While Christmas is still some time away, the circumstances surrounding the birth of our Lord give reason for us to pause and reflect throughout the year on the great mystery of the Incarnation—the entering of God the eternal Son into time and the human experience. At the Christmas vigil, the Gospel proclamation involves tracing the ancestral lineage of Jesus as “the son of David, the son of Abraham” and the prophetic culmination of divine promises. Those specifications, similar to the grand announcement of The Nativity of the Lord from the Roman Martyrology, draw upon Sacred Scripture to formally declare the birth of Christ and squarely place His entry into time. The USCCB notes: “It begins with creation and relates the birth of the Lord to the major events and personages of sacred and secular history. The particular events contained in the announcement help pastorally to situate the birth of Jesus in the context of salvation history.”
Reflecting on the genealogy of Jesus helps us to remember that he is part of a human family and was raised with particular role models and inherited traditions. It also reminds us that many people helped prepare the way for the coming of the Savior, playing greater or lesser roles for the glory of the Father’s plan. Two people who are part of Jesus’ genealogy, but passed over in Scripture are the parents of the Blessed Mother, Sts. Joachim and Ann.
Factually, nothing about the parents of Mary arises from credible historic sources apart from their existence — not even their names of Joachim and Ann are verified! Although they are passed over in Scripture, Mary’s parents are critical as they represent generations who actively participated in the obligations of family and faith life while anticipating the coming of the Messiah. These saints maintained the spiritual and familial environment that nourished and inspired the Blessed Mother to always trust in God and to famously declare, “May it be done to me according to your word.”
We find evidence of Mary’s strength of character and trust in the Lord in Scripture, especially Luke chapter 1 verses 28-55 and John chapter 2: Mary is steadfast in making decisions, active in prayer, obedient to the laws of her faith, calm through moments of crisis, and devoted to her relatives. It is not hard to see how such models of parenthood would likely have inspired Mary’s own upbringing of Jesus. We can wonder how much of Mary’s unyielding belief through Jesus’ ministry, Passion, and Resurrection — especially after seeing her son publically brutalized and murdered — was instilled in her by the fortitude and strength she saw modeled by her own parents during her childhood.
What can we learn from the parents of the Blessed Mother? We may not all be grandparents, but we can still influence our families through our receptiveness to the perspectives, experiences, and lessons of those preceding us. Truly these are treasures of wisdom not to be taken lightly or ignored. Pope Francis has sought to convey this important observation. During his first World Youth Day as Pope, observing that Brazilians were celebrating Grandparents Day on the feast of Sts. Joachim and Ann, he reflected:
"How precious is the family as the privileged place for transmitting the faith! … How important it is to have intergenerational exchanges and dialogue, especially within the context of the family … 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."
The family is often the first community of love, knowledge, and faith that we experience (CCC 2205). It is a great gift to preserve and strengthen that takes our time, talent, and commitment to keep strong. Yet, just as each of our family members are imperfect, so too is our own love despite our best intentions. At times we may lose patience amidst the demands of life. Or, more tragically, we may find ourselves amongst family members who do not know how to love, perhaps products of their own troubled upbringings. When we face difficulties within our families, or see hurt in other intergenerational families, let us remember that regardless of our human relations, we have been born into the spiritual family of the Church. How wonderful it is that despite our earthly circumstances each of us has been entrusted to call God our Father, Mary our Mother, Joachim and Ann our grandparents and Jesus our Brother and Savior.
Sts. Joachim and Ann, pray for us!
Questions for Reflection: Who are the people in my family who have taught me the beauty of the faith? Which members of my family need me to show them the love of Christ?
For the past 141 years on the Feast of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel (16th of July) in my hometown of Hammonton, New Jersey, there is a procession through the streets of the statues of various saints that usually reside inside the local parish church. The faithful who are devoted to each saint distribute prayer cards of their patron as they process with the statues through the streets – St. Joseph, St. Anne, St. Anthony, St. Rita, St. Jude, St. Rocco, St. Lucy, St. Vincent Pallotti, and so forth. The Blessed Mother, while at the end under the title of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel, appears also in the procession under various names – Milagrosa, Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe, Our Lady of the Assumption, and the Immaculate Conception, whose Solemnity we celebrate today.
