every person I met.
All my long years I have hungered.
Have I come to you intent, eyes interrogating?
Have my uncertain fingers brushed your cheek?
Have I clasped your reluctant hand in my own?
I see you have something of the likeness there
imperfect as my own
but your face is like enough.
All my long years of looking, waiting, longing
long days of emptiness, dark nights of prayer
ready companions to my desires,
I learned well how to find
the divine likeness in each, eye trained with compassion and delight
and today was like most, to start.
How I have loved my quiet rhythms through the years,
an invisible witness in the temple embrace
an old fool, but a holy one
a prophet, but a lonely one
Vicky Allen is a communications consultant for a small Scottish children’s charity, as well a being a creative community engagement worker with Discovery Church in Dunbar. She has a parallel passion for creativity in general and writing poetry in particular.