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?
Sacred Scripture is silent on the childhood of the Blessed Mother, but for centuries Catholics in both the Eastern and Western Church have celebrated the moment that she was presented in the temple. This is especially true in the Eastern Church. Tradition (with a small “t”) holds that Saints Joachim and Anne brought their little girl to the temple when she was about three years old. They recognized that she was a gift from God and in their gratitude for the incredible blessing they had received; they wanted to present her back to God.
Our Lady’s presentation in the temple is more than just a touching story of an elderly couple offering their precious child back to God. It can serve as a beautiful reminder that, by the nature of our own baptisms, we too have been given back to God. This is true, regardless of whether that baptism was of the tiniest of babies or this past Easter Vigil.
From the very beginning, God had chosen the Blessed Mother to be His own mother. As a baptized Christian disciple, God has a special mission in mind for you. He has a plan for each one of us. By the nature of our baptism, God calls us to become a part of the New Evangelization, to become a missionary disciple of Christ. This mission will look a little different for each one of us. Some might be called to be missionaries in faraway lands, while the majority may be missionaries in their own backyard. Living out your baptismal call can be as simple as spreading the Gospel to a coworker or friend. It can take the shape of helping someone in need. It might be inviting a neighbor to attend Mass with you followed by a fun activity.
Many years after her presentation, the Blessed Mother told God “yes” when He asked her to become the mother of His dearly beloved Son. What God asked probably seemed scary. She may not have fully understood all that God was asking of her, but she trusted in Him and said “yes.” It should be the same with us. Even though it might mean stepping outside of our comfort zone or risking embarrassment, God calls each of His baptized children to take a risk and share the Good News.
Saints Joachim and Anne recognized that their little girl was something precious from God and that she belonged to God. The Feast of the Presentation of Mary in the Temple tomorrow can serve as a real reminder of our baptisms and that we too belong only to God. What a blessing that is!
Jennifer Beckmann is an Administrative Secretary for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.
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.