Sometimes, these various titles and ways of representing the Blessed Mother can be confusing for some of those who line the streets of the procession route. My mother, Angela, who has been part of the procession for over 50 years, makes a float with a large Rosary and a statue of the Blessed Mother under the title of the Immaculate Conception on it, although some would call the statue “Our Lady of Grace.” The statue, which is over 100 years old, is patterned after the image on the “Miraculous Medal,” around which is inscribed the words, “O Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee.” Since many who come to the procession are not necessarily practicing Catholics, my mother always offers a form of “street evangelization” to those who come to her float to receive a prayer folder that provides instructions on how to say the Rosary.
Since the statue of the Immaculate Conception is on a special float, many will come and ask if it is of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel. Sometimes, my mother is asked what the difference is between the Immaculate Conception and Our Lady of Mt. Carmel. She responds cheerfully, “Same Lady, different dress.” My mother then goes on to explain why the Blessed Mother has so many titles. She also assists these curious onlookers in understanding how Mary offers us the greatest example of how to follow Jesus as his disciple. She helps them learn that Mary was prepared from the time of her conception in the womb of her mother, St. Anne, to receive Jesus and did so throughout her life.
We, too, are meant to be prepared to receive Jesus into our lives in an ongoing way, especially during the Advent season. We have not been conceived without sin, but we have been washed clean of Original Sin at Baptism (and all prior sin, if one was baptized as an adult). While we have all sinned since that time, our Baptism offers us a share in the mission of Jesus Christ as Priest, Prophet, and King. Though followers or disciples, he also sends us as apostles, or as missionary disciples, out into our challenging world to witness to him by what we say and do. The Blessed Virgin Mary offers us the best example of how to follow Jesus Christ. No matter what title of hers might appeal to us spiritually, she is always “same Lady, different dress.” She was the same in her following of Jesus during her life and continues from her heavenly home to invite us to follow her Son, Jesus Christ, Our Savior and Lord.
O Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee!
The Catholic Apostolate Center is a ministry of the Immaculate Conception Province of the Society of the Catholic Apostolate (Pallottine Fathers and Brothers). The Pallottines and the Center staff will remember you in special prayer on this Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception.
Last year on the feast day of Saint Monica, I wrote a blog entry about my affinity for the saint with whom I share a name. I wrote about her strength; her persistence in the conversion of her son, Saint Augustine; and her graceful way of dealing with her pagan husband.
I wrote all of this last year knowing that I, myself, was about to be a mother. A month before the feast of Saint Monica, my husband and I found out that I was expecting our first child, due to arrive in April of 2014. It was too early in my pregnancy for anyone to really know about it yet, so as I wrote last year’s blog entry, I was inspired by the example of Saint Monica for what I was about to embark on in a few months.
On the actual feast day of Saint Monica last year, my husband and I were able to see our precious baby for the first time by sonogram. As I looked at my child, who appeared to be shaped like a gummy bear, I said a quick prayer to Saint Monica for guidance and protection over the two of us during my pregnancy.
Fast-forward about nine months, and our beautiful Anna Ryan arrived bringing such joy and sweetness to our lives and to the lives of our family, friends, and strangers. I am so grateful for the opportunity to be her mother and to watch her grow from that little gummy bear-shaped fetus to a healthy, happy four-month-old, who, while I write this blog, is looking up at me in her dinosaur pajamas, smiling her giant, toothless grin.
As I start to navigate this whole motherhood thing, I can’t help but think of Saint Monica or the Blessed Mother or Saint Anne or the myriad of mothers in our Church. As Catholics, we are lucky to have the saints as guides for how to live our lives – as mothers, fathers, priests, religious, workers, travelers, students, teachers, artists, lawyers, and doctors. Most of these holy women and men were just like us – flawed and imperfect – but, through their faith in Christ, were able to do extraordinary things with their lives. We are fortunate to be able to rely on these people in prayer to help us assemble our lives and our journeys of faith.
