Today is the Commemoration of Anne, the mother of Mary and grandmother of Jesus. That Mary had a mother and Jesus had a grandmother there can be no doubt—we all have them—but the New Testament authors do not name Anne (or her husband Joachim) or give us a single detail about her in the stories of Jesus’ conception, birth, and upbringing.
St. Anne is what some people call ‘a venerable tradition’ and others disdain as a ‘legend’ or a made-up pious lie—depending on whether you honor and enjoy the religious imaginations of your ancestors and are not reflexively dismissive of stories. You know where I come down on this one.
She (along with Joachim) first appears in the Protoevangelium of James, c. 150 [?], a much-loved book in the ancient Eastern Church (in the West, not so much), and later in other non-canonical writings. Some people say that her story—an older woman conceiving later in life, bearing an heroic son—was modeled after the story of Samuel, whose mother was also an Anne (Hannah). Whatever the origins and literary models of her story, she soon became a fan favorite.
Devotion to Anne can be documented in the East from the mid-6th century; but if by that time (c. 550 CE) the Byzantine emperor Justinian is busy constructing a great church in her honor, her ‘cult’ had surely already been gaining steam for a long time. In the West, there is no extant representation of Anne until the 8th century (a nice fresco in Rome), and not much fervent devotion until the 13th; but it took off after her story was included in a popular collection of saints lives and stories (Golden Legend, Jacobus de Voraigne), and Anne swiftly became one of the most beloved saints of the Latin Church.
[–Deutsch: Pfarrkirche St.Ulrich in Ulrichsberg]
The medieval imagination provided Mary’s parents with parents too—Stollanus and Emerentia; and with many marriage stories, including one in which she is married and widowed 3 times, giving birth in successive unions to Anne (by Joachim); Mary (by a fellow named Cleophas), who becomes the wife of Alphaeus and mother of the apostles James the Lesser, Simon and Judas, and of Joseph, called the Just; and Maria Salomae (by Salomas) who became the wife of Zebedaeus and mother of the apostles John and James the Greater. The way her story was developing, she might eventually have ended up grandmothering the entire corps of apostles, and the further 72 as well.
[Brabant, 16th c., Metropolitan Museum of Art]
Muslims also venerate Anne (Hannah), the grandmother the prophet Isa [pbuh], their name for Jesus. The Qur’an does not name her (only her father and husband get names—Faqud and Imram, respectively), but subsequent teachers tell a poignant background story to her conception of Maryam (Mary). Hannah has trouble conceiving and is about to give up when she sees a mother bird feeding hatchlings. The maternal desire grows strong again and she and her husband try one more time. You know the result.
The Qur’an recounts that before conceiving, Hannah had promised Allah that, like the Biblical Hannah, she would dedicate her son to him (she was sure it would be a boy). She is surprised when a girl appears, and maybe a little afraid to present the little Maryam to God, but in mystical insight she decides that the baby girl is a true gift of God. The Qur’an is at pains to show that Allah is extremely pleased with the birth of this girl child and has great plans for her.
After her ‘dormition’, Anne endured the fate of all great saints in the medieval church, traveling more in death than she ever had in life. Her relics are said to have been taken to Constantinople in 710. They remained there, in Hagia Sophia, until 1331, when the city was conquered by Muslims and her relics were taken to Europe for safekeeping—and dispersal. (Or if you like you can follow the tradition that Lazarus, Jesus’ moldy friend, took her body to France and buried her there.) In Douai, France, you can venerate her foot (not sure if is her left or right). Her head resided in Mainz in Germany for a while, before it was stolen by pious thieves from Duren in the Rhineland. I could go on, but these are unedifying details, so no more of this.
One of the lovely traditions of iconography associated with Anne is called the Metterza (Italy), Anna selbdritt (Germany) or Anna te Drieen (Low Countries). Taken together, these terms describe depictions of ‘the three generations’—Anne, Mary and Jesus; or as one author put it, images in which “Granny makes three.” Another important iconographic tradition shows Anne teaching Mary to read; she learned well and was still reading as an young woman—in a great deal of iconography of the Annunciation, the angel Gabriel enters to find Mary reading, a book open on her lap. The Word comes as words are pondered.
Now, if you are a Protestant and not much inclined to saints, you have very good reason to like this one, for it could truly be said that St. Anne made the Reformation possible. When in the midst of a terrible lightning storm the young Martin Luther cried out to heaven to be spared, it was to St. Anne he addressed his prayer. She heard him, apparently, and her prayers to God in response to his prayer to her saved his life. And the rest is history.
St. Anne, Mother of Mary, pray with us this day; glorify God and edify us with your life, even if we made it all up. It’s a good story. Amen.