1 Thessalonians 1:1-5
They were probably an ordinary family, just like the rest of the families that made up the neighborhood. The families knew each other quite well although those outside the neighborhood or perhaps the local synagogue would have known them from Adam's pussycat except, maybe, by reputation. They were probably a quiet family, going about the daily job of living and doing the various jobs that were assigned them by their gender, age and station: some would go to work like the father, learning his trade and contributing to the family income while some would stay at home, either because they were still too young to be of help (an time that would not last long as children went to work early in life) or because they were learning the art and craft of managing a home and a family. They were observant in their religious duties and taught the kids to do the same. They were no different than dozens of families in their neighborhood or even billions of families throughout the centuries since then.
Things were going well for this family. Perhaps they had a number of children but we only know of one. She was their daughter, of marriageable age and already betrothed to a man the family hoped would support her well and treat her with kindness. She was a very good girl, obedient to both her family and to her faith. Everything was moving along just as expected but then there was a fly in the ointment -- or, rather, an angel? She was just sitting there, perhaps mending or sewing a new garment, when out of the blue someone (or something) appeared out of nowhere with a message so preposterous she could hardly believe her ears. But, trained to be meek and obedient, she agreed to what was being proposed to her and then the angel/being left her. She was probably awash with emotion and probably more than a little afraid of how all this was going to work.
I wonder how the young girl told her family. I also wonder what the family's reaction was. Did they think she was having a hallucination when she said an angel? By the time she got to what the visitation was about the family would probably be in a state of shock. Their daughter, the one whose virginity they had protected for her almost-husband, was announcing that she was pregnant by God (not pregnant, by God!) and would have a son. Did they think she and Joseph had jumped the gun just a little, which, I believe, they were entitled to do as formally betrothed? Did they think she had slipped out to meet a secret lover and it had caught up with her? Or perhaps that someone had raped their daughter under their very noses and this story was to cover the daughter's own shame and guilt? How about their own shame and guilt at having a pregnant daughter who wasn't married yet? What would the neighbors think?
We know the young girl's name was Mary and we know that she had parents although we don't really know their names. They were called Joachim and Anne, names that first appeared in the Protoevangelium of James, an early Gnostic gospel in which Anne was childless and advanced in years when a miracle from God made her pregnant by her husband of many years, Joachim. The child was taken to the temple at the age of three to be devoted to the service of God but by the time she was twelve the priests decided she needed to be married and so, though a process of divine guidance, Joseph, an older man with sons already, was designated to be her husband. Did it happen? Probably not although it was a way of explaining a number of things the gospels of Luke and Matthew left out.
Whether or not we know their true names isn't important any more than we can remember the names of the parents of the latest sports hero or the most brilliant scholar in the world. They had a task to perform, namely raising the child, and after that they sort of vanished from sight. Mary's parents were never referred to at all, but in order to make a story complete there has to be a starting point and the Protoevangelium of James provides a bit of that, a sort of Christian midrash.
What I still wonder is whether Mary's parents promptly packed her off to her cousin Elizabeth, herself a bit of a scandal after having been barren for many years and suddenly was as pregnant as could be, or whether it was Mary's idea to visit in order to let the furor over her own pregnancy die down a bit before returning to take up her life as best she could. Whichever it was, we know the story well as we feature it every Advent and celebrate the fruit of Mary's labor at Christmas.
Parents have a huge responsibility to raise their children. Some are more successful than others, probably just as it was in Mary's neighborhood in Nazareth. I'm sure the lessons she learned from her parents didn't cover an unorthodox pregnancy, life as a refugee in Egypt to escape the possible execution of their infant son, and then watching that son grow to be an itinerant rabbi and healer that the family, including perhaps Mary herself, considered crazy. However Mary's life proceeded from that moment when she, an ordinary girl preparing for marriage and her own home, was confronted by something greater and larger than anything she could have imagined, she became the parent the world would remember, one who birthed a son and then watched him die.
We commemorate Joachim and Anne, honoring them because of their daughter, an absolutely normal human being whose assent to an incomprehensible offer changed the world. To those living in Nazareth, though, they were just the family next door, just like almost everyone else and, at least, living seemingly unremarkable lives.
Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, July 26, 2014, under the title "Joachim and Anne, parents of Mary."