Devotion to good Saint Anne, the mother of the Virgin Mary, has flourished at St. Jean Baptiste since May 1, 1892, when the relic, enroute from Rome to Ste. Anne de Beaupre in Quebec, caused a sensation while it was retained in New York for 21 days by an explosion of fervor, replete with Miracles and healings. But how does it happen that St. Anne is accepted as Mary’s mother? On what foundation does this devotion rest?
The answer is that recognition of Mary’s parentage by St. Joachim and St. Anne is rooted in the earliest traditions of the primitive church. After Jesus rose from the dead, every detail of his life and ministry assumed awe-inspiring relevance and importance. Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, which His resurrection and ascension had brought into the world, the Gospels proclaiming His message were recorded by the Four Evangelists. These were then assembled with the equally inspired letters of St. Paul and the Apostles into the Biblical Canon of the New Testament.
But enthusiasm for knowledge of the risen Jesus did not abate with the proclamation of His spiritual testament alone. The hills of Judea and Galilee buzzed with excitement as every morsel of information about His life and origins was avidly consumed. The most well-founded versions of these remembrances were recorded in pseudo-biblical documents, judged by the early fathers to be less inspired than the Canon, but retained in the Church traditions as apocrypha. These documents from the first four centuries of the Church’s founding retain a written record of the rich, popular faith and folklore of its oral memories. Some of these manuscripts reach back to the first and second centuries and are attributed to the Apostles themselves. For centuries, after barbaric conquests, they lay in obscurity among preserved manuscripts while the devotions springing from the living memory of their saints continued in the oral tradition of the faithful.
Today, with the discovery of many apocalyptic and gnostic writings, such as the Dead Sea Scrolls, interest has revived and they are being republished for modern recollection of the Church’s vast spiritual heritage. In 1927 Alpha House Inc. published a nice collection of the apocrypha which is still in print in a New American Library edition from 1974. It is titled The Lost Books of the Bible and the Forgotten Books of Eden. Here may be found the accounts of Jesus’ origins and childhood. The rambling of Protevangelion, an apocryphal Gospel attributed to St. James the Lesser, and a very beautiful fragment called the Gospel of the Birth of Mary, claimed to have been written by St. Matthew, set forth in detail the stories of Sts. Joachim and Anne, the birth of the Virgin, and her subsequent betrothal to St. Joseph.
In the Gospel of Mary we learn how Sts. Joachim and Anne suffered disgrace from St. Anne’s barrenness although they lived holy lives and charitably divided all their resources equally among themselves, the poor and the temple. Ultimately, St. Joachim was reproached by the High Priest for having no issue and the couple separated. Their miraculous reunion at the Golden Gate in Jerusalem- an event forever immortalized by Giotto in his famous medieval painting – and the subsequent birth of the Virgin Mary are all recorded here in loving detail. When Mary was presented at the temple at age three the story tells of her remarkable ascent up the sacred steps and recounts her vow to God of perpetual virginity. The High Priest’s quandary at this revolutionary vow and the miracles of the dove and the flowering staff that revealed St. Joseph to be her guardian and spouse are also unfolded.
The Protevanglion is even more replete with tales and legends that the quite pristine inclusion of the Gospel of Mary’s Birth. The point to be made it that the fascinating study informs us today just how deeply shrouded in the origins of the mystery of Jesus’ life on earth the sacred traditions of the Church really are, as well as how truly founded are the devotions that have watered its roots through the millennia.
Modern scholarship can be more impressed by the ability of these foundings to retain their freshness in spite of time, evolving customs, cultural differentiations and transition across whole families and languages. The memory of St. Anne being the mother of the Virgin Mary is enshrined in the Church’s earliest documents. The vibrant and happy apocrypha dovetail into the Gospels and yield an historically defensible glimpse of how the vine extending to the farthest coast was rooted on earth in the devout and holy love, faith and hope of Sts. Joachim and Anne and the stalwart St. Joseph.