AT EVERY DIVINE LITURGY as well as at Vespers and Matins (Orthros) the priest mentions in the dismissal “the holy ancestors of God Joachim and Anne.” They are Christ’s ancestors because they are the parents of the Theotokos: not just His ancestors but His only grandparents – the mother and father of the Theotokos.
The Gospels make no mention of the Virgin’s mother and father, so where do we first hear about them? Their story is told in the second-century Protoevangelium of James, sometimes called the Birth of Mary, the Gospel of James or his Infancy Gospel. According to the text itself, this work was authored in Jerusalem by James, the Brother of the Lord (cf. Protoevangelium 25:1). Many commentators, however, beginning with Origen, have seen it as a later composition. A number of scholars today feel that the version we have was written around AD 120-145.
Widely known in the early Church, the Protoevangelium of James is a kind of prequel to the infancy narratives in Matthew and Luke. It describes the birth of the holy Virgin, her perpetual virginity and her betrothal to Joseph, the father of James and his brothers, as well as offering some explanations of the annunciation, the birth of Christ and the massacre of the innocents not found in the canonical New Testament. Like the Gospel infancy narratives it contains midrashic devices designed to teach dogmatic truths through stories.
The Conception of Mary
The Protoevangelium begins by citing “the histories of the twelve tribes of Israel” (1:1) which tell about a certain Joachim who was reproached by another Jew for not having children. To this day Orthodox Jews are expected to have children in order to continue their lineage and also on the chance of giving birth to the Messiah. Joachim was troubled and fasted in the desert for forty days and nights, saying: “I will not go down either to eat or drink until the Lord my God visit me. Prayer shall be my food and drink” (1.2).
Anne (in Hebrew Hannah or “grace”), lamenting her childlessness and seeming widowhood, isolated herself from her neighbors. Then “an angel of the Lord appeared, saying unto her: ‘Anne, Anne, the Lord has heard your prayer. You shall conceive and bear a child who shall be spoken of in the whole world’” (4:1).
Joachim was also visited by an angel who sent him home with the news that Anne was going to conceive a child. When Joachim arrived Anne “ran and hung upon his neck, saying: ‘Now I know that the Lord God has greatly blessed me: for behold, I am no longer a widow or childless’” (4:4).
This picture of Joachim and Anne embracing at the door of their house is the source of our icon for the feast of the Maternity of St Anne (December 9) as well as for many prayers of this feast, such as the following troparion: “Today the bonds of barrenness are loosed; God has heard the prayers of Joachim and Anne. He has promised against all hope the birth of the Maiden of God from whom the Infinite Himself is to be born as a man – He who had ordered the angel to cry out to her: ‘Hail, Full of grace, the Lord is with you!’”
Entrance of the Theotokos into the Temple
The Protoevangelium is also the source of the story that Mary was presented to God as a yound child. After describing the scene, the Protoevangelium continues: “And Mary was in the temple of the Lord like a dove that is being nurtured: and she received food from the hand of an angel” (8:1).
This passage is the source of our Great Feast of her Entrance into the Temple (November 21). The image of the Virgin receiving food from an angel, often represented in our icon of the Feast, points to the spiritual environment in which Mary was raised and which would prepare the holy Virgin for her future role as Theotokos.
Joachim and Anne do not figure in the remainder of the Protoevangelium which is concerned with the betrothal of the Virgin to Joseph when she was twelve years old, the annunciation, the birth of Christ and the flight into Egypt. These passages focus on the holiness of the Virgin and her unique status as the Mother of God.
One such vignette describes Mary as weaving a curtain for the Jerusalem temple with several other girls. Icons of the annunciation often show the Holy Virgin weaving when the angel appeared to her.
The temple veil was like a giant patchwork quilt with each girl assigned by lots to weave a portion, each using different colors. The Virgin was given the most precious colors, scarlet and true purple.
Our iconography designates these colors to represent divinity. Christ wears a scarlet or purple tunic with a blue cloak over it. This symbolizes that His divinity (scarlet) put on His humanity (blue) in the incarnation. In icons of the Theotokos the colors are reversed. Her humanity (a blue tunic) took on divinity (a scarlet cloak) when she conceived the Lord.
The Feasts of St Anne
Our liturgical calendar includes three feasts of St. Anne. On December 9 we celebrate the Maternity of St Anne, recalling her conception of the Theotokos. On September 9 the day after Mary’s Nativity, we observe a synaxis (liturgical gathering) in honor of her parents. The second day of a Great Feast often celebrates those closely associated with the event remembered on the feast itself.
On July 25 we recall the Dormition (or falling asleep) of St Anne. We sometimes associate the word Dormition with the Virgin Mary exclusively, but this is a misunderstanding. Most saint’s days are observed on the day of their death (dormition) because it is their “heavenly birthday,” the day on which they entered eternal life. The term dormition usually occurs in the title of the feast only when the saint has a number of commemorations during the year.
The Feast of St. Anne’s Dormition dates from the fifth century when a shrine was built in her honor in Constantinople. The feast became popular in the West beginning in the thirteenth century. There it is kept on July 26, because the feast of St James the Apostle was already observed on the 25th.
She who had been named for “grace” has passed on to that divine Joy conceived without seed by her spotless daughter. As she stands confidently by Christ, she intercedes for our salvation.
Having lived a blameless life, you gave birth to the Virgin Theotokos who blamelessly conceived the Word of the Father; and you have gone to Him in glory, truly divinized by your communion with God.
Shining with the radiant light of your divine virtues, you have departed today to the eternal Light of life. Thus, as is right, we call you blessed.
The mother of the Mother of God, the barren one who became the grandmother of Christ, is stripped of life as she was once stripped of sterility; and she cries aloud in the land of the living, “O works of the Lord, praise and exalt Him above all forever.”