In the Roman Catholic Church, July 26 commemorates the feast of Saints Anne and Joachim, the parents of the Virgin Mary and the grandparents of Christ Jesus.
Despite the critical role Ss. Anne and Joachim played in the history of salvation, the holy couple may nowadays too often be overlooked.
Early documents of the Church — as well as the inspiration great Renaissance artists drew from those records — confirm the starring role of the holy couple in the salvation story and reveal the relevance of their lives to our own.
The New Testament provides no specific information about the couple, but the Protoevangelium of James, known to be in circulation soon after c. AD 150, gives a detailed picture of their life.
James records the pious couple had been married for a long time but were suffering sorely from their inability to conceive a child — no small detail for any faithful couple or for the faithful throughout pre-Christian history awaiting the birth of the Messiah.
James wrote Joachim was "exceedingly grieved," lamenting, "I alone have not made seed in Israel."
James described his fasting and praying for a child: "[Joachim] retired to the desert, and there pitched his tent and fasted 40 days and 40 nights, saying in himself: 'I will not go down either for food or for drink until the Lord my God shall look upon me, and prayer shall be my food and drink.'"
According to James, Anne's suffering was so intense she "lamented two lamentations," crying: "I shall bewail my widowhood; I shall bewail my childlessness."
In the middle of Anne's deepest grief, an angel appeared to her, comforting her with good news: "[T]he Lord has heard your prayer, and you shall conceive and shall bring forth; and your seed shall be spoken of in all the world."
James also records the angel told Anne her husband likewise had been informed by another angel that God had heard his prayers.
In a telling hard to imagine except as a grand spiritual opera, James then describes how angels guided the ecstatic couple — Anne from their home and Joachim from the desert — to meet each other at the gate of the city.
According to James, "Anne stood by the gate and saw Joachim coming, and she ran and hung upon his neck, saying: 'Now I know that the Lord God has blessed me exceedingly; for ... I the childless shall conceive.'"
The couple thereafter conceived a child — the Virgin Mary, as we know — and James discretely refers to Joachim "rest[ing] the first day in his house" after their public embrace.
The embrace of Sts. Anne and Joachim at the gate of Jerusalem detailed in James' gospel has inspired some of the world's greatest art.
The great Italian artist Giotto di Bondone (c.1267–1337), who is said to have set European painting in motion, paid homage to the holy couple in a painting called "The Meeting at the Golden Gate."
Giotto rendered James' story in a fresco still extant in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, Italy.
In the painting, the old couple is embracing — in public, and, as in James' gospel, outside the city gate and among bystanders.
With an affection so poignant it could bring viewers to their knees, Joachim wraps his arm around Anne. And Anne wraps one hand around her husband's neck while the other touches his face.
Golden halos encircle their heads as Sts. Anne and Joachim's faces melt into a tender kiss the faithful know was meant for eternity.
The breathtaking effect of Giotto's work is faith-inducing just as the Franciscans who supervised the work intended.
So taken with the painting, a secular art critic called Giotto's rendition "the most powerful kiss in art."
Italian artist Gaudenzio Ferrari (1475–1546) reiterated Giotto's masterpiece and painted "The Annunciation to Joachim and Anna."
In Ferrari's painting, Anne and Joachim are portrayed again by the city gate, embracing in what can be seen as Act I of salvation history's quintessential intergenerational drama.
But in this version, the angels that James referred to are depicted pervading the earth's atmosphere, announcing the good news. Bystanders seem to be acknowledging them in whispering, intense conversations.
Even before Giotti and Ferrari, Byzantine artists noted the stunning role of the sainted couple, again depicting their public embrace. But in these images the aging couple's marital bed is shown behind them, speaking succinctly yet clearly to their role in bringing forth God-made flesh.
One commentator described such an image as "a beautifully chaste portrayal of marital love and union" and "an icon of marital love."
The eastern Church devotion to St. Anne is firmly established early on; in c. AD 550, Justinian had already built a church in her honor.
Many saints wrote about holy human matrimony's critical role in the larger plan of God's salvation. Saint Pope John Paul II in 1981 exhorted in Familiaris Consortio:
Willed by God in the very act of creation, marriage and the family are interiorly ordained to fulfillment in Christ and have need of His graces in order to be healed from the wounds of sin and restored to their "beginning," that is, to full understanding and the full realization of God's plan.
Contemporary depictions of Anne and Joachim also show the human affection of the couple infused with their supernatural mission. Often, their daughter, the Virgin Mary, is with them. The atmosphere is always sacred — hushed and holy — as though incense is permeating the room.
Protecting the sacredness of life is becoming increasingly difficult with the imposition of a new world order on everyday life. The dispensability of the elderly as well as millions of unborn children; the demolition of sacred spaces; and even attempts at the eradication of the idea of sacred itself all make us more spiritually vulnerable.
But more than ever, reflecting on the lives of Ss. Anne and Joachim can restore our faith in our sacred destiny. Maybe reflecting on their holy union can help open our eyes and ears to the reality of angels surrounding us, announcing the good news.