Here’s what we are told about her: she was “the daughter of Penuel, of the tribe of Asher.” She was married to some unnamed man for seven years before he died, and she had lived in the temple ever since, fasting, praying, worshipping, giving thanks. She was “very old” for those times and even for these: eighty-four. “She never left the temple,” we’re told, “but worshipped day and night.” She was, Luke writes, “a prophet.”
Others would have seen her every time they entered the temple: ancient, mumbling all the time, skinny, always wearing the same unwashed clothes, probably smelly. How can you wash your clothes or yourself if you never leave the temple? How, for that matter, can you relieve yourself?
And where did the food come from that she had to have eaten, her fasting notwithstanding, in order to stay alive? Perhaps she begged. Or perhaps the rabbis brought her bits of food. More likely, if the churches I have attended and the stories of Mary and her sister Martha provide any clues, she was on a meal list maintained by the women of the temple. Perhaps one of them brought her a clean change of clothes on occasion and, in some hidden temple sideroom, helped her change into them.
She would have been seen as a burden by some and, by some, a pest. A homeless, foul smelling bag lady. A prophet only in retrospect, and even then only from the point of view of the kind-hearted doctor Luke probably was. Indeed, Luke is the only biographer of Jesus who remembers this woman in his account, though even he gives no details of her prophecy beyond that “she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of
There are many such prophets, I reckon. Not least among them my skinny, long widowed mother-in-law Anna, who died earlier this year. She spent her last couple of months in the only temple open to old, mumbling, bad-smelling prophets like her these days: the nursing home, where impersonal hands wash and dress them and force globs of pureed food between their lips. The women there hunched in their chairs. "Help me!" one woman prayed, over and over, day and night. Another prayed, "Get me out of here!"
Every time a child entered that temple, the widows—visit a nursing home and you’ll notice it’s populated almost entirely by women—jerked up their heads and babbled their thanks to the God who would redeem them.