by Jim Forest
It is related in a second century apocryphal Christian text, the Infancy Gospel of James, that Mary’s parents were Anne and Joachim.[i] They are among the saints always invoked at the end of every Orthodox Liturgy. No words better communicate how blessed is the vocation of marriage than the icon of Anne and Joachim embracing each other. (The full name of the icon is the Conception of the Mother of God.)
The mother of the Messiah was the only child of Joachim and Anne, who met and married in Nazareth. Like Abraham and Sarah, they waited for decades for a child until Anne was past her child-bearing years. Even then they prayed, vowing that if they were blessed with either son or daughter, they would offer their offspring as a gift to the Lord. After the promise was made, an angel appeared to Anne, announcing she would bear a daughter “whose name would be proclaimed throughout the world and through whom all nations would be blessed.” Soon after Mary’s birth, Joachim and Anne brought her to the Temple in Jerusalem to offer her to God. According to tradition, the couple lived long lives, Joachim until he was 80, Anne until she was 79.[ii]
“God is love,” Saint John the Evangelist declares. We see in the gentle embrace portrayed in the icon not only the love that joins Joachim and Anne in marriage, but we glimpse the deliverance of the world in the love which unites the grandparents of the Savior. So much depended on Anne and Joachim’s devotion to each other and to God.
In modern writing about the nativity of Christ, some authors reject the Gospel account of his virgin birth, not only because they object to miracles in general, but in some cases because they see a pregnancy occurring through the Holy Spirit’s intervention as diminishing the value of procreation within marriage. The problem is made more complex because in the history of Christianity celibacy has often been presented as a higher vocation, with marriage and sexual activity between husband and wife as something only to be grudgingly tolerated.
This icon reveals a very different attitude. We see in it a celebration not only of the sanctity of the parents of Mary, but a ringing affirmation of the vocation of marriage. Here Joachim is the ideal husband and Anne the perfect wife. The essence of marriage is suggested by the slight bending of Anne and Joachim, each toward the other. Each is the servant of the other rather than one the ruler and the other the slave. Their faces touch while the two arms visible in the image make a crossing gesture similar to that associated, in Orthodox practice, with receiving communion.
There is another remarkable detail: Anne’s outer garment seems blown open not by a wind but by the inner opening of Anne to her beloved. Though husband and wife are clothed in the most modest way one can imagine, the icon communicates a climate of the deepest intimacy.
In some versions of the icon we find a single building behind the two, suggesting the perfect unity that should occur within marriage. In other versions, there are two houses, one behind Joachim, the other behind Anne, both with open doors, with the two connected by a red banner draped between the roofs: another symbol of separation overcome — between man and woman, but also between humanity and the Creator.
note: This is an extract from Praying With Icons (Orbis Books).
[i]. A new translation of the Infancy Gospel by James plus two other Mary-related ancient texts was published in 2007 by Paraclete Press: The Lost Gospel of Mary: The Mother of Jesus in Three Ancient Texts by Frederica Mathewes-Green.
[ii]. The principal ancient text about Saints Anne and Joachim, neither of whom is mentioned in the New Testament, is a second century text, the Protevangelium of Saint James, sometimes called the Infancy Gospel of James. “It must be pointed out that the historical evidence on which the legend is based is by no means satisfactory,” comments one of the authors of The Saints (Guild; edited by John Coulson, et al, p 691), “but it is to be remembered that the legitimacy and authenticity of the devotion depend on the approval of the church, which it possesses, and not on the legendary account of its origins.” It is noteworthy that God has blessed those who have invoked the grandparents of Jesus with many miracles.