How Anna and Simeon Remained Faithful in a Time of Despair and Hopelessness
Now there was a man in Jerusalem called Simeon, who was righteous and devout. He was waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was on him. (Luke 2:25)
There was also 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, and then was a widow until she was eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped night and day, fasting and praying. 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. (Luke 2:36–38)
Anna and Simeon lived in a time of seeming political hopelessness and division, much like our own. Nonetheless, they persisted in faith when many of their contemporaries abandoned the God of Israel. God rewarded their persistence in faith by making them among the first witnesses of the Messiah.
There are many who look upon the church’s apparent infatuation with political power and indifference to corruption and wonder if there is a faithful way forward that remains connected to the great tradition and is able to speak a relevant word in the present moment. I do not pretend to have all the answers, but the testimonies of Anna and Simeon carry within them the spiritual practices necessary to wait for his second coming in hope.
Anna and Simeon at the Turn of the Ages
Before the arrival of the Messiah, the faithful of Jesus’ day had every reason for cynicism. With the fleeting exception of the troubled Hasmonean rule, Israel had been passed from one foreign ruler to the next. Herod was a well-known rogue who owed his position to an equally morally bankrupt Roman hierarchy. In his day, he was most famous for his repair and expansion of the temple in Jerusalem. There is no evidence, however, that Herod actually had a deep personal faith. Instead, his pious activities were a farce, an attempt to use religious posturing as a tool to placate a pious populous that was skeptical of his right to rule.
The problem was not simply foreign powers. Within Israel itself there were collaborators: tax collectors, religious leaders, and politicians whose very livelihood and existence depended upon the support of the Romans over and against their own people. Tax collectors made their living by robbing their people in exchange for a comfortable life in the context of Roman occupation. Put plainly, various elements of the political, social, religious, and economic life of first-century Israel were broken.
Sound familiar? Many of Anna and Simeon’s neighbors saw this corruption and concluded that God had either forgotten or abandoned Israel. Why continue to believe when next year threatened to be much the same as this year? What purpose did the various festivals and celebrations of God’s victories in the past have to do with their present pain? Israel in the time of Jesus appeared to be at a social, moral, and political impasse.
Our Present Trial
I have friends that look at the church and only see its failures. They deem it corrupt politically, economically, and socially. They wonder if the church cares about the issues facing people of color. They wonder about how seriously the church takes the issues facing women. They worry that our attitude toward the foreigner seems far from the ways of Jesus. They believe that portions of the church have sold their souls—let us speak plainly—for a place in a political party that too often seems to traffic in fear.
Do not misunderstand me. The political Left is not the solution to all our problems. I am no fool; Christians are not at home in any party. But I do not know many young Christians who question the church because of our public and uncompromising ties to the Left. Furthermore, the divide that has historically separated faithful Christians of color from their white evangelical brothers and sisters is precisely the question of justice for the oppressed.
It is a worldview shaped by the compassion inculcated by the gospel, not theological compromise, that leads us to speak about the need for police and prison reform. It is our desire to follow in the way of Jesus that makes us listen to women in our day when they speak about sexual harassment and misogyny. It is the wider witness of the biblical story that causes us to wonder if there is a way to address the immigration crisis that recognizes the image of God in all persons. It is that same belief in the shared image of God that causes us to bristle at the way the foreigner is always described as a danger and never a potential blessing. We question, then, not the “tone’’ but the faulty theology of personhood that seems to permeate the White House.
When Christians who care about these issues display concern, those at the highest echelons of our current political leadership have shown themselves to be callous to these issues of justice that have been raised time and again by people of color and women. But this callousness has not cost them support. Instead, we are told that Supreme Court justices will be enough. I am pro-life too, but my pro-lifeness cannot be weaponized against the suffering of my people.
Thus, the criticisms of those who find fault with the political captivity of certain elements of the church cannot be completely dismissed. We must acknowledge that there are indeed portions of the church that have mixed the gospel with a toxic form of nationalistic American exceptionalism that threatens to alienate a generation from the message of Jesus and his kingdom. Like Israel in Jesus’ day, the church in America seems to be at an impasse.