Tag Archives: St. Ann

Novena to St. Ann

Throughout the Catholic world novenas honoring St. Ann begin July 17.

You won’t find the names of Ann and Joachim in the bible, but they’re mentioned in one of the apocryphal books, the Protoevangelium of James, written shortly after our New Testament writings.

Interest in Jesus’ family came about because of claims that he was “Son of David,” the Messiah  expected to come from David’s line. Against those who said Jesus was only a carpenter from Nazareth, the infancy narratives in Matthew and Luke assert that  Jesus is the Messiah, descended from David.

The Protoevangelium of James also sees Joachim and Ann  in David’s line, and therefore Mary was too. It says they lived in Jerusalem. Did they accompany Mary to Nazareth after her marriage to Joseph? If so,  Jesus had grandparents taking care of him for a time.

If that’s true, it means Ann and Joachim gave Jesus something more besides proof of his bloodline.  Along with Mary and Joseph, they brought him up. As a young child he learned from them, the simplest and the most sublime things. Knowledge came to him, as it comes to us–through the senses, through mothers and fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers.

St. Ann is often pictured with her daughter Mary holding a small book in her hands. Written on the book in the statue here in this church are the words, “If today you hear God’s voice, harden not your heart,” a verse from the psalms.

Other statues of her have different words in the book. “I,2,3,4; A,B,C,D.” The basics of life. Or notice Giotto’s picture of the presentation of Mary in the temple. (above) Ann pushes her little daughter into the temple. Just like pushing kids to church today?

Parents and grandparents play a powerful role in the lives of their children and grandchildren. They teach kids their abc’s and the  sublime mysteries of faith. Maybe that’s why so many of them make this novena.  They know that’s true.

Ann and Her Daughter Mary

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A few years ago on pilgrimage to Jerusalem I visited the western wall that once supported the ancient Jewish temple where Jesus worshipped and taught. He announced that he would replace this temple through the mysteries of his death and resurrection. Some years later, in AD 70, the temple was destroyed.

The day I visited this holy place, Jewish mothers and their daughters were fervently praying at one section of the battered wall, all that’s left of the glorious buildings that once filled pilgrims with awe and pride. I wondered what they were praying for at this majestic ruin.

Tradition says that the parents of Mary, Ann and Joachim, whose feast we celebrate today, were closely connected to the temple of Jerusalem and may have lived near it or in a town close by. Joachim had a role in providing for the temple, tradition says. Like the Jewish women I saw, Ann and her daughter Mary must have prayed often in this holy place.

What did they pray for; what did they believe? God is here, the Prophet Isaiah said; all the peoples of the earth will stream toward this place when the Messiah comes. Pray even when dreams seem gone. God raises up the poorest to do great things. God’s kingdom will come, no matter how dim the present seems. God works even in ruins.

Ann was old when she conceived Mary, tradition says. Too old to conceive. “Nothing is impossible with God,” the angel said to her daughter when she conceived her Son.

We ask the grace to believe and pray as these two women did. I can’t help thinking that the Jewish mothers and their daughters I saw that day praying at the wall are their descendants too.

Family Values

I mentioned previously that the 11th and 12th chapters of Matthew’s gospel, which we’re reading during the novena, deal with the growing opposition to Jesus as he preaches and performs miracles in Galilee. A rather dark section of the gospel.

Jesus is opposed by the Pharisees, who now take “counsel against him to put him to death” (Matthew 12.14). They’re not satisfied with his teachings and miracles and demand a sign. He offers the sign of Jonah. He will enter the mystery of death and will rise again. This is his greatest sign.

Jesus also is rejected by “this generation” of Israelites, the towns “where most of his mighty deeds had been done.” Corazin, Bethsaida, Capernaum. (Matthew 11,16-19) They’re like the rocky ground Jesus spoke of in his parable of the sower. They received him first but later forget him “because the soil was not deep.”

Concluding this section, Matthew adds another source of opposition to Jesus that may surprise us. His own family from Nazareth seems to oppose him.

“While he was still speaking to the crowds, his mother and his brothers appeared outside, wishing to speak with him.

 [Someone told him, “Your mother and your brothers are standing outside, asking to speak with you.”]*

 But he said in reply to the one who told him, “Who is my mother? Who are my brothers?”

