Sunday, February 7, 2016

52 Saints ~ Week Six ~ St. Joachim

In October of 2014, I used this picture in a post I wrote about Christian marriage, and later that year, I wrote a post about St. Anne, but today I am writing about one of the most overlooked characters in Salvation History, that Golden Thread, as Sophia Calvaletti calls it, through which the promise given to man in Eden has come down to us.

It is hardly surprising that St. Joachim is overlooked because we know almost nothing about him. In fact, we can't even be 100% sure that his name was Joachim (Yahweh saves). The only thing we certainly know about him is that he did indeed exist and was the father of Mary and the grandfather of Jesus. This means, of course, that there was a good bit of Joachim in our Saviour.

The reason that I decided to write about Joachim this week is that because of the role that my husband and I play in the lives of our grandchildren, I have been thinking about him and wondering about his life. I wonder how much he was involved in the life of Mary and Jesus. How long did he live after Mary was born? Although it is unlikely, it is not impossible that he may have still been alive at the time of the crucifixion. So, I have been thinking about a lot of possible scenarios.

For instance, what must Joachim thought about this daughter of his who never sinned. The legends tell us that Mary was raised in the temple after the age of three, but even before then there must have been a difference. Unlike Elizabeth of the Trinity, she wouldn't have been "a real little devil" determined to have her own way. And if she did go to live in the temple at the age of three, what sorrow he must have felt in her absence.

Did he arrange her marriage to Joseph? The legends say otherwise, but perhaps he did. Many fathers do not think that any man is good enough for their daughters, but Joachim would have been right in thinking this. What man could be trusted to value his innocent (innocent in a way that we can not even imagine) daughter in the way he ought. I think that most of us have seen how sweet, vulnerable girls can be hardened and embittered by men who don't understand their responsibility to care for and protect their wives. Joachim must also have seen this and wondered how he could ever be sure to have found the right man.

What, I wonder, would he have thought when Mary suddenly announced that she was going to go visit her cousin Elizabeth? Surely this must have been very unusual for young women in that time. Did he try to stop her? Was there an argument about her going? What did he do to provide for her on the journey?

When everyone had to go to register for the census, did Joachim and Anne go too? Could they have possibly been in Bethlehem when Jesus was born? And what would that have been like--to hold your little newborn grandson is always a great wonder, but to know that he was also holding his Creator?

And then the new little family left for Egypt. Did they even have time to tell their parents, or did they just disappear? In any case, it must have been a very sad and troubling time for those left behind. If Joachim was still alive, their absence must have been a constant weight in his heart. When, if ever, could he have heard how they were doing? Any news he got would have taken so long to get to him that couldn't be sure that the situation hadn't changed in the meantime.

When the family returned from Egypt, was there a period when Joachim got to spend time with his grandson. I hope there was. There would have been worry, as there always is, but for the most part, it is such a great joy.

And if Joachim did live to be quite old, what must he have felt when he heard of the terrible death of his grandson? I imagine he would have been wishing that he had not lived to see that day. And did he then live long enough to hear the incredible news?

Well, all this is speculation and imagination, but that is all we really have concerning the life of the grandfather of Jesus. The Catholic Encyclopedia says this in its entry about Joachim.
Tradition nevertheless, grounded on very old testimonies, very early hailed Saints Joachim and Anne as the father and mother of the Mother of God. True, this tradition seems to rest ultimately on the so-called "Gospel of James", the "Gospel of the Nativity of the Blessed Mary", and the Pseudo-Matthew, or "Book of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary and of the Childhood of the Saviour"; and this origin is likely to rouse well-founded suspicions. It should be borne in mind, however, that the apocryphal character of these writings, that is to say, their rejection from the canon, and their ungenuineness do not imply that no heed whatever should be taken of some of their assertions; side by side, indeed, with unwarranted and legendary facts, they contain some historical data borrowed from reliable traditions or documents; and difficult though it is to distinguish in them the wheat from the tares, it would be unwise and uncritical indiscriminately to reject the whole.
When I was a girl, the legends about Mary's conception and birth were taught more or less as truth. I was probably in my 30s before I learned that they were legends. And in the Middle Ages, Joachim was not quite as overlooked as he is now. Perhaps the best and most thorough portrayal of Joachim's story is found in Giotto's Scrovegni Chapel. The frescoes here follow the narrative of The Gospel of the Nativity of the Blessed Mary pretty closely.

