The early Christian writing, the Proto-Evangelium of St James tells us that the parents of St Mary, the Righteous Joachim and Anna, were grieved in their hearts because they had no child and were in their old age. It is said of Joachim…
He retired to the desert, and there pitched his tent, and fasted forty days and forty nights, saying in himself: I will not go down either for food or for drink until the Lord my God shall look upon me, and prayer shall be my food and drink.
And of Anna, his wife, it is said…
About the ninth hour she went down to the garden to walk. And she saw a laurel tree, and sat under it, and prayed to the Lord, saying: O God of our fathers, bless me and hear my prayer, as You blessed the womb of Sarah, and gave her a son Isaac.
It is while they were in this state of urgent and earnest prayer, and while their hearts were filled with a sense that it was only the Lord God himself who could relieve their distress, that God spoke to them through the appearance of an angel. In the garden, under the laurel tree, at the ninth hour…
Behold, an angel of the Lord stood by, saying: Anna, Anna, the Lord has heard your prayer, and you shall conceive, and shall bring forth; and your seed shall be spoken of in all the world.
And at the same time, in the wilderness, the angel appeared also to Joachim, saying…
Joachim, Joachim, the Lord God has heard your prayer. Go down hence; for, behold, your wife Anna shall conceive.
And it happened as the angel had said.
And her months were fulfilled, and in the ninth month Anna brought forth. And she said to the midwife: What have I brought forth? And she said: A girl. And said Anna: My soul has been magnified this day. And she laid her down. And the days having been fulfilled, Anna was purified, and gave the breast to the child, and called her name Mary.
I am beginning these daily reflections on the Virgin Mary, the Theotokos, by considering this early description of her birth and childhood. What do we find? It is that in her miraculous conception the Lord responded to the prayer of a righteous man and woman. We may well say that even as we honour and venerate St Mary as the Mother of our Lord and God and Saviour Jesus Christ, so she is herself the fruit of righteous prayer and the grace of God acting in her own parents.
We learn that when we face the greatest of difficulties and have reached the end of our own strength, it is the faith and trust which we have gained and experienced through many years, through a lifetime even, which sends us back to prayer again. And when we ask in prayer for God’s blessing, and not for personal gain, then he hears and answers. And for Joachim and Anna the gift of God’s mercy is not only a blessing for them but for the whole world.
Could they have imagined the eternal consequences of their tearful prayers? Nor can we. Often we are in prayer for ourselves and our own needs, while God is preparing a blessing through us for many, and for the whole world. But the blessing of the birth of St Mary required prayer, earnest and constant prayer. And it required righteous living, for the prayer of a righteous person availeth much.
Therefore, at this season more than many others, we should not cease in our prayer for those things which trouble us most, especially those spiritual treasures we lack. And we should not cease in our prayer but even go out into the wilderness, into a time of withdrawal from constant worldly engagements for while, which is what this season of fasting offers us. Whether we are old or young, it is only in prayer that we will be prepared to receive the word of God.
What did that angel say to Anna… the Lord has heard your prayer. And to Joachim her husband… the Lord God has heard your prayer. They continued in prayer until the Lord heard them. They continued for a lifetime in prayer. They persevered and remained faithful, becoming as righteous as it was possible before the descent of the Holy Spirit as an indwelling divine presence. And the answer to their constant and unceasing prayer was the Virgin Saint Mary. How could they have known? How can we know what the outcome in God’s will might be for our own unceasing and urgent prayers for some difficult situation. But surely their prayer was necessary, even though the very thought of it was beyond them, for the salvation of the world.
That felt that they were cursed and cut off from the community of the faithful because they had no child. Others certainly made them feel like that. And so when they asked for a child it was not immediately for the personal blessing of holding an infant in their arms, but so that they might know that they belonged to the people of God, and were under God’s blessing. We also can sometimes be made to feel that we do not belong and do not fit in among the community of the Church. Joachim had tried to make an offering of twice what was required to give thanks to God, for he was a rich man, but his offering had been rejected because he had no child and was considered cursed of God. How this must have grieved him. And we also can try to give ourselves and find that we are rejected.
In his distress and confusion he turned to God, and he gives us an example to follow when we are cut out of the community in one way or another. And in giving himself to prayer rather than to trying even harder to fit in according to the standards of the Jewish leaders, he received a miracle that he could not have expected or imagined. Not only that he received the child which allowed him to become part of the community, but that it was the Virgin St Mary herself. And so the one who was made an outsider becomes the grandfather of the Lord, and the means which God chose to use to bring about a new Israel.
We do not know how much of the life of our Lord Jesus that Joachim and Anna lived to see. We do not even know if they lived to see him born in an even more miraculous manner. But through faithful perseverance and a life of righteousness as far as was possible for them, even though they had been made outsiders to the people of God, their prayers were heard and answered, and when we pray without ceasing, for the spiritual blessing of God, he will also hear and answer our prayers, whether we find ourselves outsiders in the Church or not, and will use us in ways we cannot imagine, cannot begin to imagine, for his purposes in the world.
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