We celebrate the Feast of Ann and Joachim today, parents of Mary, the Mother of Jesus. The New Testament says nothing about them, but an early 2nd century document called the Gospel of James tells their story,
Ann and Joachim lived in Jerusalem, the ancient source says, where Joachim, a descendant of David and a wealthy man, provided sheep and other offerings for the temple sacrifices. The two had ties to Bethlehem nearby and Nazareth in Galilee.
They were well off but for twenty years disappointment clouded their marriage: they had no child. Even after vowing to dedicate their child to God, no child came. And so, at a time when children were treasured, they were thought poor. Descendants of David, they were blamed also for failing to continue the line the Messiah would come from.
Stung by criticism, Joachim spent more time in the mountains, brooding among the shepherds and their flocks. As her husband distanced himself from her, Ann too grew sad. God seemed far away.
In the garden one day, noticing some sparrows building a nest in a laurel tree, Ann burst into tears: “Why was I born, Lord?” she said, “birds build nests for their young and I have no child of my own. The creatures of the earth, the fish of the sea are fruitful, and I have nothing. The land has a harvest, but I have no child in my arms.”
At that moment, an angel of the Lord came and said, “Ann, the Lord has heard your prayer. You shall conceive a child the whole world will praise. Hurry to the Golden Gate and meet your husband there.”
At the same time, In the mountains an angel in dazzling light spoke to Joachim, “Don’t be afraid, the Lord hears your prayers. God knows your goodness and your sorrow and will give your wife a child as he did Sara, Abraham’s wife, and Hannah, mother of Samuel. You will have a daughter and name her Mary. Give her to God, for she will be filled with the Holy Spirit from her mother’s womb. Go back to Jerusalem. You’ll meet your wife at the Golden Gate and your sorrow will turn into joy.”
Joachim and Ann met at the Golden Gate to the temple, the place of God’s presence. They embraced as they spoke of the angel’s promise. Returning home, Ann conceived and bore a daughter, and they called her “Mary.”
When she was three years old, Ann brought Mary to the temple to learn the scriptures, to pray and take part in the Jewish feasts. She watched her father bring lambs to be offered in sacrifice. She grew in wisdom and grace in God’s presence.
When Mary approached marriage age– then 15 or so–her parents arranged for her marriage as it was customary. They sought the high priest’s advice, tradition says, and Joseph of Nazareth was chosen as her husband. Nazareth was then their home.
The angel Gabriel appeared to Mary and announced that she was to be the Mother of Jesus. By the power of the Holy Spirit she conceived the Child.
After Jesus was born in Bethlehem, Mary and Joseph returned to Nazareth where Jesus grew up. He was raised in a large extended family that included his grandparents, Ann and Joachim, who cared for him as a child.
No one knows just when or where Ann and Joachim died, but Jesus must have treasured them in life and on their passage to God.
The 2nd century Protoevangelium of James repeats a fundamental theme of the Book of Genesis: God promises Adam and Eve many children who will enjoy the blessings of the earth. God repeats the promise to an aged, childless couple, Abraham and Sarah, and again to Hannah, who bemoans her childlessness to the priest Eli in the temple. In the same way, God gives a child to Ann and Joachim. Mary, their daughter, brings blessings to the nations through her son Jesus Christ, born of the Holy Spirit.
Giotto’s 14th century illustrations (above) from the Arena Chapel in Padua. helped popularize the story of the parents of Mary in Italy, Europe and the rest of the western world.
It’s an important story for grandmothers and grandfathers. Like Ann and Joachim they have a big role raising the next generation. More than they think.