On the extended Holy Family

Whole Holy Family is a contemporary piece by Bro. Michael McGrath depicting Anne and Joachim, Mary and Joseph and the Christ Child.

On the liturgical calendar for July 26 is the feast of Saint Joachim and Saint Anne: parents of the Blessed Virgin Mary, grandparents of Jesus and St. Joseph's in-laws. That's right: Jesus had grandparents and Joachim and Anne are fitting patron saints for our own grandfathers and grandmothers. (And I'm sure they wouldn't mind filling in as patron saints of in-laws, too!) The scriptures tell us nothing of Mary's parents but legend and tradition assign them the names this day celebrates.

It was in the womb of her mother, Anne, that Mary was immaculately conceived. Although many Catholics are confused on this point, the Immaculate Conception refers to Mary's conception in Anne's womb, not Jesus' conception in Mary's womb.

I have a particular affection for St. Anne for several reasons. When I was a child, my parents brought my sister and me to the shrine of St. Anne de Beaupre, just outside of Quebec city in Canada. My first assignment after ordination (1973) was to St. Ann Parish in the Wollaston section of Quincy. The people of there warmly welcomed a newly ordained priest who made plenty of mistakes in his first years in ministry! After five years in Wollaston, I went to study and work at the University of Notre Dame, returning in 1978 to begin nine years of campus ministry at Northeastern University and Emerson College at St. Ann University Parish in the Back Bay.

Having been assigned to two parishes under the patronage of St. Anne, interrupted by four years at the University named for Anne and Joachim's daughter, Our Lady, I was not surprised to be assigned in 1991 to St. Joseph Parish in Medway, named after Mary's husband, son-in-law to Anne and Joachim!

From there I was assigned to another parish under Mary's watchful care, Our Lady Help of Christians, and then to Holy Family, a parish named after Mary, Joseph and Jesus! No small coincidence: St. Bernard Church is named for a saint who had a particular devotion to Mary and to whom is attributed the beautiful prayer, the Memorare:
Remember, O most gracious Virgin Mary,
that never was it known
that anyone who fled to your protection,
implored your help, or sought your intercession
was left unaided.

Inspired by this confidence, I fly unto you,
O Virgin of virgins, my mother;
to you do I come, before you I stand,
sinful and sorrowful.
O Mother of the Word Incarnate,
despise not my petitions,
but in your mercy hear and answer me.

The Holy Kinship
by Geertgen tot Sint
(PLEASE click on the image for a larger, clearer version and its detail!)

Part of the enjoyment of blogging is searching out artwork to illustrate the posts. It wasn't easy to choose which piece to use for the post on St. Anne and St. Joachim but I decided that Bro. McGrath's Whole Holy Family was just right. The runner up was a late 15th century oil painting (on the left) by Geertgen tot Sint, entitled The Holy Kinship.

In the Introduction to
Legends of St. Anne, Mother of the Virgin Mary, editor Sherry Reames offers some interesting background:
“Although the canonical books of the New Testament never mention the parents of the Virgin Mary, traditions about her family, childhood, education, and eventual betrothal to Joseph developed very early in the history of the church. The oldest and most influential account of this kind is the apocryphal gospel called the Protevangelium of James (which) fell under a cloud in the fourth and fifth centuries when it was accused of "absurdities" by St. Jerome and condemned as untrustworthy by Popes Damasus, Innocent I, and Gelasius. Jerome's most explicit complaint was that it explained the brothers of Jesus… as Joseph's sons by an earlier marriage. In the interpretation preferred by Jerome and the Western Church, the so-called brothers are interpreted as cousins of Jesus, sons of Mary's sisters, thus allowing both Joseph and Mary to be envisioned as lifelong virgins...
“Anne was initially just a minor character in the legend derived from the Protevangelium. But her role was capable of great significance because of what it could imply about the Virgin Mary and about the workings of God in this world. Christians were obviously curious from the start about when and why God had selected Mary for her unique position as the mother of the Redeemer. The legend attempts to answer such questions by borrowing from Biblical stories about other long-awaited children, including Isaac, Samson, John the Baptist, and especially Samuel; thus Mary becomes both a child of destiny, heralded before birth as a chosen instrument in the redemption of God's people, and a sign of God's favor toward her parents, a virtuous couple who had long been barren...
“Anne also played a useful role for medieval commentators on the Bible when they attempted to explain the extended family of Jesus. As mentioned earlier, Jerome had argued successfully that the "brothers" mentioned in the Gospels were Jesus’ cousins, sons of Mary's sisters. Biblical commentators in the early medieval West went on to identify those sisters with two other Mary’s mentioned in the Gospels, to take Anne as the mother of all three, and to explain the names of her second and third daughters by creating the theory of the trinubium, or three marriages of Anne. According to the trinubium, Joachim must have died soon after the birth of the Virgin Mary, so that Anne could marry a second husband named Cleophas, by whom she bore Mary Cleophas, and (after Cleophas's death) a third husband named Salome, by whom she bore Mary Salome. From these three daughters, the theory continued, came Jesus and all six "brothers" or cousins named in the Gospels. James the lesser or younger, Joseph or Joses, Simon, and Jude were explained as the sons of Mary Cleophas, who had married Alpheus; James the Greater and John the Evangelist, as the sons of Mary Salome, who had married Zebedee. Thus Anne became the grandmother of some of the most prominent apostles, as well as Jesus himself.
“The trinubium theory was condemned in the twelfth century and later by a number of theologians, who felt that multiple marriages and additional children were incompatible with the purity and holiness that must have characterized the Virgin's mother, and some Biblical scholars rejected it on the grounds that it depended on misinterpretations of particular names and details...”
Although rejected, the trinubium made its presence felt in art - and that brings us back to The Holy Kinship. This work plays out the theory of Anne's three marriages, depicting Anne on the left with a book in her lap and beside her are Mary and the Christ child. On the right are Elizabeth and her son, John the Baptist and in the background are various of Anne's apocryphal spouses and their children - all gathered together in church. Or, as I look it, this painting offers a 15th century version not unlike the scene at our Sunday 9:30 Mass!



  1. Today is also the feast of the Holy Innocents, those children slain on order of King Herod to prevent a new "King of the Jews" from taking his place. It is sobering to remember Jesus faced opposition from His earliest moments.

  2. I am not understanding the immaculate conception here at all. Jesus was conceived by immaculate conception because God the Father is his father. If Mary was conceived by immaculate conception also, who is her father?

  3. I have a great affection for St. Anne myself - far too long a story for this comment box.

    Should I ever meet you I will share it over coffee or some other beverage!

  4. Mary: you are not alone in being a Catholic who does not understand or misunderstands the Immaculate Conception.

    The title "Immaculate Conception" refers to that dogma of the Church which teaches that Mary was conceived without original sin (conceived, therefore, immaculately). Mary's parents are, by tradition although by scripture, named as Ann and Joachim. Mary was physically conceived in the normal human way but by the grace of God was not touched by original sin.

    Mary then conceived the Christ child by the Holy Spirit. The Church does not, nor has it ever used the term "Immaculate Conception" to refer to Jesus.

    The confusion here is exacerbated by the fact that the gospel used for the feast of the Immaculate Conception tells the story of Mary conceiving by the Holy Spirit.

  5. The more appropriate term for Mary's bearing of Jesus is the "Virgin Birth."

  6. Tell me, "anonymous":

    In a post that clarifies the Immaculate Conception, exalts the Holy Family and gives the full text of the prayer, Hail Holy Queen - just which of my phrasings did you find so objectionable that you felt it needed correction?


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