This week’s Gospel reading depicts the wonderful scene of the Holy Family coming to the Temple to fulfill the dictates of the law regarding a firstborn son. While they are in the Temple precincts, they encounter two elderly people, Simeon and Anna. We learn that both of them are exceptionally close to God. Both are prophetic figures, and from the depths of their wisdom, they have much to say about the child’s future.
The presence of Simeon and Anna gives us an opportunity to reflect on the significance of aging. There are many fine works regarding the spirituality of the golden years. Two of the best are Joan Chitister’s “The Gift of Years” and Parker J. Palmer’s “On the Brink of Everything.” Both authors have a positive outlook regarding the way in which one should navigate one’s final years. Simeon and Anna, however, provide a spirituality of aging in which God becomes the deep center of one’s life.
When Simeon has the child in his arms he breaks into a touching prayer acknowledging his own age and also points out what God has done in this child. God has prepared salvation for all people, including the Gentiles, and has given the people of Israel a special child for their own glory. This child will reveal the thoughts of many hearts. The lesson from this old man simply tells us to be concerned about God’s work in the world and not our own failing energy and limitations.
Anna, a widow, is truly ancient for that period of time; she was 84. Like Simeon, God had become the center of her life. She never left the Temple. She fasted and prayed. When she encounters the Holy Family, she gives thanks to God. She acknowledges that this child is the one that Israel has been awaiting. Her concern is not about herself, but rather God’s work.
A few years ago, I had a counseling session with an elderly woman who was having a very rough time accepting the fact that she could not do everything she had been accustomed to doing in her younger life. The fact that people offered to help her with simple tasks such a putting her groceries in the car was particularly galling for her. I suggested to her that rather that saying, “I can do it myself,” she might respond by simply saying, “Thank you.” Later, she told me that saying “thank you” and accepting the help had brought a whole new outlook to her life. Her life was no longer filled with resentment concerning her age. She now focused on the offer of generosity from others.
Simeon, Anna and my friend reveal that concern for others as an essential goal helps one navigate old age. When we step outside of our elderly frailty we find a whole new world. Simeon and Anna found the Savior. My friend found the goodness of other people.
Fr. Treloar, an assistant director at Jesuit Retreat House, Oshkosh, has served as a professor, lecturer, author and academic administrator.