After my husband died, I threw myself into an exploration of biblical widows. And since I genuinely love research (nerd alert) this included more than a handful of commentaries and books. Doesn’t everyone have a theology section in their home library? I figured it was about time I introduced you to some of these badass ladies. First up is Anna. I’ve reprinted her story for you here (for context this is when Mary and Joseph are taking Jesus to the temple to present him to the Lord).
There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, who belonged to the tribe of Asher. She was very old. After she married, she lived with her husband for seven years. She was now an 84-year-old widow. She never left the temple area but worshipped God with fasting and prayer night and day. She approached at that very moment and began to praise God and to speak about Jesus to everyone who was looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem. When Mary and Joseph had completed everything required by the Law of the Lord, they returned out their hometown, Nazareth in Galilee. The child grew up and became strong. He was filled with wisdom, and God’s favor was on him.
“After she married she lived with her husband for seven years.” Well that certainly sounds familiar. My husband died six months and twenty three days before our 7th wedding anniversary. Like me, Anna was a young widow. She was likely even younger than me. I got married at 24 which was probably a shamefully old age at which to be married in Anna’s time. When you are a young widow one question comes through louder and clearer than the rest. What should I do now?
Objectively, seven years is not a very long time. Nobody looks at a seven-year-old and thinks, “Now there’s someone who knows all about life.” But in practice, seven years is a very long time. It’s time enough to build a life together. Time enough to face joys and sorrows. To make goals and accomplish them but also to make goals and see them fail. Time enough to have both sickness and health, better and worse, poorer and, if you’re lucky, richer. In seven years you have made a home together. You split up household tasks and merged bank accounts. You had your favorite chair and favorite way to cuddle. You had inside jokes, secret smiles, and you always knew how to catch the others’ eye. You had your routines, favorite restaurants, and even a group of “couple friends.”
In seven years, you go from, “I can’t believe they are letting us live on our own – we’re not real adults” to being real adults with a cleaning schedule and 401ks. You even kinda know what a 401k is and how it works. So no, seven years is not objectively a very long time, but you can never say it was only seven years. But when you get married at 24 and are widowed at 31 the reality is you have so much more time to fill. You have, most likely, a lot of life left to live. And that question returns, what should I do now?
Anna went to the temple. This makes so much sense to me. When your whole world collapses you are desperate for security. A grief course I took (shoutout to Nora McInerny, Dr. Anna Roth and Still Kickin Co) mentioned that, “it’s typical to experience lasting distress for at least 4-7 years after the loss…some studies say it takes widowers at least 3-4 years to find any amount of stability in their lives” (Dr. Anna Roth, HYWC e-course Session 3). A big no thank you to that little tidbit, but even I had to admit losing a spouse is completely disorienting in a way that is hard to describe I think Anna knew this. I think she knew that she was floundering. But I also think she had enough wisdom to know that what she needed was the unchanging one. The I Am. The one who was in the beginning and the one who will always be. So, she goes to the temple. And I think that is part of her wisdom. She needed sacred space to participate in rituals with the family of God.
I returned to church two weeks after my husband died. I hid in the choir loft. It was the summer, so the choir was not in session and the only people who would know I was there were the organist and the pastors (if they happened to look back-which they almost always did. They’re nosy those pastors). The organist, to whom I will be eternally grateful, brought me good tissues (not the cheap kind they keep stocked in the pews), and tootsie pops. I sat, hidden behind a wooden partition, with my back to the congregation staring at the stained glass, sucking on a tootsie pop with tears streaming down my face. It was so exquisitely painful. But I knew deep in my soul, as Anna knew, that this was where I needed to be.
I needed to be around people who had weathered their own storms and come out on the other side. I needed to feast from the bread and the cup and to remember the Lord’s death and all that it means. I needed to hear the Word. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” I needed that word. And where better to receive the word than in the temple?
I couldn’t say the response of praise or sing the hymns and I was fresh out of hallelujahs. I needed the people of God to carry me. And I needed the ritual. I needed to hear the scriptures and hear God’s people respond. I needed the hymns to speak to me even when I couldn’t sing them myself. I needed the congregation to carry me and carry me they did, even though many didn’t even know I was there. About six months after my husband died I saw another widow come to church just weeks after losing her husband. I said, “you’re here.” She said, “Where else would I be?” And that is exactly what Anna would have said.