Reflection for Advent Sunday - 29th November 2020

Anna the Prophet

As we have been hearing in our refectory readings we are now approaching the start of the Churchs’ year, a time to reflect on what has been and to look forward to what God has in store for us. What might it mean to live in the hope of God’s salvation both already given and yet to come? To live in both the “now” and the “not yet”?

I have been working on an icon of Anna the prophet, a figure we usually associate with the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, but which I have come to feel is very much a figure for Advent too. Reading from the Gospel of Luke, Chapter 2:

There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshipped there with fasting and prayer night and day. At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.

She is in the temple night and day praising God, waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem. I imagine her as one of the servants of the Lord who stands by night in the house of the Lord, lifting up her hands to praise the Lord. She speaks to us of a faithful waiting for God to act, praising God in spite of what might seem a hopeless situation. Her people had had high hopes of their return from exile centuries before and yet here they were, now subject to the Romans. They were ruled by an occupying power that exploited and taxed them and who devised humiliating and cruel ways of killing those who rebelled.

What little we know of her own life, widowed at a young age, apparently childless and perhaps without any family at all, seems tragic. Without husband and children she was without any status or even identity. We don’t know, but I imagine her as a broken hearted young widow, abandoned and alone. But was it that very broken-heartedness that opened her up to the overwhelming love of God and drew her to a life of worship and prayer in the temple? She stood before God bringing her own emptiness, her own life as an offering of prayer on behalf of her suffering people, for God to act. Her life was taken over by her desire for God. In the total offering of her self she was open to see God in the unexpected way he chose to act, in the coming of the tiny baby for the redemption of Jerusalem and for all of us.

Advent is a season which encourages us to bring our own broken-heartedness to God, all the unfulfilled longings, the failures and abandonments. It is also a time for opening our eyes to the cries of a broken world, both our fellow human beings in desperate circumstances and the very earth that provides our sustenance and home. This has been a year of great suffering for many, the loss of those killed by the Covid virus and their grieving families, the families and friendships fractured by the separations imposed by lock-down, the livelihoods destroyed as so many activities of normal life have been put on hold. I think particularly of those in parts of the world where people have no personal reserves or social safety-net to fall back on in difficult times.

We also have to acknowledge that the demands that we human beings place on the environment is the cause of many of these problems. Although we try to live simply here at the Abbey we are inevitably caught up in the economic system that oppresses the poor, exploits the vulnerable and makes unsustainable demands on the earth. We seem helpless to change our ways corporately on a scale that could make a difference.

I find myself overwhelmed and fearful in the face of all this and wonder what I, what we as monastics, can do. But one thing I know we must do as women called to a life of prayer is to be faithful to our vocation, to go deeper into God’s call to us in this place, at this time. We may feel our hearts are breaking as we encounter our own inner pain and fear, as well as the pain of opening to cries of the world around us. But a heart that has been broken can be a soft heart that puts no barrier in the way of God’s work, that allows his love to flow into all those painful places to bring healing. I believe that as those broken places in ourselves begin to respond to God’s love then God’s love also flows more freely into the lives of those for whom we pray, both those we know and those who are unknown to us. All the broken pieces can be gathered up into a hymn of praise to God in even the darkest of days.

This work of prayer and praise is one rooted deeply in this place, and our care for the land and for the historic buildings that we inhabit is a practical embodiment of this. It is the prayer of our hands as well as our hearts. Our life here is a witness to God’s goodness and love which makes a tangible difference to how this place feels to those who visit. Like Anna the prophet, as we sing God’s praises in the midst of the mess, muddle and pain of life we offer hope in these dark times. May this Advent be a time when a little more of God’s love is brought to birth in the world.

Mother Anne - 29th November 2020