anna and the fulfillment of promises
I love the figure of Anna, the prophetess in the temple in the Gospel of Luke (2:36-40). She usually is paired with Simeon, whose story we heard yesterday and last Sunday and will her again on the feast of the Presentation on February 2nd. But today (December 30th) she gets a whole day to herself. You’ll recall that especially the infancy narratives in the Gospel of Luke are all about the fulfillment of promises, and especially the canticles of Mary, Zechariah and Simeon from the Gospel of Luke are chock full of images from the Hebrew Scriptures that are brought to their completion, their fulfillment in this story of Jesus’ birth. And now we are at the end of that whole first part of the book, you might say, the infancy narratives. (The story of Jesus getting lost in the temple at twelve years old is next but the Church uses that for the Feast of the Holy Family.) So we see through the eyes of Anna and (yesterday) in Simeon the fulfillment of the promises, a sense of hushed excitement: Simeon has seen with his own eyes the salvation which God has prepared, and Anna is speaking about this child to all who were awaiting the redemption of Jerusalem. If this were a movie, this would be time to change reels; if it were a mini-series this would be the end of the first installment. The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom and the favor of God was upon him. But really what it feels like to me is that this is the end of the Old Testament. I get a sense that Luke is trying to tell us that the first covenant is being brought to a close; all that has been fulfilled now, and there is something new coming.
Anna even more than Simeon is kind of the archetype of the monk, who never left the temple but worshipped night and day with fasting and prayer. I always think of Sr. Mary Louise who lives in the women’s ashram across the street from Saccidananda Ashram at Shantivanam. She had been a member of a active French Franciscan medical missionary congregation until she decided that she wanted a more contemplative life. Instead of Fr. Bede, it was the writings of Pere Jules Monchanin, one of the two original founders of Shantivanam, that she fell in love with. When she first moved there she had build a small lean-to cabin out in the forest; as I heard the story it was a very simple, very primitive little place. I heard one story about how during the monsoon with the River Kauvery flooding its bank Fr. Bede and another of the brothers had to go and save her and bring here back to the men’s ashram. She’s now been there for decades herself and has built up a beautiful ashram with very sturdy, clean huts, wonderful food, and a thriving cattle and agricultural business. But she has had a very hard time keeping any other nun to stay there with her, partially because of her strong fierce personality, and partially because it is a tough life of hard work and hard prayer. When I was first there in 2000 I was asking her about her legacy, and leaving anything or anyone behind. She didn’t seem too worried. I remember she spoke to me so eloquently about “the place,” that is, Shantivanam, and that how no matter who comes and goes now, the three founders left there a sacred space, a sacredness that cannot diminish. And she said to me, “If God were to grant me a thousand years I would stay here and watch and wait.” I was so inspired by that! I remember talking to another monk once about his community that was aging and worrying about finances and vocations. I asked him if he thought the community would close due to lack of finances. He said “Nonsense! If we run out of money we will live more simply. We’re not here because it is comfortable. We’re not here because this is an easy life. We’re here because we’re monks.” It’s back to that famous distinction between optimism and hope: we’re not here because we think this is gonna turn out okay; we’re here because it’s the right thing to do. That’s the virtue of hope. And Anna had it.
But there is another image that came to my mind as well, also a monastic one, in a sense. I remember hearing this guy talk, an American who was deeply immersed in the Buddhist tradition. You know the Japanese Zen Buddhists call the meditation cushion a za-fu. (“Za” is sitting, like za-zen–“sitting Zen,” and “fu” is a cushion.) And he kept referring to his zafu as the rock, and he felt like when he was doing za-zen he was sitting on “this %$#@ rock,” as if he was angry at it. And then he paused; and then he said, “And I’m gonna sit on this %$#@ rock until I break through all illusion.” And I knew he would! He had what we call bodhichitta, which means a determination for enlightenment. He was going to meditate as if his hair were on fire. That’s hope too: he knew it was there. I think that’s what Saint Benedict means when he says that the concern must be whether the novice truly seeks God and whether he shows eagerness for the Work of God, for obedience and for trials.[i] That’s Anna, who never left the temple but worshipped night and day with fasting and prayer; that’s Mary Louise, “If God were to grant me a thousand years, I would stay here and watch and wait.” “We’re not here because it’s easy; we’re here because we’re monks.” I’m here because I believe that the promise of the Lord will be fulfilled.
I want to recall Advent for moment. As we entered the last days of Advent I suggested that we might ask ourselves: what do we believe the promise is? What is the story we’ve been told, and what would its fulfillment look like? We heard it in the reading from Saint Hippolytus this morning: …both our bodies and our soul will have become immortal… we shall enter the kingdom of heaven… we shall be subject to no evil desires or inclinations… for we shall have become divine… when we have been deified and made immortal, God has promised us a share in his own attributes.[ii] That’s the promise of Christmas, that kind of divinization. And I’m gonna stick it out here until that happens. Blessed are we too who believe that the promise of the Lord will be fulfilled. Then Lord––and only then––you may let your servant go in peace.