A FAIRY-TALE MEETING: JOACHIM AND ANNA

Here is an icon of the Zachatie, the “Meeting of Joachim and Anna the Righteous.” It is a noted scene from a kind of backstory to the Christmas account. You will not find Joachim or Anna mentioned anywhere in the Bible. They appear in the cycle of legends recorded in the Protoevangelion (Protoevangelium) of James, originally written in Greek, but later translated into Slavonic. It had a strong influence on the iconography of the parentage and birth of Mary and of Jesus.

According to the story, in biblical times Joachim was very wealthy, and like other “Israelites” he brought a significant offering to the Temple. There a fellow named Rubim saw him, and reproachfully remarked that Joachim was not worthy to bring an offering because he had no child.

That depressed Joachim so much that instead of going home to his wife Anna, he went off into the wilderness and lived in a tent there and fasted (went without food) for forty days and nights, spending all his time in prayer.

Now right away we know that we are in the land of “fairy tale,” because first there is the motif of the unhappy parents who have no child, a common fairy tale motif. And of course the ending is always that they somehow get an unusual child. Second, there is the symbolic “forty days and forty nights.” In the story of Noah and the ark, it rained forty days and forty nights; when Moses went up onto the mountain, he was there forty days and forty nights; when Jesus went out into the wilderness, he fasted forty days and forty nights.

Meanwhile, Anna was lamenting the absence of her husband and the lack of a child from their marriage. But eventually she dressed herself well and went into a garden, sat under a laurel tree, and prayed for a child.

Suddenly an angel appeared and said, “Anna, Anna, the Lord has heard your prayer, and you shall conceive and shall bring forth; and your child shall be spoken of in all the world.

Anna remarked that were that to happen, she would bring the child as a gift to the Lord.

And then there were two angels, telling Anna that her husband Joachim was on the way back with his flocks.

Joachim was coming back because an angel had appeared to him too, saying “Joachim, Joachim, the Lord God has heard your prayer. Go down away; for behold, your wife Anna shall conceive.”

If you look at the icon above, at upper right we see the angel appearing to Anna, and at upper left the angel appearing to Joachim.

The story continues that Joachim came back bringing quite a number of lambs and calves and goats, some as an offering to God (read “sacrifice” — this was in the days of animal sacrifice) and others for the priests, elders, and people.

And now we get to the main scene on the icon:

And, behold, Joachim came with his flocks; and Anna stood by the gate, and saw Joachim coming, and she ran and hung upon his neck, saying: Now I know that the Lord God has blessed me exceedingly; for, behold the widow [is] no longer a widow, and I the [one who is] childless shall conceive.

So that is the story behind the Zachatie, the Meeting of Joachim and Anna. In the Western version known as The Golden Legend (of Jacobus Voragine) the angel tells Anna to go and meet the returning Joachim at the “Gate called Golden” in Jerusalem.

All of this material is leading, of course, up to the story of the birth and childhood of Mary, mother of Jesus, and daughter of Joachim and Anna according to the Protoevangelion, but that is represented in other icons.

For today I will just add that if the title of Mary in icons –“Birthgiver of God” or “Mother of God” strikes you as a bit strange, her mother Anna (St. Anne in the West) is given one that sounds even stranger — “Grandmother of God.” There was controversy over giving Mary the “Mother of God” title in early Christianity, but those in favor of it won out in the 5th century (431), and those against it suddenly became “heretics” as a result.

The scene as depicted in this particular icon always strikes me as unintentionally amusing, because if you look closely, you will notice that the painter has placed Joachim so that he appears to be standing on Anna’s right foot.

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