For me, I rely on the model set by the saint who we will celebrate tomorrow. As the patron of married women and mothers, Saint Monica is one of my guides for sorting out this new path I am on as a wife and a mother. I pray that I will have her strength, persistence, and grace not only during the challenging times, but also in the happy, sweet moments I share with my family.
Monica Thom Konschnik is the Administration & Finance Manager for the Catholic Apostolate Center and the Administrator for the Pallottine Seminary at Green Hill.
Istanbul is a city of juxtaposition. In one day you can…
…wake up at least 10-15 minutes before sunrise to the first azan of the new day – the traditional call to prayer for the first of five daily Islamic prayers – while, at the same time, read in the newspaper that girls are prohibited by an intentionally secular government from wearing Islamic head coverings to public school.
…discover financial poverty in the Grand Bazaar, haggling to your heart’s content in one of the world’s largest covered markets, or discover spiritual poverty, praying to heart’s content in two of the oldest, most famous religious sites in the world, the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque.
…literally walk from Europe to Asia, if you want to brave 1000 meters of traffic on the Fatih Sultan Mehmet Bridge. (Don’t do this. You’ll likely end up flattened or treading water in the Bosphorus.)
You can also see extreme wealth adjacent to extreme poverty, modern architecture standing aside 1500 year old walls, Christianity and Islam living as peaceful neighbors and the West and the East more or less holding hands
This list can go on, but of all the possible pairings, there is one – overlooked, but intentional – that we should especially remember as apostles of Christ.
In a small ruin just outside the ancient city walls is a church-mosque-museum worth a visit. The Chora Church dates to as early as the late 300s and its mosaics to around the 14th Century. These are beautiful mosaics, more akin to those in Ravenna then Istanbul. So beautiful, in fact, that while straining their necks to take in the artistic beauty, Western visitors often miss the story completely.
I can say this from experience. When I walked out of this church-mosque-museum, I remember marveling at the images of the infancy and miracles of Jesus, but feeling a bit alarmed, even agitated, by their juxtaposition with the infancy and miracles of Mary. Was the artist saying Mary’s life was parallel (read: equal) to Jesus’ life? Was he putting Mary on the same theological plain as God incarnate? Confusion, trepidation, perturbation – these are the seeds of learning. Let me tell you what I learned.
It’s not completely our fault to jump to that conclusion. We don’t teach the stories of Joachim, Anne and Mary anymore. We don’t read the Syrian Protoevangelium Gospel of James or its Latin sister, Pseudo Matthew, where the stories are recorded. Why should we? They aren’t in the Bible. Reading non-canonical texts is kind of taboo in our often orthodox-or-else culture, right? And, yet, the Roman Catholic Church celebrates the lives of Joachim and Anne every July 26. To honor them tomorrow, let us place ourselves in the Chora Church and revisit their mythology, learning from its architecture stories of our faith.
The entrance of the Chora Church has an exonarthex (outer entry) and an esonarthex (inner entry). Both are small, arched hallways. This is not a large church. The sixteen exonarthex mosaics, packed on the walls, domes and pendentives, tell you the expected stories – Jesus’ birth and early ministry. The spiritual tremors come when you enter the inner narthex, a chamber running parallel to the first. Sixteen more mosaics are found here, but this time they’re of the birth and early life Mary. The “Annunciation of St. Anne”, “Presentation of the Virgin in the Temple”, “The Virgin Receiving the Skein of Purple Wool – the Bible contains no such stories. We have no reason to believe they’re historical, written some 150 years after Jesus’s birth. Yet these stories were a living dynamic of Christianity for at least 1200 years. They grew the Christian imagination. They inspired faith. They announced the coming of Jesus. We should not dismiss them so easily.
Tomorrow, on the Feast of Saints Joachim and Anne, consider taking some time to view the mosaics of this ancient church-mosque-museum, read the legends of Mary’s early life, and ponder the great wonder of God’s interaction in our lives.
Mark Bartholet is the Pastoral Associate for Faith Formation at St. Peter Catholic Church in Charlotte, NC.