The Season of Advent: Bonaventure on the Prophetess Anna in the Lukan Infancy Narrative

By Dr. William Hyland, Lecturer in Church History, St Mary’s College

Currently in one aspect of my research, I am engaged in exploring the interplay between exegesis, theology and devotion in the writings of the thirteenth century Franciscan theologian and spiritual writer St. Bonaventure, known as “the Seraphic Doctor”. As we approach the season of Advent and Christmastide, I would like to share some of his reflections on a specific aspect of the season. In his academic Commentary on the Gospel of Luke, Bonaventure treats in detail the literal and spiritual meaning of the evangelist’s detailed discussion of the birth of John the Baptist, as well as the events surrounding and following the nativity and epiphany of Jesus.   His discussion of the meaning of the details of the narrative includes the figure of the prophetess Anna who was present at the Presentation of Christ in the Temple. The Franciscan friar makes clear that all of creation plays an important role in the revelation and implementation of God’s will for the whole cosmos.

The culmination of the Infancy Narratives in many ways for Bonaventure is the Presentation of Christ in the Temple (Luke 2:22-38), an episode where both Christ and his Mother, through her ritual purification and his presentation, submit themselves to the law as a profound act of humility, a purification which neither one of them, he asserts following St Bernard, actually needed. In a lengthy discussion Bonaventure describes Simeon as the embodiment of Old Testament wisdom, the just man who is enabled to experience the long awaited promised consolation of Israel. His ecstatic song, known in Latin as the Nunc Dimittis (Luke 2:29-32) is sung every night by the Church at the Night Office of Compline, which Bonaventure feels is quite fitting, as it encapsulates the whole gospel story and its central theological meaning.

After some more discussion of Simeon, Bonaventure then turns to another key figure in this episode, the prophetess and aged widow Anna; for as his discussion of her demonstrates, there is even more theological richness to be found in this episode of the Presentation. As Luke 2:36-38 reads:

And there was one Anna, a prophetess, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Aser; she was far advanced in years, and had lived with her husband seven years from her virginity. And she was a widow until fourscore and four years; who departed not from the temple, by fastings and prayers serving night and day.  Now she, at the same hour, coming in, confessed to the Lord; and spoke of him to all that looked for the redemption of Israel. 

Bonaventure tells us he will describe why Anna herself is a suitable witness to these great events, but first he makes an important digression to assert that witnesses were needed from every stage of life and both genders, as Christ was coming to restore everything:

“After the testimony of an old man there now follows the testimony from a woman. For it is fitting that there be testimony to the advent of Christ from every sort of person, so that those who do not believe the Gospel might be without excuse. Whence there was angelic and human testimony to Christ, and also of the simple and of the perfect of both sexes to show that the both sexes looked for redemption just as both had fallen. Therefore to show that there was no crack in the firm foundation of the testimony, there was sevenfold testimony to the birth of Christ.”

This Bonaventure enumerates as: 1) heavenly testimony from the star (Matthew 2;2); 2) source above heaven, the angels (Luke 2;13); 3) from under heaven, simple men like shepherds (Luke 2;20); 4) wise men like the Magi (Matthew 2;1); 5) elderly men, like Simeon  (Luke 2:27); 6) elderly women like Anna; 7) infants who gave their lives (the Holy Innocents slain by Herod. He continues:

“And every nature, every sex, every age produced testimony to the birth of Christ, because he had to restore all things.”

This witness of all things to the birth of Christ is reinforced by Bonaventure’s discussion of Anna, elderly and female and a widow. He explains how three points are made in the text to bolster the credibility of the testimony:  a) authority of the one prophesying; b) the sanctity of the one prophesying; and c) suddenness of the testimony. Anna’s authority to prophesy comes from two observations, the prophetic gift and Anna’s family background. Following St Jerome, Bonaventure identifies her name most fittingly to mean ‘grace’, and explains how as with Simeon, various passages from both biblical testaments mystically refer to her as prophetess. Additionally, Anna was an Israelite, the source of kings, priests and prophets and Christ himself. Her tribe of Asher was blessed in Deuteronomy 33:24-25.  And her father’s name “Phanuel” means the face of God.  She is from a tribe who as the Psalm says 104:4, sought his face always. Her lineage and also her own advanced age contributed to her own dignity and authority.

St. Anna by Rembrandt

Likewise, in her evident sanctity and life story, for Bonaventure, Anna represents all women, and is a sign of the joining of the active and contemplative life. She was active in the sense she was in charge of her husband’s house. She was a Virgin before marriage; then she was conjugal; then a widow. She was praiseworthy with regard to the custody of the body at all stage of her life and situation, and fits the descriptions of ancient heroines such as Judith, and the ideal described in I Timothy 5. “Such a widow was Anna. And in this it appears that she manifested the perfection of the active life.” Likewise he describes her as a contemplative, “who did not leave the temple.” She was devoutly given over to total contemplation. Important that she gives herself to contemplation through divine services, combining the active and contemplative life with the liturgy, as the text says, by fasts and prayers and worshipping God, much we might think, like a good Franciscan. Bonaventure further relates this episode to the liturgy by stressing the providential timing is indicated by how the text says at that very hour, she began to give praise to the Lord.  He believes it is clear her entry was made due to divine prompting, because Simeon and Anna encountered Joseph and Mary without any human being calling them together. And just as Anna came with the same Spirit as Simeon, she prophesied with the same Spirit.   

“And note that Simeon and Zechariah, the Virgin Mary and Elizabeth along with her spouse had prophesied concerning Christ. And thus it is fitting that also a widow would prophesy, lest any way of life or sex be missing.”

Anna’s universal mission was shown by the fact that she spoke of Jesus to all who were awaiting the redemption of Israel.  The text says she spoke to all, because, Bonaventure insists, salvation was intended for all. All of Creation, and every form of life, including humanity in both its genders and every age and station of life, must give appropriate witness to this.

*All translations of Bonaventure in this reflection are taken from Commentary on the Gospel of Luke. Robert Karris, tr. and ed. (St. Bonaventure, NY: Franciscan Institute Publications, 2001-2004).

 

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