Although they are known for being the parents of Mary and the grandparents of Jesus, Sts. Joachim and Anne spent the vast majority of their lives as a couple facing infertility. Pious tradition tells us that they were quite old when Mary was conceived, and then they entrusted her to the care of the Temple when she was weaned. They spent most of their life together as a childless couple. Yet, their love was immensely fertile.
The Story Behind the Icon
Although they are never mentioned in the Scriptures, pious tradition has handed down the identities of these crucial figures in salvation history. There are several popular icons that feature Joachim and Anne. The first is one a picture of the elderly couple embracing a toddler Mary. Another features St. Anne giving birth to Mary. Yet another common icon shows St. Joachim and Anne presenting Mary in the Temple as a small child.
But my favorite icon of this couple is one of them embracing.
As the story goes, Joachim and Anne were a pious couple who had been hoping and praying for a child all of their marriage. Though criticized by their neighbors, they placed their trust in God. They knew that he would give them a child if he willed it, and in the meantime, they focused on growing in holiness as a couple.
Finally, St. Joachim decided to go into the wilderness to pray for a time, and St. Anne stayed behind, doing the same. As someone who has faced secondary infertility twice, this detail alone amazes me. This story happened long before NFP and charting for fertility were invented, but every infertile couple feels a pull to “try” to get pregnant, and I’d imagine that Anne and Joachim were no exception. To spend time physically apart means that there will be no possibility of pregnancy occurring, and that cycle apart always leaves the couple wondering, “What if that would have been THE cycle when we would have conceived?” To give that time to God shows beautiful, heroic trust on the part of Anne and Joachim.
While they were apart, St. Gabriel visited each of them, and told them that they would conceive a daughter. This detail, too, is significant. In stories of infertile couples in Scripture, either God does not send an angel to either parent (such as in the story of Hannah), or he only sends the angel to one (Elizabeth and Zachariah). The only exception to this rule is Mary and Joseph, but even in this case, Joseph receives a message from the angel after Mary does. Also, at least one spouse is usually doubtful in these cases. Zachariah doubts and loses the power of speech (even though he was the one to see the angel), while Elizabeth believes that God will give them a child. Abraham believes, but Sarah laughs.
But in the case of Anne and Joachim, God not only sent the angel Gabriel to both of them but he also did it simultaneously. And both spouses responded with joy and faith. Joachim raced home to Anne, and Anne met and embraced him at the city gate. This moment is what is depicted in the icon.
However, the icon represents another, more intimate moment. That depiction of their loving embrace is actually meant to symbolize the intimate, marital embrace by which Mary was conceived. The beauty of the Immaculate Conception is that it occurred by means of an ordinary conjugal act, made holy by God’s grace at work in that marriage.
And, of course, since this was prior to NFP and charting fertile signs, Anne and Joachim really had no reason – other than faith – to believe that this embrace would result in a child. They came together only because of the message of the angel.
This faith of theirs, lived out in the context of ordinary marital love, is what is really remarkable about them. God didn’t choose just any couple to be the parents of Mary. He chose a couple who was already living out a devout life together, trusting in God’s plan. He knew that Mary would need an example of that heroic, faithful trust in her life.
Looking for Fertility in Infertility
After decades of hoping, praying, and trying, Anne and Joachim were finally granted a child. But for many couples facing infertility, a biological child will never be possible. What about them? Is their faith less because they aren’t able to conceive?
This is where it helps to reflect on the true fruitfulness of Anne and Joachim. If they had never conceived a child, they would have likely still had tremendous faith in God’s plan for their lives. Their prayers and their holiness weren’t contingent on receiving an answer to that prayer.
But what is also so fruitful about their love is the witness it leaves behind. They weren’t happy about their infertility. It was a real, true sorrow for them. Joachim’s trip into the wilderness was a culmination of decades of heartache. Even the sorrow of an infertile couple can be a powerful witness. It is easy to praise God when everything is going well, but it can be near impossible when facing prolonged suffering. People were amazed by the faith of Anne and Joachim, which persisted in suffering. One of my best friends has been facing infertility for years, but her and her husband’s faith in the midst of so much suffering has been a powerful witness to me, reminding me to trust God even when it is painful.
This kind of fruitfulness doesn’t take away the pain of infertility, but it can have a powerful impact on the Church. My friend and her husband (both of whom do a lot of work within the diocese, ministering to other married couples) have scores of spiritual children who have been impacted by their witness. This past year, she even gave a presentation to seminarians, telling them about her journey with infertility. The seminarians that I knew were deeply moved by her witness, the effect of which will likely ripple down throughout their decades of priestly ministry.
Joy in Suffering
Many modern preachers spread the message of the “prosperity Gospel” (i.e. if you have faith in God, then he will give you whatever you want and make you rich). Even those who don’t preach that message advocate for acting happy in suffering, often avoiding showing sorrow of any kind.
But when Jesus was on the cross, he wasn’t singing and laughing. He said, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” As one who was fully human and divine, Jesus knew that the Father had not forsaken him. But he said this for our sake, to show us we can cry out in our suffering.
So where is the joy? The joy is in the persistent trust. Joy doesn’t mean cheerful happiness. It means deep, abiding peace, that enables one to persist in faith. This was the joy of Anne and Joachim, and it is the joy that they want for all the couples they intercede for — especially those suffering from infertility.