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The Forgotten Christmas Characters

Take a look at your nativity. What do you see? As long as you aren't missing any of the pieces after decades of being stuffed in boxes 11 months out of the year, you should find Joseph, Mary, and the baby Jesus. Next to them you will usually find the magi and the shepherds and probably an angel on display. For most of us, this completes our "nativity scene." Sure, we know that the magi probably arrived a little later and we also know that there was an innkeeper somewhere along the way, but other than that, the Christmas story is well represented in our little nativity presentation. But there are actually 2 other people to the story that are so often overlooked at Christmas, they don't even have a box to be stuffed in 11 months out of the year. And it's probably an easy mistake to make - forgetting these 2 people - for Matthew's account of Christ's birth doesn't even mention them. So, it's not like we intentionally skip over their part of the story; it's just that we only find them in one gospel account - Luke's gospel.

The last few weeks, I've been slowly reading and rereading Luke's account of the nativity story. Every year, as I reread these beloved passages, I am so thankful for Luke's contribution. No other gospel account captured the scenery quite like Luke's, for it's in his gospel that we find these two rarely discussed characters in the Christmas story: Simeon and Anna. And I must say, they are, hands down, 2 of my favorite people in the nativity account.

Let's start with Simeon.

Simeon is a mystery and that is partly why I love him so. Never heard of before and never heard from again, he pops into the bible for this fleeting, yet supernaturally poignant moment. He suddenly appears in Luke 2:25 and disappears 10 verses later:

25 And behold, there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon, and this man was just and devout, waiting for the Consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. 26 And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. 27 So he came by the Spirit into the temple.

Did you notice how many times "Spirit" was used in the description of Simeon in these verses? Here we see a man under the Old Covenant time period (for Christ had not yet died) emerging out of 400 years of prophetic silence as one of the first New Testament prophets (Zecharias prophesied first in Luke 1 and in the following verses, Simeon takes over), being completely led and filled with the Spirit (although the Spirit had not yet been poured out according to Acts 2). This is an incredible description when put in its pre-resurrection day context! This old covenant man was completely led by the Spirit, filled with the Spirit, and in sweet communion with the Spirit. And - to add wonder to the already glorious mystery of this man, he was looking for "The Consolation of Israel". That phrase is so rich with meaning and, while we see it implied all throughout the old covenant, nowhere else do we see it so plainly stated in scripture. Yet, here is Simeon - the Spirit led, unknown prophet - with a unique revelation - a distinctive name of the Messiah. So, do you see what I mean about the mystery of this man? He completely intrigues me.

Then, Luke's account of Simeon continues with this profound stanza:

27 And when the parents brought in the Child Jesus, to do for Him according to the custom of the law, [Simeon] took Him up in his arms and blessed God and said:

29 “Lord, now You are letting Your servant depart in peace,

According to Your word;

30 For my eyes have seen Your salvation

31 Which You have prepared before the face of all peoples,

32 A light to bring revelation to the Gentiles,

And the glory of Your people Israel.”

33 And Joseph and His mother marveled at those things which were spoken of Him. 34 Then Simeon blessed them, and said to Mary His mother, “Behold, this Child is destined for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign which will be spoken against 35 (yes, a sword will pierce through your own soul also), that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.”

I mean, wow! What do you do with this guy?! What a gift of prophecy, revelation, word of knowledge, and understanding this man had! He understood that Jesus would bring salvation - not an overthrowing of Rome as many in his time assumed - but salvation...real salvation. And I believe that Simeon truly understood what "salvation" meant because it's clear that Simeon understood that salvation was not just for Israel, but for all who called upon him - Jew & Gentile alike. He clearly understood that what God was doing through this tiny baby now swaddled in Simeon's arms was far greater than a military plan: he understood this baby was "a light to bring revelation to the Gentiles AND the glory of Israel."

Simeon had an understanding much like John the Baptist had: that Jesus was the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. But it seems that Simeon understood, maybe even more than John did, that Jesus' provision of salvation would not just bring peace, but would at the same time bring division, trial, and tribulation. For Simeon's prophecy to Mary was not simply about the miracles and healings Jesus would perform: he plainly told her that Christ's destiny would cause many to fall; that he would be a sign that people spoke against. And Simeon didn't stop there. He went on to declare that a sword was tied to this child's destiny - one that would pierce through the very heart of his mother.

Now that I think about it, maybe this prophecy is why we so often neglect Simeon in our Christmas readings. At first glance, these aren't warm and snuggly, "peace on earth" kind of words. But that is exactly what they are! For the peace that Jesus brought - a peace between God and man - didn't come from Jesus remaining a cuddly baby: it came at a much higher cost. The price for peace by the baby born in the stable, was the cost of his very life. The price paid for redemption by the one to whom angels sang praises, was the violent ridicule of the crowds demanding his crucifixion. The cost of salvation from the one who shepherds left their lambs to worship, required him to become the lamb left all alone for slaughter. The embodiment of consolation for Israel would lay down his life to ensure that peace on earth was possible; and It was Simeon who first brought this revelation of Christ to the New Testament era.

