She Could See
Sunday Homily for December 28, 2008
Feast of the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph (B)
By Fr. John Foley, S. J.
I am breathing the scent of Frankincense and Myrrh. No, I am not in a temple or a church, I am at home. Friends have sent a small plastic zip-bag containing chunks of the rock-like gum-resins that create these fragrances. These are not chemical fabrications but the real thing.
Of course I think of Jesus and the gifts given him by the Magi.
But I think also of Anna. She is the old woman who practically lived in the Temple. Certainly this temple would have been filled with tart aromas such as Frankincense and Myrrh, possibly used to hide other less pleasant odors. I will not mention animal sacrifice as one source of these.
Anna was a prophetess, we are told, and she was the “daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher.” It is surprising to hear such details, since Anna is only mentioned once and very briefly in the Bible.
She seems to have lived very quiet life.
She was advanced in years, having lived seven years with her husband after her marriage, and then as a widow until she was eighty-four. She never left the temple, but worshiped night and day with fasting and prayer (Gospel)
What was the shape of her life, I ask myself. Was it as ordinary as it sounds? Short marriage. No children mentioned. As many as sixty long years as a widow. I wonder whether she took up life in the temple immediately after her spouse died. Did she throw herself into worship of God as a way to cope? How was she regarded over the years? As a bag-lady? As someone holy but too old?
Or maybe Anna had been given special status in the Temple because of her exemplary life. Widows were to be given honor in Jesus’ day, at least if they were living good lives (see 1 Timothy 5:5-15). One pious legend even says that Anna had been a teacher of the young Mary!
But another idea strikes me. I wonder if it wasn’t suffering that so opened her heart to God. Maybe a “sword pierced” her own heart, the same kind that Simeon predicted for Mary. What was it, loss of a child, loss of a friend, loss of respect from neighbors, or even disappointment about the long delayed and much hoped-for Holy Family?
“You can see love’s hiding places better through tears,” a friend told me. Was Anna deepened and her old eyes sharpened by pain’s openness to grace?
Though she had witnessed thousands of children being brought to the temple, when she laid her teary eyes on the infant Jesus she knew at once who it was. “I knew God was within you when I taught you,” she might have said to Mary. “I cannot explain it, I just knew. And now it is clear that you have the God-child in your arms. Your goodness fills this temple like Frankincense and like sharp, sweet Myrrh. Your child is the Glory of God, to whom be praise forever and ever.”
Suddenly I see that Anna has laid down a condition for each of us who are within a family. Swords will pierce our souls. Maybe if we accept them, they will open our eyes as they did Anna’s. Maybe we will find the God-child in our arms.
Maybe that is the meaning of the words, “Holy Family.”