One of the vibrant ministries in our parish is St. Anne’s Society. It offers mothers of young children, infants through early elementary age, the opportunity to gather for social, educational and spiritual growth. Invited to a relatively recent gathering of their members, I noted to them that St. Anne and her husband, St. Joachim, are often depicted, in art, near a door or gate.
Anne (Hebrew: Hannah) was born in Bethlehem. She married Joachim and, although they shared a wealthy and devout life, they eventually lamented their childlessness; 20 years had passed and yet, they were without a child. On one pivotal occasion, Joachim, reproached at the Temple for his sterility, retreated to the countryside to pray, while Anne, grieved by his absence and her barrenness, promised to God that, if given a child, she would dedicate her son or daughter to the service of God. “…if I beget either male or female, I will bring it as a gift to the Lord, my God; and it shall minister to Him in holy things all the days of its life.” (Protoevangelium, #4)
In separate instances Anne and Joachim are visited by an angel who announces that Anne will indeed bear a child. Filled with joy they run to find one another and ultimately meet and embrace at one of the “doors” or “gates” to Jerusalem. Together they cross the threshold of hope and give birth to a wondrous daughter, whom they name, Mary, who in turn gives birth to the Christ child.
Another well known depiction of St. Anne is to be found in Chartres Cathedral in France. St. Anne, holding her daughter, Mary, in her arms, is found in one of the windows placed under the north rose window. Cathedrals were generally laid out on an east-west axis. The portals, windows and statues on the north side traditionally depicted scenes from the Old Testament, which were interpreted as typological figures of corresponding scenes from the New Testament situated on the south side. Explaining Anne and Mary’s location in the north (Old Testament) transept, Emile Male, in The Gothic Image, writes that Anne’s daughter, “Mary is the dawn which heralds the sun of righteousness. She appeared at the end of the long night of ancient days and, as at dawn, we pass from darkest night to the full light of day….Mary is our dawn.” In brief, St. Anne’s child, Mary, is the bridge from the Old Covenant to its fulfillment in the New.
Although the canonical books of the New Testament never mention the parents of Mary, traditions about her, her family, and eventual betrothal to Joseph, developed early in the history of the Church. The oldest and most influential source is the apocryphal, Protoevangelium of James (“First Gospel of James”), originally written in Greek between 120-150. The Protoevangelium became the foundation for establishing the liturgical feasts of the Nativity of the Virgin Mary (September 8), The Presentation of the Virgin Mary (November 21), and the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary (December 8).
It is also interesting to note that in July, 1505, Martin Luther had a life changing experience that was to set him and, ultimately Christianity, on a new course. Caught in a horrific thunderstorm in which he feared for his life, Luther cried out to St. Anne, “Save me, St. Anne, and I will become a monk!”
We honor St.s Anne and Joachim because they are the parents of Mary. They taught and nurtured her. It was by their example and formation that Mary could say to the angel Gabriel at the annunciation, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” It was Anne and Joachim’s example of parenting that Mary must have followed as she brought up her own son, Jesus. It was their faith that laid the foundation of courage and strength that enabled Mary to render her child unto the service of God; to watch him suffer and crucified and still believe.
The feast day for St.s Anne and St. Joachim is Saturday, 26 July.