Mothers of History – Saint Anne, the Mother of Our Lady

detail of an engraving of Saint Anne educating the Blessed Virgin Mary while Saint Joachim watches; early 18th century by Pierre-Imbert Drevet; Wellcome Library, London, England; swiped from Wikimedia CommonsA proverb, we are told, is the crystallisation of the experience and consent of ages. It is from a proverb that we could, perhaps, best derive the greatness of Saint Anne, the mother of Our Lady.

One proverb has it that the greatness of a mother is her children. Our Lady is the greatest Mother of history, but She is also the daughter of Saint Anne, the only daughter, in fact the only child.

Saint Anne’s claim to greatness is not a multiple claim; She has only one claim; but that one is all sufficient, all explanatory. She is the mother of Mary, who is the Mother of Our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ.

Singularly blessed by God was she who is the Mother of ‘Our tainted nature’s solitary boast.’ Expression of the place Saint Anne holds in the affection of her devout clients is nowhere better illustrated than by the fact that she is called ‘Good Saint Anne.’ What a wealth of meaning is implied in that simple little adjective ‘good’. It expresses in a word all we would like to say in praise of Mary’s mother.

It must surprise us somewhat that Holy Scripture, while it speaks much of other great women, as Judith or Esther, makes no mention of Saint Anne, who was mother of the Blessed Virgin, and of whom these other women were only types. We cannot penetrate the hidden designs of God, but from this silence of Sacred Scripture, we dare infer that Saint Anne led a retired life.

We depend upon what has been handed down to us by tradition for our knowledge of Saint Anne.

Saint Anne’s husband was Saint Joachim. An ancient tradition tells us that Joachim and Anne had long been childless. To be childless was considered a wife’s greatest disgrace among the Israelites. For many years, the hand of the Lord weighed heavily upon Saint Anne. She was tried in the furnace of humiliation before her race.

When God intends to elevate a person to great dignity and sanctity, He invariably humbles that person in various ways. Anne, the wife, was humbled for years, nor was the reproach removed until, in God’s good time, she became Anne, the mother of Mary. In patience and resignation Saint Anne, the childless wife, endured all the contempt heaped upon her and ceased not, in humble unshaken confidence, to pray to Almighty God, for Saint Anne well knew that ‘no word shall be impossible with God.’

Such virtue must needs call down the favour of the Almighty. Purified in adversity, found worthy in humiliations, and confirmed in sanctity, as she was, the Lord could now give to her the child of grace, that should tend to bring joy to the whole world.

Saint Anne was great before God, not only on account of her humility, but also on account of her magnanimity – her greatness of soul; her big generous desires to please God; for she had vowed to offer her holy child, the blessed fruit of her fervent prayers, to the Lord. What renunciation! What a sacrifice! But Saint Anne knew that a mother’s love is not a rival of Divine Love; only the foolish make it so, and begrudge their son or daughter to the service of God.

Far from being a rival of Divine Love, a mother’s love is a reflection of it. God is Love, and to give us some idea of Divine Love, God gives us mothers. A mother’s love is a tiny spark in the heart of a woman from the mighty furnace, which is Divine Love. Saint Anne loved her daughter dearly; but she remembered with gratitude that a child is God’s gift, and so love of God triumphed over mother love.

Just where Saint Anne lived when Our Lady was born is uncertain. The strongest opinion seems to be that of Saint John Damascene, who spent a great deal of his life quite close to the Holy City, and is thus an excellent witness to the Christian traditions of Jerusalem. He tells us that the Holy Virgin first saw the light of day in her father’s house of which we read in the Gospel, where Our Lord cured the paralytic.

It was the custom among the Jews to name their children, in the midst of the assembled family, the ninth day after birth. Saint Joachim’s own name means Expectation; Anne signifies Grace. Gracious assuredly in the eyes of God was she who now named her child Miriam, a name of Egyptian origin; in Greek or Latin, Maria, which signifies both Sovereign Lady, or Princess, and Sea of Sorrow.

But we who wish to show Saint Anne’s greatness always remember that her child was saluted by the Angel: ‘Hail, full of Grace’ – the destined Mother of God.

Saint Anne’s feast is kept on July 26th. The Church has chosen a passage from Saint John Damascene’s writings to be read at Matins (the Office of Readings, in the morning) on the feast. It sums up for us the greatness of Saint Anne. ‘Now even as Anna of the Old Testament, when she was stricken with barrenness, gave birth to Samuel as the fruit of prayer and promise; in like manner the second Anna received from God, the Mother of God promised to her entreaties so that in fruitfulness she had not to yield to any of the illustrious matrons who had gone before her. Thus Grace (for this is the meaning of the word Anna) is mother of the Lady (the signification of the name of Mary), who in truth was made the Lady over all created things when she became the Mother of the Creator.’

– text taken from Mothers of History, by J T Moran, C.SS.R., Australian Catholic Truth Society, 1954>