February 2, “Candlemas” or the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord, as it is now titled, makes me pause to remember Anna, every year.
Anna the prophet that is, who appears in the story of the so-called purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary, as prescribed in the Hebrew Bible for the ritual purification of a mother after the birth of a son. The Lukan account of this event (Luke 2:22-38) keeps Anna, the prophet, silent, all the while putting beautiful words into the mouth of Simeon. These words, the Nunc Dimittis (per the Latin words with which the canticle begins), became an important part of the liturgical tradition of prayers. No “Canticle of Anna” is recorded. There is merely a summary description of her as giving thanks to God and witnessing to others about the importance of the Christ child.
And every year, I wonder anew what a “Canticle of Anna” might have sounded like.
But while Anna remains wordless in the Gospel according to Luke, she actually does begin to speak, or at least to communicate, in Christian visual art. Often she does so by using her hands, in a form of sign language. Sign languages, by the way, are increasingly recognized as atural languages, with their own properties that are distinct from oral languages. Thus, in the U.S., for example, American Sign Language has become widely accepted in colleges for foreign language credit. I was also recently reminded of the importance of hand-gestures as a way of communicating in much earlier times. In the late antique context of the fourth century, Gregory of Nyssa’s Life of Macrina describes how, on the last day of her life and with her voice failing, Macrina prayed in hand gestures.
Some months ago, I revisited a beautiful representation of Anna speaking with her hands, in Giotto’s painting of “The Presentation of the Christ Child in the Temple” (ca. 1320) in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, MA. Anna holds a scroll in her left hand in this painting, and gestures with her right hand. (Details here.)
I love the idea of Anna speaking up, with her hands, after Luke omits any of her actual words. But I will always wonder what the “Canticle of Anna” might have sounded like.
A Blessed Feast of Anna, the signing prophet, to all.