Danielle M. Peters, S.T.D.
Secular Institute of the Schoenstatt, Sisters of Mary
Post-Doctoral Fellow, Institute for Church Life, University of Notre Dame
This Sunday (July 26) the Catholic Church celebrates the parents of Mary whose names, according to the apocryphal Protogospel of St. James (PGJ), are Anna and Joachim. It is clear that we would not (need to) know anything about this couple, had they not been Jesus’ grandparents. Jesus’ genealogy in the Gospel of St. Matthew delineates the ancestors of St. Joseph. But since St. Joseph is not Jesus’ biological father, we are naturally also, if not more, interested in Jesus’ maternal ancestors.
The story told in PGJ relates that after years of waiting for a child, an angel appeared to Joachim and Anna separately with the good news that their desire for a child would be fulfilled. According to medieval Greek-Orthodox tradition, Joachim retired to Wâdî Qilt, located in the desert between Jerusalem and Jericho. There he stayed in the same cave where the prophet Elija hid and was nourished by ravens (1 Kings 17:3f.). Wall paintings of Joachim and Anna can still be seen today in Elija’s Cave Church. Joachim’s seclusion and subsequent encounter with the angel is recounted in PGJ:
And Joachim called to mind the patriarch Abraham that in the last day God gave him a son Isaac. And he was exceedingly grieved, and did not come into the presence of his wife; but he retired to the desert, and there pitched his tent, and fasted forty days and forty nights (PGJ 1:3f). … And an angel of the Lord went down to him, saying: Joachim, Joachim, the Lord God hath heard thy prayer. Go down hence; for, behold, thy wife Anna shall conceive (PGJ 4:2).
At the same time Anna struggled through her own period of abandonment before encountering the heavenly messenger:
Anna mourned … and lamented … saying: ‘I shall bewail my childlessness.’ … And gazing towards the heaven, she saw a sparrow’s nest in the laurel … And, behold, an angel of the Lord stood by, saying: ‘Anna, Anna, the Lord hath heard thy prayer, and thou shalt conceive, and shall bring forth, and thy seed shall be spoken of in all the world.’ And Anna said: “As the Lord my God liveth, 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’” (PGJ 2ff).
At the entrance of Wâdî Qilt is a cave with two rooms which Bedouins and shepherds of this area named “Dair al-Banat,” Cloister of Virgins. They maintain that it was here where Anna thanked God that she had conceived a child. Anna promised to dedicate this child to God, much the way that Samuel was dedicated by his mother Hannah in 1 Kings. According to pious tradition, the Virgin Mary was born in a cave near the Bethesda Pool where her Son Jesus would one day perform miracles:
“Now there is in Jerusalem near the Sheep Gate a pool, which in Aramaic is called Bethesda and which is surrounded by five covered colonnades” (Jn 5:2).
Anna’s husband, the shepherd Joachim (PGJ 4:3f), was familiar with this sight. Near the Sheep Gate was a grotto which was used as a maternity grotto and which later became the crypt of St. Anna Church.
And Anna’s months were fulfilled, and in the ninth month Anna brought forth. And she said to the midwife: What have I brought forth? And she said: a girl. And said Anna: My soul has been magnified this day. And she laid her down. And the days having been fulfilled, Anna was purified, and gave the breast to the child, and called her name Mary (PGJ 5:3).
Coptic tradition holds that Mary was born on a Sunday, the 1 Baschons (May 9), and that she stayed with her parents for the following two years, seven months and seven days. The Protogospel of James situates Mary’s birth in Jerusalem so that her presentation in the temple at age three could occur close to her parent’s home.
