Many people and images come to mind when we think of Christ’s Incarnation: Joseph and Mary on the road to Bethlehem, the shepherds hurrying to the stable, the magi scanning the night sky for that wondrous star. But there is another set of people who played a key role in Jesus’ birth: his grandparents, Joachim and Anne.
Perhaps there is a good reason why we don’t think about them: Scripture tells us nothing about Mary’s parents! Even their names come from a second-century document that combines legendary material along with details that may well be historical. Still, there is a long tradition that celebrates this holy couple. They were entrusted with the mission of creating a loving, nurturing home environment for the girl who would become the virgin Mother of God.
When the Unexpected Happens. If we ponder Jesus’ birth with Anne and Joachim in mind, we can learn a lot. Take, for instance, this familiar passage from the Gospel of Matthew, and read it from Joachim and Anne’s point of view:
When his mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found with child through the Holy Spirit. (Matthew 1:18)
Were Mary’s parents the first ones to discover that she was “with child”? Maybe Mary confided the news to her mother as they did laundry together or baked bread in the outdoor oven in the family courtyard. It’s not impossible! In Mary’s culture, a young woman in her early teens would surely have been living with her parents.
The Gospels focus on the essentials of the story without filling in the details, so we don’t know how Anne and Joachim reacted to Mary’s pregnancy—or even if they were alive to hear of it. Still, we can imagine various scenarios. Maybe they regretted arranging a good marriage for their daughter. Maybe they were confused, disappointed, or angry at first. Did they shelter her or shun her? Since we honor Joachim and Anne as saints, we can assume that like Joseph, they were guided by the Spirit to the right conclusion and came to support Mary in her courageous yes. But surely this unexpected development took some getting used to!
Within our own families, the announcement of any birth—whether shocking or not—requires us to make adjustments. I remember standing in our daughter’s small home office when she suddenly said, “Bruce and I are going to move everything out of here and put a white crib in that corner and a changing table under the window.” My mind did a few cartwheels as I took in the news. Delighted, I hugged my daughter and the new life growing inside her. Then came all the questions about what she would need.
The challenge of Mary’s pregnancy addresses each of us, too. It calls us to ask: “Am I ready to adjust my life to welcome Jesus? Can I let his birth bring me something new, something more than what I expected from God last year—or ten years ago?” As we ponder Joachim and Anne awaiting this one-of-a-kind grandson, perhaps we will gain new openness to God’s surprises.
Waiting in Faith. Anne and Joachim are often invoked as patrons of married couples who struggle with infertility. This is because an ancient manuscript depicts them as having been childless for decades. According to this source, the couple sought God’s intervention for a very long time, begging him together for the gift of a child.
Waiting for God to answer prayer is an experience we can all relate to. What examples come to mind in your own life? How long did you wait? A month? A year? Five years? Did you wait and pray alone, or did you have the support of a spouse or a friend?
I think of my mother and grandmother; they spent decades praying faithfully for the return of Uncle Ernest, who had disappeared as a young man. It was a full thirty years later that a gentleman who looked just like my grandmother appeared on our front porch. Imagine the shock and the rejoicing that overcame us as we realized that Uncle Ernest had finally come home!
Are you waiting on God to answer prayer right now? Maybe there is someone you could invite to pray along with you. Surely Anne and Joachim prayed together, just as Abraham and Sarah, and Zechariah and Elizabeth did. And so, perhaps, did the prophets Simeon and Anna, who recognized the infant Jesus as the Messiah.
In the end, this couple’s long, shared journey of faith-filled waiting only added to their joy when Mary was born. According to an old tradition, they presented her in the Temple, filled with thanksgiving at what God had done for them. Since Mary is a gift to us as well, we can rejoice along with them. This passage, from an eighth-century sermon by St. John Damascene, captures that joy:
Joachim and Anne, how blessed a couple! All creation is indebted to you. For at your hands, the Creator was offered a gift excelling all other gifts: a chaste mother, who alone was worthy of him.
And so, rejoice, Anne, that you were sterile and have not borne children; break forth into shouts, you who have not given birth. Rejoice, Joachim, because from your daughter a child is born for us, a son is given us, whose name is Messenger of great counsel and universal salvation, mighty God. For this child is God.
Part of a Larger Picture. As a holy couple and not just individuals, Anne and Joachim are honored with a joint feast day, on July 26. But the two were also members of an extended family, living with a people who were awaiting the fulfillment of God’s promises.
Many Western countries today have seen household sizes declining. In the United States, for example, the average household population now stands at 2.5. In Germany, it’s 2.2, and in Sweden, it’s 2.1. We who live in countries like these sometimes assume that people in biblical times also functioned rather independently as part of small family units. In reality, their experience was closer to that of people living in the Philippines and throughout Africa and Latin America today. There, households are larger, and extended families are the building blocks of society.
Joachim, Anne, and Mary lived as part of an extended family that would have included grandparents, aunts, uncles, grown children, and their children. Daily life was a shared, unfolding, multigenerational reality. So was faith in God. The whole people of Israel shared a watchfulness for the Messiah and a commitment to remember the mighty deeds God had already done for them. Joachim and Anne surely benefitted from the shared faith of their extended family and their people. So too did Mary and then Jesus.
Pondering Anne and Joachim as part of a larger picture can help us look beyond our own concerns. Whatever our experience of family life, we are citizens of the world and members of the vast family of God. Part of our prayer, then, should include intercession for the needs of the world that God sent his Son to redeem. It should also include gratefully recalling what the Lord has done for us as a people, “members of the household of God” (Ephesians 2:19). Isn’t this what Jesus meant when he told us to pray, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven”? What better season than Advent for this kind of petition!
From One Generation to the Next. Of course, Joachim and Anne did more than just receive the legacy of faith from their family and their people: they also nurtured it and passed it on. This is our calling as well. God is calling you to move salvation history forward!
One way to do this is to tell stories about God’s faithfulness within your family. You can also make it a point to pass on the wisdom you have received from members of the generations who came before you. You can honor your spiritual ancestors by sharing their stories of faith at family gatherings, in Christmas letters, and even on Facebook.
I like to tell about my grandmother, Jeannia, who got a group of people in her nursing home to watch a televised noon Mass with her—even when it meant having to skip lunch. Small stories like this can be very powerful ways to nurture faith and change hearts.
Finally, think about being a sentinel who watches for what God is doing in the younger generations. I treasure a memory from the baptism of our first grandchild. When the priest anointed little Paige’s mouth, praying that Jesus would touch it and enable her “to proclaim his faith,” she immediately smiled and replied with an enthusiastic, “U! U! U!” You can be sure that I recorded this incident in my journal so that I could ponder its meaning and share it with her some day!
The Story Continues. Mary pondered the events of Jesus’ early life. Perhaps Anne and Joachim did too as they prayed about their daughter’s future with Joseph and their new child.
May these holy grandparents, whose story is treasured by generations of believers, teach us how to be open to God’s surprises. May they teach us the blessings of patience and faithfulness. And may they help us see that we are all part of the large, wonderful story of God’s love for his people!
This article by Therese Boucher first appeared in The Word Among Us in 2014. Therese is a speaker, teacher, and coauthor of Mending Broken Relationships, Building Strong Ones, Praying for Your Adult Sons and Daughters and Sharing the Faith That You Love. These books are available at wau.org/books