Anna, the Prophet, and Her “Censored Pulpit”

In the days between Christmas and Candlemas, the prophet Anna appears a couple of times in the Scripture readings for Mass, specifically on December 30th, and of course on February 2 (now officially titled the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord). I have long cherished the image of this biblical woman, depicted in the Gospel according to Luke as a prophet, and a “prayer warrior” (to borrow from the language of African American faith communities). This year, Anna has come into view for me again while I was reading the book, The Censored Pulpit by Donyelle McCray (Lexington Books/Fortress Academic, 2019). The author, who teaches homiletics at Yale Divinity School, seeks to render legible the medieval anchorite and mystic Julian of Norwich as a preacher, arguing that her “texts and life story portray a woman deeply engaged in a vocation of preaching the gospel” (p. 3). McCray makes a compelling case for this claim. In the process, she also shines a light on preaching as a “highly censored exercise” and on the pulpit as “closely policed” (p. 1). McCray challenges this situation with a study of Julian of Norwich precisely as a preacher, a study that “decenters the pulpit and acknowledges the great cloud of witnesses who preach the gospel through other means” (p. 3).

All this made me think of Anna, the prophet – or is it Anna, the preacher? The biblical Anna appears in the story of the so-called purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary, as told in the Gospel according to Luke, and only there. The Lukan account (Luke 2:22-38) keeps Anna silent, all the while putting beautiful words into the mouth of Simeon, Anna’s fellow prophet. His words, traditionally known as the Nunc Dimittis, are an important part of the liturgical tradition of prayers. No words of Anna are recorded; there is only a summary description of her as giving thanks to God and witnessing to others about the Christ child. Sadly, the Lectionary adds to this silencing of Anna’s proclamation by offering a shortened Gospel reading for the day (Luke 2:22-32). This Gospel reading ends before Anna ever makes her appearance, thus disappearing not only her words but also her very existence when this shortened Gospel is chosen for a weekday mass. A “censored pulpit” indeed.

Granted, depictions of Anna in Christian visual art have made up for some of this censoring over the centuries, by letting Anna speak through hand gestures, or by giving her a message to proclaim via words written on a scroll she is holding. These alternative forms of proclamation fit perfectly with how McCray describes a preacher of the gospel. Her expanded vision of preaching, rooted in Julian’s witness, envisions the act of preaching simply as “drawing others into the extravagance of the gospel.” And this effort — of the biblical Anna, of Julian of Norwich, and of countless others — “does not require a pulpit, a formal liturgy, or traditional authorization to constitute preaching” (p. 5). So, here is to Anna, the preacher of the Gospel, in her pulpit, censored in the biblical story already, yet continuing to speak powerfully.

Featured Image: Mont-Saint-Michel Sacramentary (Normandy, 1050-1065). New York, Morgan Library, M.641, fol. 18r.

3 comments

  1. Thank you Teresa. I always learn something new… I have loved Anna… and I dont think I realized she was silent, because I’ve heard her message always. I love her rejoicing! Oh that all preachers would have her enthusiasm…

  2. Thank you for this, Teresa. Anna is an icon of consecrated widowhood and thus very close to my heart.

    As I read the Gospel text, Luke omits Anna’s words and emphasizes another quality: “She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day” (Luke 2.37b, NRSV). From where I sit, Anna’s story bears witness to the power of worship, spiritual discipline, and prayer… and to their relationship. It seems to have made an impression beyond words.

    1. I agree, Silvia; and yet: in a faith tradition that so values words & the WORD — as vehicles of Divine revelation and inspiration — not being allowed/allocated words (when your male companion is given them), does matter, I think.

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