It is wonderful how the people and stories we experience in our early years become part of us, isn't it? Untraceable, often, because we forget bits, and who can tell which bits are important enough to take particular note of in any case? And we pick up all sorts of influences as the years progress. 'Complex' we are, as people: literally, 'woven together'.
For as long as I can remember I have wondered wondering sorts of things about my namesake, Anna, the old old lady in the temple, in the bible story, who was so happy to meet Jesus the baby, when he was brought by his parents to be dedicated to God. When the reading came up this weekend my ponderings drew me into what might have happened after the scene we read about: her colleague Simeon apparently expected to die after the encounter with the special little child, but Anna ...??
It turns out there was much more to her than meets the eye.
Luke 2: 22 Joseph and Mary took Jesus to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord. 36 There was a prophet, Anna, the daughter of Penuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was very old; she had lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, 37 and then was a widow until she was eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped night and day, fasting and praying. 38 Coming up to them, she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem.
And lo, as Anna was cradling the little baby in her arms, she was seen to be whispering something in his ear, and when asked what she had said she replied, a little abashed, that she had told him she hoped it would be okay for her to come home with him to be his nanny. She had spent so many years in the temple, she said, but was feeling tired and to be honest a little fed up with all the comings and goings, and now that she had found the child she had been awaiting for sooooo many years she could see no reason to hang around any longer. And perhaps they would be able to find her a nice fresh straw mattress, would they, as she had not slept comfortably for years, in this place, although she would bring her own pillow which had herbs inside to inspire her dreams, but otherwise she wouldn’t need much, and only really one proper meal a day and the occasional back rub when her rheumatics got especially bad. And would that be alright?
Mary looked at Joseph with a triumphant smile. She had been begging him to let her have some extra help with childcare at home so that she could have some time to pursue her new hobby. A few months back, her cousin Elisabeth had introduced her to a new culinary craze which involved finding inventive ways to make palatable meals from the insects that would intermittently descend in swarms on the crop fields. They were said to be extremely high in protein and low in carbs, and it was of course a great way to save on the grocery bill. Mary hadn’t mentioned to her rather conservative husband that she had a secret aspiration to turn her new passion into a little side business, if she could only work out how to preserve her ‘delicacies’; he was unlikely to approve of such an independent venture. It has to be said that Mary was at times so absorbed with the dual challenges of catching the critters and testing recipes to disguise them sufficiently for people to actually agree to taste them, that she sometimes forgot her household and wifely duties, and this had caused no little tension in the household. So far, the only thing Joseph had said (apart from “urgh” and “craze, yeah, that fits”, which upset Mary considerably) was that he was not sure they could afford to pay anyone to look after the baby, and what was wrong with his Mum’s offer to babysit occasionally? Everyone knew that Mary had not had an easy start with the in-laws, due to the circumstances, and she was still reluctant to entrust her little boy into the hands of Joseph’s sniffy parents. Her own Mamma had to spend most of her time with her sister’s kids, who were a right handful.
Thus it was settled. 39 When Joseph and Mary had done everything required by the Law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee to their own town of Nazareth. Old Anna tagged along, feeling as excited as a child on the first day of big school.
40 And the child grew and became strong. Under Nanna Anna’s care (she had quickly and proudly declared this to be her new moniker) Jesus's development was a delight to see. She astonished everyone, herself included, by having a new lease of life in her new role as an au pair girl, and within no time all signs of her plaguy rheumatism vanished. She had the energy of someone at least half her age, which she attributed to the mysterious herbs that she scoured the landscape for (always by full moonlight!) and mixed inventively into teas. She would also add tiny drops of her special concoctions into Jesus’s little cup when Mary was not looking, although she was repeatedly ticked off for doing so because Mary was a careful first-time mother and wanted to do everything by the book. Apart from the experimental insect-snacks, that is, although she mostly refrained from giving them to the little lad, except as a soldiers for his boiled eggs, inflicting them instead on Joseph for his mid-morningsies (“hrrrmph” came Joseph’s unimpressed response each time he opened his packed lunch box and found some different eyes looking up at him: whatever the quantity of tasty spices or honey she used to disguise the termites and grasshoppers, the thought of taking a mouthful of sticky-outy bits always made him shudder). Nanna Anna taught Jesus to play cricket when he could barely walk (“we have to start ‘em young if they are going to be any good!”) and this developed a hand-eye coordination for sport that was the envy of all the local boys, and in time gave him a remarkable dexterity in the carpentry workshop of his father. And she taught him tai chi – in fact he more or less taught himself, by watching her in the early mornings when she would creep out of the house to practice before the sun was fully risen - so that he became self-controlled and calm, and, unusually for his age and stage, he was able to stand up to the bully boys from the next village and surprise them with his sudden defense moves that left them floored or howling with the sudden pain of a well-executed parry.
… 40 … He was filled with wisdom. Wisdom was of course Anna’s forte. Her many years of watchful prayer in the temple had brought her a sense of God as close as her own breath, and into an endless compassion for humanity. There was little that she had not seen of human longing, joy and suffering, and she was a careful and patient if also rather unorthodox teacher to the young child. She would keep a quiet lookout over Jesus and his companions, whether they were playing inside or running about in the yard, when he was sitting with his lessons in the mornings or talking about his day with his parents at the tea table. Her bedtime stories would weave together his experiences of that day with an extraordinary commentary that encompassed philosophy, theology, politics and literature - both serious works and comedy – and always at a level that was just right for the inquisitive boy to hear, so that he understood enough to feel the world expanding inside him, and always felt like tomorrow would give him that little bit more that he desired to know. He went to sleep with a head full of images of life and wonder and delight, and just enough awareness of the shadow side of life to really learn what wisdom was all about. From her example he learned when to say something straight and when to spin a story around some germ or gem of truth; he also knew when to open his mouth and when to keep his thoughts to himself. Which after all is most admirable (and unfortunately most uncommon) in a person of any age.
… 40 … And the grace of God was on him. On him, and on his mother Mary and father Joseph. Who were happy together, despite the matter of the locusts (even if Joseph could never completely cover up a certain agitation at family gatherings, because of Auntie E's part in the saga, and with the cousins being so unconventional and all) and found raising a boy to be a wondrous experience, aided by this unconventional lady. The day she died, when Jesus was just out of short trousers but not yet quite a man, was indeed a day of sadness for them all, but a day too of joy because she had told them it must be so and the look of bliss on her face as she lay breathing her last breaths showed them that she was already moving into someplace far better than this world, someplace where she truly now belonged.
41 Every year Jesus’ parents went to Jerusalem for the Festival of the Passover. 42 When he was twelve years old, they went up to the festival, according to the custom.
And on that day when Jesus officially became a grown-up, when he got into conversation with the temple teachers - and went missing and annoyed his parents and all, as you will remember - 47everyone who heard him was amazed at his understanding and his answers. He was not at all arrogant about his ability to keep even the old crusties of the temple on their intellectual toes, because he knew, in the sweetly naïve but gloriously wise way that 12 year olds can sometimes display, those who are entirely secure in themselves because they have been deeply loved, that Nanna Anna had been God’s special gift to him for those formative years of his life. And he knew too that she would continue to keep her quiet eye on him, with that twinkle that was especially reserved for him, as he walked forward into his destiny as a man.
The rest, as they say, is history.