Saturday, July 26, 2008

July 26 – Saints Anne and Joachim

Note:  You can read more about Saints Anne and Joachim in my ongong series of articles "Glorious St. Anne" (click here) to access the first in the series.
Today we celebrate the feast of Saints Anne and Joachim, the parents of Mary and grandparents of Jesus. Although there is no evidence about them in the New Testament, there had to be two people who were Mary’s parents. We do not know if Anne (Hannah) and Joachim were actually their names, but those are the names that have been associated with them from an early extra-Biblical tradition.

Over time, most of the devotion to this couple has centered on St. Anne, the mother, rather than St. Joachim, the father. It is, of course, the mother that provides the actual physical link, a sort of holy version of mitochondrial DNA, for out of the mother comes the Mother and from the Mother comes the Son. That is why some of the most famous images of St. Anne, Mary and Jesus in the history of art have the somewhat curious look of Russian nested dolls. Among the famous images are those of the early fifteenth-century Florentine artist, Masaccio (Florence, Uffizi) as well as the later fifteenth-century Florentine, Leonardo da Vinci. Leonardo’s image exists in two versions, a large drawing (more properly a cartoon) in the National Gallery in London (at left) and a modified painting in the Louvre in Paris. In these images, Jesus sits on Mary’s lap, while Mary herself sits on her mother’s lap. While emphasizing the blood relationship of the group, the arrangement seems today somewhat awkward, even comical.

This may be why, following the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic response, painting in the Catholic countries (there was little such work in the Protestant countries) the emphasis shifted from the mere blood relationship to Anne’s role in preparing Mary for her eventual role as Mother. Thus, the most popular image of St. Anne became that of “The Education of the Virgin”. Almost all of these images show St. Anne teaching Mary by encouraging her to read the Scriptures. Among the most famous versions are those by Peter Paul Rubens (Brussels, Museé Royaux des Beaux-Arts) and Georges de la Tour (New York, Frick Collection -- see yesterday's post for image). But there are many others.

By contrast, Joachim plays only a small role in the iconography of this holy couple. Probably the most famous example of his inclusion comes from Giotto’s paintings of the lives of Joachim and Anne in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua. Here are laid out the stories taken from the early traditions, of the couple, humiliated for their childlessness, and of the response to their prayers in separate angelic visitations and of their touching meeting at the Golden Gate of Jerusalem.

Today, we honor them both for their role as parents and grandparents.

Saints Joachim and Anne, pray for us.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Good St. Anne

Georges de La Tour, Education of the Virgin
French, ca. 1650
New York, Frick Collection
My Manhattan parish, St. Jean Baptiste (St. John the Baptist) had been the home of a novena in honor of St. Anne since 1892. In that year we received a relic of St. Anne, a portion of the relic held in St. Anne de Beaupre in Quebec.

We are currently in the midst of the 2008 novena, the 117th year. Crowds come from all over the New York/Long Island/New Jersey area, especially on the last three days. The culmination of the novena comes on the feast day of Saints Anne and Joachim, July 26th.

Each day of the novena there are two novena services, with Mass and a special preacher. In the evening there is a procession with the Blessed Sacrament, followed by Benediction and veneration of the relic. I’ve been attending for twenty years now and each year I am impressed by the devotion of the people who come. They come in great diversity --- children and old people; black and white; European, African and Asian; wealthy people from Park Avenue and poor from the outer boroughs; people with advanced degrees and those with little formal education. Some of them come with very specific prayer requests to make to St. Anne, some come with no other thought than to honor the woman who was the mother of Mary and grandmother of Jesus. And every year there are stories of favors granted. After all, St. Anne has connections!

But I am mostly inspired by the procession with the Blessed Sacrament. It wends its way around the church, getting bigger and bigger every night, till on the feast day, it can barely move. Until three years ago it was candlelit, like the outdoor procession at Lourdes. I had always wondered why no one was every set on fire. Then, three years ago it happened. Toward the end of the procession there was a sudden flash of light as a carelessly held candle set fire to the long pony tail of a woman in front, who was totally unaware that her hair was blazing. And, thanks to the quick actions of several people around her, the first she knew of it was when it was already being extinguished. She suffered no more than a singed pony tail, thank God. However, the procession is no longer made with lighted candles.

Aside from such excitements, the principle thing that inspires me about the procession and benediction is how it represents two visions of the Body of Christ. During the procession and at the Benediction we adore the presence of Christ in the Eucharistic Host. Yet, the congregation, in all its amazing diversity, is also part of the Mystical Body of Christ. In the moments of adoration, we are in a sense, already on the threshold of heaven as we members of the Mystical Body contemplate Him veiled in Bread, as we will one day, hopefully, contemplate Him directly.