In a world full of surprises, Sts. Joachim and Anna (Anne) might be among those most qualified to say, “Oh, you think that was a surprise? Listen to this . . . ” Actually, they could point to at least four big surprises. But let’s start with a bit of background first.
The story of Sts. Joachim and Anna, the parents of the Virgin Mary and the grandparents of Jesus, doesn’t appear in the Bible. The first time we meet them is in a document written around AD 150, called the Gospel of James. While most scholars, including St. Jerome and St. Thomas Aquinas, doubt the historical authenticity of this book, its depiction of Joachim and Anna quickly caught the imagination of believers everywhere. In fact, this document was so beloved that it was translated very quickly into all the major languages of the Mediterranean Basin. Over time, the story of Sts. Joachim and Anna spread wherever the gospel went.
Four Surprises. According to the story, Joachim was a wealthy and respected man in Israel, but he and his wife, Anna, were considered cursed because they could not conceive children. Joachim’s sense of shame and rejection eventually drove him into the desert to fast and pray for forty days. Anna, left alone, wept and cried out to the Lord.
That’s when the first surprise happened. An angel appeared to Anna. The appearance of an angel is always stunning, but the angel’s message was more stunning still: Anna would bear a child, who would be spoken about throughout the world. Meanwhile, in the desert, Joachim was also visited by an angel with a similar message. Full of joy, he returned home to give a sacrifice of thanks. When Anna heard he was coming, she went out to meet him at the city gate. She ran and embraced him, saying, “Now I know that the Lord has heard my prayer.”
Then came the second surprise. The angel had told them to expect an extraordinary child, and it didn’t take long for them to see that their daughter, Mary, was exceptional. So pure was her heart and so selfless were her actions that it became clear that she had been born without original sin. The thought must have been dumbfounding.
The third surprise? That their daughter gave birth, as a virgin, to Israel’s long-awaited Messiah—their grandson!
The fourth surprise was probably the biggest by far: discovering that they were the parents of the Mother of God and the grandparents of the Son of God. That must have been a world-class shock. You can almost hear them asking, “Why us?” over and over again.
It is this fourth surprise that the Church celebrates every year on July 26, when we honor Joachim and Anna as the patron saints of all grandparents.
Commissioned by God. So just what do Joachim and Anna have to tell us about the vocation of grandparenting? One very important lesson is that every grandparent is commissioned by God to pass on the faith to their grandchildren. Like every devout Jew at the time, this holy couple knew this command from Moses:
Be very careful not to forget the things your own eyes have seen, nor let them slip from your heart as long as you live, but make them known to your children and to your children’s children. (Deuteronomy 4:9)
Joachim and Anna began their influence as grandparents to Jesus by being parents to Mary. They must have told her the story of her birth, especially the part about the angels. That might be why Mary was so willing to accept the words spoken to her by an angel at the Annunciation.
So much of what they did instilled in Mary a constant awareness of what it meant to be a member of the people of Israel. What they wore, how they cut their hair, when they washed their hands, the blessings they said throughout the day—all of this was tied directly to their relationship with God.
Cultural and Personal Faith. Imagine the culture of faith that Mary was born into—a family culture that formed her and prepared her to be the Mother of God.
First, there was the weekly Sabbath, the cornerstone for honoring the Lord and loving one another. It began in the evening. In a world without electricity, the darkness was overcome by the flickering light of candles and oil lamps. They spent the time discussing Scripture and how it should be lived. In Mary’s childhood there would have been a lot of talk about the coming of the Messiah. When would it be? Would he be a priest greater than Aaron, a prophet greater than Moses, or a king greater than David?
In addition to the Sabbath, seven major feasts ruled Israel’s public calendar, with none more important than Passover. That celebration was also begun in the evening. The Exodus story was recounted in detail before shimmering smiles and glimmering eyes, reminding them of the pillar of fire that watched over them and their flight through the Red Sea. They sang and danced and laughed. They said the same prayers that their ancestors had said for more than a thousand years.
Steeped in this culture, Mary learned the faith that she would pass on to her son. She wasn’t born knowing the story of Esther or Judith. She had to learn her prayers. She had to memorize the commandments, the genealogies, the stories, and the psalms. She learned how to clear yeast from the house for the feast of unleavened bread and the special meaning of each food in the Passover meal.
But Joachim and Anna knew that cultural faith is not enough. They needed to pass on their personal faith in God as well—and they did this through their example as well as their words.
When Joachim needed help, he followed the examples of Moses and Elijah by fasting and praying. When Anna prayed, she looked to Sarah as her model of faith: “O God of our fathers, bless me and hear my prayer, as you blessed the womb of Sarah.” They taught Mary to have the confidence to speak to a God who is good, a God who is powerful, and a God who is loving—especially when hardship comes along. They showed her that God isn’t distant. He is near and he hears prayers. And he intervenes!
Strategic Grandparenting. Everything Joachim and Anna did for Mary would have impacted Jesus. Mary handed on what she had received: the faith, the stories, even the mannerisms. As grandparents, they had a God-given role—maybe not as direct and immediate as Mary’s—but they helped establish a family culture of faith that bore witness to their grandson about their own personal faith.
The same is true for us. God has always been strategic in his dealings, and that includes the grandchildren he has given—or will give—to parents. He has placed each grandparent, here, now, in some kind of position to pass on their faith to their children’s children. It is certainly one of the most important things they will do with the rest of their lives. Indeed, it may even be the most important thing they ever do.
Grandparents, your first strategic act is to think differently. It’s tempting to look on the world with despair instead of hope. But God has raised up your grandchildren for exactly this time. He wants them to make a difference in their generation. So when you look out at the world, don’t give in to despair. Rather, look up to the heavens and find your hope there. God has sent your grandsons and granddaughters to become lights that shine in the darkness. You can help light and stoke the fires of faith for a world that desperately needs it.
Once you start thinking differently, you can begin to pray differently. When I ask grandparents whether they pray for their grandchildren, the near universal response is “Yes!” When I then ask, “How?” I often get a look of confusion. I’ve learned that grandparents spend more time worrying about their grandchildren than praying for them. You may need to learn a few simple ways to pray that can make a difference. Here is one: select one virtue for each of your grandchildren, say the name of that grandchild and the virtue, and then say the Lord’s Prayer. It’s that simple. You have just started to pray strategically!
Finally, you can act strategically in sharing your faith. How? Take one of them fishing or shopping, and then over ice cream, tell the story of when your faith first came alive or how it deepened in some way. Your story is part of their story, just as Joachim and Anna’s was part of Jesus’ story. Do not forget the things your eyes have seen but “make them known to your children and to your children’s children” (Deuteronomy 4:9).
The world is full of surprises, and not all of them are good. But just like Sts. Joachim and Anna, you have been chosen by God to be strategic, influential, joyful grandparents who help their grandchildren discover the God who will never abandon them.
Michael Shaughnessy writes from Lansing, Michigan. His most recent book, The Strategic Grandparent, is available at bookstore.wau.org