After having been married to Anne for twenty years during which they lived a holy and righteous life, Joachim is turned away from the temple. His sacrifice has been rejected by the high priest because Joachim has not been able to produce an heir. I think it is notable that Joachim is carrying a lamb. Perhaps Giotto is indicating what we now know which is that his offspring will be the Lamb of God. It also reminds me of the stone rejected by the builders.

After this rejection, Joachim is ashamed to return home, and goes to live among the shepherds.

After Joachim has been with the shepherds for a while, an angel appears to him and tells him:
Fear not, Joachim, nor be disturbed by my appearance; for I am the angel of the Lord, sent by Him to you to tell you that your prayers have been heard, and that your charitable deeds have gone up into His presence. For He has seen your shame, and has heard the reproach of unfruitfulness which has been unjustly brought against you. For God is the avenger of sin, not of nature: and, therefore, when He shuts up the womb of any one, He does so that He may miraculously open it again; so that that which is born may be acknowledged to be not of lust, but of the gift of God.
The angel then speaks of all the women who had given birth after being barren: Sarah, Rachel, Hannah, and the mother of Samson, and then goes on to give a prophecy of the birth of Mary that echoes everything that angels have said to these women and to Elizabeth. He then tells Joachim to go to the Golden Gate in Jerusalem where Anne will be awaiting him.

This sacrifice of Joachim is not mentioned in The Gospel of the Nativity of the Blessed Mary, but I imagine it comes from another source. Note that Joachim is now sacrificing the lamb that was rejected and that the Hand of God at the top of the fresco, and the angel hovering above the lamb (You can see this angel better if you click on the picture once.), indicate that the offering is accepted.

At the same time, the angel visits Anne and continues the prophecy about Mary. He tells her to go out and meet Joachim at the Golden Gate.

This, of course, is their meeting at the Golden Gate, sometimes referred to as the Beautiful Gate.

At the age of three, Mary is taken to the temple to be brought up until she reaches "the age of discretion" when she will leave to be married. The narrative mentions fifteen steps, although there are not so many here, and describes how, "...the virgin of the Lord went up all the steps, one after the other, without the help of any one leading her or lifting her, in such a manner that, in this respect at least, you would think that she had already attained full age."

When it is time for Mary to leave the temple to be married, she tells the priests that she will not marry because her parents have devoted her to the service of the Lord, and she has taken a vow of virginity. The priests take this seriously and the elders pray to the Lord to chose a man to marry her who will live with her in her virginal state. In this scene, they elders are voting for this man. Their rods indicate their choice, and, of course, Joseph who is described as a man of great age is chosen. This part of the legend seems especially unlikely to me as it just does not square with the story we read in the scripture.

We will, of course, never know the real story of St. Joachim in this life. However much we don't know, though, we do know that we are in his debt and that he played an integral part in the life of Our Lord. Although his life is a mystery, I find it helpful sometimes to meditate on the men and women whose shadowy presence inhabits the scripture, and think about how these very ordinary people would have dealt with the mystery that surrounded them.


This post was written by Janet Cupo the proprietor of this blog.

If you want to see all of the posts in this series, click HERE.


  1. Very intriguing and inspiring post, Janet! Love the little pictures to go along with the story of St Joachim too. But the first part with all of the questions is how I feel about so many of these ancient saints: Who were they really, and what did they do? Part of the mystery of God for all of us to meditate on and to pray to, and to try and become closer to God through these saintly people and their images. "The mystery that surrounded them" as you say.