 And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers.

 For whoever does the will of my heavenly Father is my brother, and sister, and mother.” (Matthew 12,47-50)

We need to remember something about family life at the time of Jesus to appreciate this gospel. It’s safe to say that in Jesus’ day nuclear families did not exist. A nuclear family is a mother, father and children, and it’s a modern form of family life. In Jesus day families were extended families or clans, who lived and worked together.

For this reason, the picture we sometimes have of the Holy Family– Mary, Joseph and the Child Jesus all by themselves in a small house in Nazareth– is not a realistic picture. Families in Nazareth, as we know from the excavations at Capernaum, lived in compounds. People lived together in those days, as they often do today in the Middle East and elsewhere, working together in the fields or in a business and offering each other support.

You were obliged to be loyal to your extended family or clan in Jesus’ day. Everyone had to help in the harvest; you were expected to promote your family’s interest. The mother of James and John who approached Jesus looking for a good place for her sons in his kingdom was only doing what she was expected to do.

What we see in this gospel is the extended family of Jesus descending on him as he is speaking to the crowds to remind him of his family obligations. What did they want to remind him of, we wonder? Were they off to a wedding or a funeral of a relative and were telling him to come along? Or, was the wheat harvest ready at Nazareth and they came looking for help? Or, they just wanted him for themselves for awhile?

Whatever it was, Jesus said that his family was the crowd before him and there he was meant to be.  “ I belong here now,” Jesus seems to be saying to them. The kingdom of God, God’s family, God’s purpose, is greater than his family’s interests.

Today, of course, individualism is our predominant value, and it often stands in the way of family interests. It’s what “I” want that counts. But still today, family interests, family pressure can be strong and can get in the way of what God wants. Sometimes those closest to us, like our family, can be hard to manage, even though they want the best for us.

Jesus experienced that too.

Traditions about St. Ann

As one might expect, a saint like Saint Ann has a rich history in the Christian church. She’s honored from earliest times in the eastern churches as the mother of Mary.

Around the year 550, a church in her honor was built in Jerusalem on the site where her home was said to be, near the Pool of Bethesda, where Jesus cured the paralyzed man. Since then, many churches honoring her have been built throughout the world and she appears frequently in Christian art.

Feasts of St.Ann

Feasts in honor of Mary’s birth (September 8) and her presentation in the temple (November 21) – inspired by the Protoevangelium- were introduced into the liturgies of the Eastern churches in the 6th century. Feasts in honor of St.Joachim and Ann (September 9), the conception of St.Ann (December 9), and St.Ann alone (July 26) have been celebrated from the 7th century in the Greek and Russian churches. In the western church, the feast of St.Ann has been celebrated on July 26 since the 16th century.

Why was the story of Ann and Joachim so popular in the Eastern Christian churches, first of all?  For one thing, Christians on pilgrimage to the holy land wanted to know as much as possible about the earthly life of Jesus and Mary and so stories about Ann and Joachim satisfied their curiosity.

Her story also supplied information about the family background of Mary and Jesus, which supported the traditional belief that Jesus is Son of God and Son of the Virgin Mary.  Early on, these beliefs were  questioned by heretical elements within Christianity as well as by outsiders hostile to the faith.

Finally, and just as important, Ann and Joachim offered inspiration to mothers and fathers, wives and husbands, grandmothers and grandfathers –to live their lives in their circumstances of family life.

Devotion to St. Ann in Europe

In the western churches, devotion to St.Ann was fed by a popular belief that relics of her were brought to France by Mary Magdalen, Lazarus, Martha, and other friends of Jesus who crossed the stormy sea from Palestine to bring the Christian faith to the region around Marseilles.

Her relics were buried in a cave under the church of St.Mary in the city of Apt by its bishop, St.Auspice, according to this story. But when barbarians invaded the area, the cave was filled with debris and almost forgotten, only to be unearthed 600 years later during the reign of Charlemagne.

You can see from this story why sailors and miners would be devoted to St. Ann. When crusaders from Europe – many from France – went to the Holy Land in the 11th century, they rebuilt the early church of St. Ann in Jerusalem. By the 14th century, devotion to St. Ann was on the rise throughout Europe.