And the child was three years old, and Joachim said: Invite the daughters of the Hebrews that are undefiled, and let them take each a lamp, and let them stand with the lamps burning, that the child may not turn back, and her heart be captivated from the temple of the Lord. And they did so until they went up into the temple of the Lord. And the priest received her, and kissed her, and blessed her, saying: “The Lord has magnified thy name in all generations. In thee, on the last of the days, the Lord will manifest His redemption to the sons of Israel.” And he set her down upon the third step of the altar, and the Lord God sent grace upon her; and she danced with her feet, and all the house of Israel loved her. And her parents went down marveling, and praising the Lord God, because the child had not turned back. (PGJ 7:2ff – 8:1)
Coptic tradition also relates that Mary’s father Joachim died when she was six years old and Anna when Mary was eight. Accordingly Jesus would not have met his grandparents. Still, in some parishes, the memorial of Anna and Joachim is celebrated as grandparents’ day! Two years ago Pope Francis, while in Rio de Janeiro for World Youth Day, recalled the importance of parents and grandparents for the healthy upbringing of children and youth. He said:
Today the Church celebrates the parents of the Virgin Mary, the grandparents of Jesus, Saints Joachim and Anne. In their home, Mary came into the world, accompanied by the extraordinary mystery of the Immaculate Conception. Mary grew up in the home of Joachim and Anne; she was surrounded by their love and faith: in their home she learned to listen to the Lord and to follow his will. Saints Joachim and Anne were part of a long chain of people who had transmitted their faith and love for God, expressed in the warmth and love of family life, down to Mary, who received the Son of God in her womb and who gave him to the world, to us.How precious is the family as the privileged place for transmitting the faith!
“Speaking about family life,” the Holy Father continued:
I would like to say one thing: today, as Brazil and the Church around the world celebrate this feast of Saints Joachim and Anne, Grandparents Day is also being celebrated. How important grandparents are for family life, for passing on the human and religious heritage which is so essential for each and every society! How important it is to have intergenerational exchanges and dialogue, especially within the context of the family.
In this context the pope cited the Aparecida Document of the Latin American Bishops Conference, which notes that “Children and the elderly build the future of peoples: children because they lead history forward, the elderly because they transmit the experience and wisdom of their lives” (No. 447). Hence the vital need for this relationship and this dialogue between generations to be preserved and strengthened as a treasure. For this reason, the pontiff invited the world’s youth to “salute their grandparents with great affection and to thank them for the ongoing witness of their wisdom.” In a general audience on March 11, 2015, Pope Francis again underscored the importance and treasure of “grandfathers and grandmothers (who) form the enduring chorus of a great spiritual sanctuary, where prayers of supplication and songs of praise sustain the community which toils and struggles in the field of life.”
Hopefully we, too, have experienced our grandparents as a “spiritual sanctuary” where our natural and supernatural needs were quenched. We do well to recall stories and events from our childhood which have profoundly influenced who we are. Pope Francis emphasizes in the same audience that in our hectic world, the tranquility radiating from “grandparents and the elderly is a great gift for the Church, it is a treasure!” If found it is “a great injection of wisdom for the whole of human society.” Most importantly, the pope reminds grandparents of their urgent apostolate to pray: “We need old people who pray because this is the very purpose of old age. The prayer of the elderly is a beautiful thing.” (emphasis added)
The commemoration of the feast of Saints Joachim and Anna, can be an opportunity for us to thank for our grandparents, living or deceased, by recalling specific memories, gestures, or testimonies which have impacted our life. Pope Francis gives us this example: “I still carry with me, always, in my breviary, the words my grandmother consigned to me in writing on the day of my priestly ordination. I read them often and they do me good.” Let us not forget to include our grandparents in our prayers perhaps by using a prayer composed by Pope emeritus Benedict XVI in 2008 for the Catholic Grandparents Association:
Lord Jesus, you were born of the Virgin Mary, the daughter of Saints Joachim and Anne. Look with love on grandparents the world over. Protect them! They are a source of enrichment for families, for the Church and for all of society. Support them! As they grow older, may they continue to be for their families strong pillars of Gospel faith, guardian of noble domestic ideals, living treasuries of sound religious traditions. Make them teachers of wisdom and courage, that they may pass on to future generations the fruits of their mature human and spiritual experience.
Lord Jesus, help families and society to value the presence and roles of grandparents. May they never be ignored or excluded, but always encounter respect and love. Help them to live serenely and to feel welcomed in all the years of life which you give them. Mary, Mother of all the living, keep grandparents constantly in your care, accompany them on their earthly pilgrimage, and by your prayers, grant that all families may one day be reunited in our heavenly homeland, where you await all humanity for the great embrace of life without end. Amen!