Joachim among the Shepherds
We celebrate the Feast of Ann and Joachim today, parents of Mary, the Mother of Jesus, tradition says, but there’s nothing in the scriptures about them. There is an early 2nd century document called the Gospel of James that tells their story. I’ll use that early document as a basis for telling their story to you.
Ann and Joachim lived in Jerusalem, tradition says, where Joachim, a descendant of David and a wealthy man, provided sheep and other offerings for the temple sacrifices. The couple had ties to Bethlehem and Nazareth.
They were well off but for twenty years one 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 especially 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 the sheep. As her husband distanced himself from her, Ann too felt the sadness of childlessness. 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, but 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.”
In the mountains, meanwhile, an angel in dazzling light spoke to Joachim, “Don’t be afraid. I come to say 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 Anna, mother of Samuel. You will have a daughter and name her Mary. Offer her to God, for she will be filled with the Holy Spirit from her mother’s womb. I give you a sign: 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 where she learned to read the scriptures, to pray and take part in the Jewish feasts celebrated through the year. She watched her father bring lambs to be offered in sacrifice. She grew in wisdom and grace in the presence of God.
When Mary approached marriage age– then 15 or so–her parent arranged for her marriage as it was the custom. They sought the high priest’s advice, tradition says, and Joseph of Nazareth was chosen as her husband. At the time, Ann and Joachim made Nazareth their home.
During this time 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 would grow up. He was raised him 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.
My retelling of the story of Ann and Joachim is based on the 2nd century Protoevangelium of James–an apostle related to Jesus. The story repeats a fundamental theme of the Book of Genesis: God promises Adam and Eve they will have many children and enjoy the blessings of the earth. God repeats the promise to an aged, childless couple, Abraham and Sarah, and again to Anna, who bemoans her childlessness to the priest Eli in the temple. As he dealt with them God gives a child to Ann and Joachim, Mary, their daughter, who will bring blessings to the nations through her son Jesus Christ, born of the Holy Spirit.
The illustrations, which helped popularize the story of Ann and Joachim in Italy, Europe and the rest of the western world, are Giotto’s, from the 14th century, and are found in the Arena Chapel in Padua.
Grandmothers and grandfathers appreciate this story. Like Ann and Joachim they have a big role in raising those who will bless another generation.