There are reasons for this growing devotion. In the mid- 14th century, Europe was struck by the Black Death,  a plague that raged everywhere for over 150 years, wiping out almost 30 percent of its population and bringing fear, famine and death. Families bore the brunt of the catastrophe as they tended their sick and cared for the healthy.

They needed models like Mary and Joseph, protectors of their Child in difficult circumstances. Extended families needed models like Ann and Joachim, grandparents who supported their child and grandchild.

When the plague ended, Europe’s population expanded dramatically in the late 15th and 16th centuries; new towns and cities sprang up everywhere and families were uprooted from places and people familiar to them. Relatives and friends were separated, work was often hard to find. Families needed help to stay together and survive.

At a time when children were under pressure, sometimes neglected, faith suggested the biblical models of Mary and Joseph, Ann and Joachim.  Images of the nursing Madonna and the caring grandparents became important sources of inspiration.

Groups of Christians arose known as Confraternities of St. Ann, dedicated themselves to caring for widows, orphans and families under stress. Images of Mary and Ann, nursing their children, playing with the Christ Child and/or John the Baptist were more than pious pictures; they had a social purpose as well.

One picture from this era, still popular today, portrays St. Ann teaching her little daughter how to read.  Sometimes the words on the book are words of scripture; sometimes they’re basic numbers or letters of the alphabet: 1,2,3,4-A,B,C.

Playing with children, teaching them the ABC’s, passing on the mysteries of God to them are vital actions. Simple as they may seem, they are holy actions and they can make those who do them saints.

Songs of the Saints

Ann, Mary, the Child Jesus, Massacio

Someone told me about a recent program on NPR on which a scientist said our hearing is wired to hear the song of birds. Our earliest ancestors learned to listen to the song of birds, I suppose because birds could tell them there was water and food nearby–or perhaps their silence warned of enemies.

I wrote about this awhile ago on this blog.

It may be a good analogy for discussing saints.  Saints are like the song of birds telling us there’s another kind of water and food nearby; they point to the presence of God. And we have different saints, just as we have different kinds of birdsong.

What kind of saint is St. Ann? Like all saints she faced challenges in her life. Her greatest challenge was that she and her husband Joachim were not able to have a child for a long time. This was at the time when children were looked upon as treasures and those who did not have children were sometimes seen as cursed by God. Besides, as descendants of David they had a duty to continue his line.

Ann and her husband had a long, hard wait before she conceived Mary, who became the Mother of Jesus. Once, she’s described as bursting into tears as she looked up and saw some sparrows building a nest in a laurel tree. “Why was I born, Lord?” she said, “The 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 produces fruit, but I have no child to hold in my arms.” (Protoevangelium)

You can see why some pray to St. Ann for help in marriage or to have children. Perhaps grandparents today as they’re called to help out with younger grandchildren can see in her an older person who did that too.

Saints have different lessons to teach, but all saints have this in common: they have a deep faith in God’s will and they’re constant in prayer. They’re faithful in prayer, in good times and in bad. Prayer is their daily song to God. It may be a sorrowful song like Ann’s in the example above. Or it may be joyful. But prayer gives them wisdom and strength and peace, from moment to moment, from day to day.

One of the great early saints from the Egyptian desert, St. Anthony, was asked once what’s the hardest thing you have to do in life? “ The hardest thing you have to do in life is pray,” he said, “Everything else you can stop doing, but you can’t stop praying.”

I’m afraid today daily prayer isn’t high on our priorities. I think it’s going the way of Sunday Mass, becoming “occasional prayer.” We only think about prayer when a tragedy like yesterday’s shootings in Colorado happens.

Daily prayer gets us ready for what God gives us to do each day.  Jesus taught his disciples the Our Father; that’s a daily prayer. It tells us who we are each day: we’re children of God and should act like God’s children. We need to remember God’s kingdom is coming and we’re to work for it day by day. We need daily bread of all kinds. We’re part of a messy, noisy world that’s torn apart by selfishness and smallness and pride. We’re bring our share of sin into the world, so we ask for forgiveness each day and forgive others day by day.

“Deliver us from evil” today. Deliver all of us from evil, today.