But it wasn't just Simeon whom Joseph & Mary ran into in the temple the day they dedicated baby Jesus: they also had the honor of meeting Anna. Luke's gospel tells us about this remarkable woman of God in 2:36-38:

36 Now there was one, Anna, a prophetess, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, and had lived with a husband seven years from her virginity; 37 and this woman was a widow of about eighty-four years, who did not depart from the temple, but served God with fastings and prayers night and day. 38 And coming in that instant she gave thanks to the Lord, and spoke of Him to all those who looked for redemption in Jerusalem.

Anna is introduced to us much like Simeon - never heard of before and never heard from again - but the description of her is just as exceptional as Simeon's. First off, she is described to us as a prophetess. That in itself tells us that she, too, emerges out of 400 years of seemingly prophetic silence but as the first female prophet in the New Testament era (I love how God didn't leave the women out of the Christmas story). We learn from these verses that she had dedicated her life, not simply as a prophet, but as an intercessor. She was so committed to prayer that she apparently had moved right into the temple! Like Simeon, her life of dependance on the Spirit had positioned her to be a part of the advent story and this alone is awe inspiring.

But there are a few other descriptions about Anna that many people may glance over but that, when studied, add another element of richness to this already incredible story. Notice what Luke says about her in verse 36: not only was she a prophetess, but she was "the daughter of Phanuel of the tribe of Asher." The name Phanuel comes from the root word, Penuel, which in Hebrew means "face of God." It may sound familiar if you know your Old Testament. If you go back to Genesis 32, you will see the story of Jacob wrestling with God face to face and receiving a blessing. Due to this face to face encounter, Jacob calls the place "Penuel" or "Peniel". Imagine! Face to face with the living God! Anna didn't have to imagine, for here in Luke, we see the daughter of "Face of God" actually beholding the face of God in the newborn Son. This daughter was from the tribe of Asher which means "happy" and comes from a root word which means "to be guided; to be advanced; to be blessed." I think it is safe to say that Anna was guided and blessed to see here father's namesake - Penuel - performed through her life. She had an encounter - face to face with God.

But, there's one other thing that Luke tells us about Anna: she was a woman who had married young and had been widowed young. Now, the story doesn't tell us this, but there is a very good chance that she was childless. It may be one reason why she lived in temple - simply because she had no children of her own to provide for her. A childless woman name Anna. Does this ring a bell? It should remind you of another woman in the Old Testament. You see, Anna, in Hebrew is translated as Hannah and Hannah, in the Old Testament, was a woman who was also childless and found interceding in the temple. We find the Old Testament Hannah's story in 1 Samuel. There we read of her distraught weeping in prayer for a child, her vow to dedicate her child to the Lord, and her commitment in literally allowing her son to be raised in the temple by the priests, to become none other than the greatest prophet of that time.

Hannah (or Anna) in the New Testament is also barren and found praying in the temple. However, being without husband, she had no life to dedicate to God but her own. She had no child to raise in the temple, so she herself moved right in. This Hannah had no son to raise as a prophet, but God appointed her to be a prophetess. She spent all of her best years, much like Samuel did, dedicated to the Lord's service in the temple of God. Hannah in the Old Testament gave her son - Hannah in the New Testament gave her life. Now, 1 Samuel 1:19 says that "God remembered Hannah" - and that remembrance came through a child. Well the same "remembrance" is echoed in Luke's account just in a different way. For, while now Anna was past child bearing age, God remembered her faithfulness and her family legacy as the daughter of "Face of God," and positioned her for an encounter to be recorded for the ages...although I doubt she expected it to come as it did. I can image that there were many times throughout her life where she pictured herself like the Hannah of Old; she felt her pain but without the resolution; she shared her name but without the happy ending. But on that day in Jerusalem, when Joseph and Mary entered the temple, everything changed. No, she herself didn't get to dedicate her own baby, but she got be a part of the dedication of a far greater child - the very Son of God.

So, I say Anna is worthy to be remembered this holiday season. She was honored by Luke as the first female prophetess in the New Testament AND she is honored as the first female evangelist; for in verse 38 we see that she shares the news of Christ with all who will listen. What an amazing woman of God. Both Hannah and Simeon prophesied, interceded, and evangelised into the twilight years of their life. Their recorded story shows us that although we may spend our entire lives waiting for an encounter with God, the encounter is worth the wait. For most of us, that encounter won't come until our "faith is made sight" and we behold the Lord on the other side of the grave. But there will be a generation that gets the same privilege that Simeon and Anna received - a face to face encounter at the second advent of our Lord. No matter which encounter we receive - by death or in life - I know Simeon and Anna would say to us, "It's worth the wait."

So, this Christmas, as you are reading the account of Christ's coming and putting out those shepherds and wiseman figurines, take a moment to read about these two wonderful members of the story, Simeon and Anna. The picture that they paint for us of Christ's worth makes the advent that much more spectacular. The faithfulness that they display for us makes them worthy of our imitation and most certainly worthy of our remembrance this Christmas.


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