Even God ponders, it seems, before performing His greatest deeds. When creating the universe, each day follows rapidly upon the other down to the appearance of the animals. Yet before creating man and woman, He speaks to Himself, the Trinity apparently taking counsel with itself: “Let us create”, God says, the “pluralis majestatis” in reality reflecting His threefold personhood (Gn 1:26).
Similarly, before creating the Virgin Mary, the greatest among all human beings, the peak of creation, He takes His time. He already announced her coming (when punishing the serpent) as a consolation to Adam and Eve when they had to leave the garden of Eden, namely as that woman who would crush the serpent’s head while the latter would bruise her heel (Gn 3:15). But between then and her birth, much time would pass. Even her parents had to wait for many years, burdened with all the social and religious stigma sterility carried at the time.
The greatest blessings in life are characterized by their gratuity on the one and the suffering they require on the other hand (either before, during or after). Suffering is part of love this side of eternity (though it isn’t on the other) because the tree of life as it was in the pleasant garden of Eden has been barred to us through our own fault and can only be reached now in the shape of the Cross. Every love requires death to self and we should therefore, to quote St. Teresa of Calcutta, “love until it hurts”, for only then are we truly loving the other and are not simply imagining ourselves doing so. Joachim and Anna learned this lesson while they suffered from their great desire for a child, from the misunderstanding of others, from feeling condemned in the eyes of men and God (for such is the dark night of the soul) as being somehow at fault for their sterility. But God’s time is not ours and may well appear long to us, since for Him a thousand years are like a day.
Joachim, it is reported in the apocryphal gospel of James, had gone to the temple to make an offering (in and of itself a tremendous act of hope given their advanced age!) so that their wish for a child would be granted, but was turned away by the priests and, in consequence, took refuge with shepherds. In their company, he was, according to the understanding of the time, with the lowest of the low. Yet, as we know, God loves the humble and would later announce the birth of His Son through His angels first to shepherds in the field. It was therefore a fitting setting for an angel to proclaim to Joachim that their prayers had been heard and that as a sign of this, Anna would be waiting for him outside of the golden Gate in Jerusalem.
In his painting of 1497 (now hanging in Copenhagen in the Statens Museum for Kunst) Filippino Lippi captures the instant when the two meet, this moment of pure love. Might Anna have felt abandoned when Joachim fled to the shepherds? If she did, there is no hint of any reproach. His time there was probably less a turning in on his pain than a reaching out to God in his distress. This period in the “desert” was to become the apex of his struggle, but also a moment of epiphany – learning of God’s promise that was to be fulfilled imminently. For Anne and Joachim to find each other anew, this time of solitude with God was necessary. Purified by the fire of suffering over the years, their love for each other has become pure tenderness, a complete acceptation and cherishing of the other in his pain, a disregard for one’s own, thinking only of consoling the other. Anna leans full of trust towards Joachim who embraces her with both his arms. She looks like an aged Madonna herself, fully abandoned to God’s will and receptive to His every wish.
Not only does their love prepare the ground to conceive the peak of all creation, but it also shows how what is asunder, humanly speaking, can be united through true caritas. While on the right is a poor shepherd, clothed in simplest gear, his features slightly gnarled and rough, having accompanied Joachim on his journey, the two elegant women with refined traits on the left are dressed with the sophistication of the highest Florentine Renaissance fashion. Love, however, makes one look at the heart rather than appearance; it allows for unconditional acceptance of the other, warts and all. No prejudices can take hold while those who have supported Joachim and Anna in their time of need now witness this moment of reunion. For these are not curious onlookers; indeed, none of them is actually looking directly at the couple. The shepherd barely dares lift his eyes, looking more at Joachim’s back than at anything else; one woman casts down her eyes while the other gazes at us, challenging us – one might think – to understand the depth of this event.
In the background on the left is the city as well as the gate, appearing more like antique Rome in all its splendor with its classical buildings and high culture than ancient Jerusalem, while on the right one can see rocks and the herd of animals the shepherd left in order to accompany Joachim. All of creation comes together, so it seems, to praise the imminent arrival of the Immaculate Conception, who would love with every fiber and dimension of her being, since not the slightest sin, no original wound was there to deflect the free flow of grace with which she is filled. No knots were present in her heart though many sufferings in her life could have led her to look unto herself instead of at God. That is why she is so eminently capable of untying ours. All we must do is trust her and abandon ourselves to God’s will who loves us with a tenderness exceeding our wildest dreams and who will turn everything to our good, even though this means accepting the cross. Our Lady, please untie the knots that suffering, hopelessness and seemingly endless waiting have embedded in our hearts.
Marie Meaney, July 17th, 2018