Saints Joachim and Anne: The Icon of Marital Love

Saints Joachim and Anne: The Icon of Marital Love

Several years ago, while a Byzantine Catholic priest was giving me a tour of his church, I spotted a large, prominent icon of a couple embracing. Looking closer, I realized there was a marriage bed behind them. It was clear that this was a beautifully chaste portrayal of marital love and union. Of course, with my keen interest in the Theology of the Body and the history of “spousal symbolism” in the Church, I wanted to know the story behind this “icon of marital love” in Eastern theology.

“You know who they are, don’t you?” asked the priest. “No, I don’t.” “That’s Joachim and Anne,” he said. “Do you know what we call this icon?” “No, I don’t,” I replied, with interest in learning. “The Immaculate Conception.” I was filled with a sense of wonder and also with deep gratitude for the “holy daring” often found in the Eastern theological tradition.

To be honest, I had never given any thought to the reality of Joachim and Anne’s loving union. If I thought at all about the “coming to be” of Mary in her Immaculate Conception, the word “conception” made me think in terms of that miraculous event in the womb of Anne when the full merits of Christ’s death and resurrection were applied “in advance” to Mary from the first moment of her existence (see CCC 491-492). But in terms of the union of Joachim and Anne that preceded the biological and theological event of Mary’s conception, I never really considered it. I may have even thought one shouldn’t consider it. Yet here, in this sacred icon – unbeknownst to most of us in the West – the tradition of the Eastern Church holds up the chaste, loving union of Joachim and Anne as the main symbol for contemplation in the mystery of the Immaculate Conception.

What are we to make of this? It goes without saying, of course, that we must respect the important veil that surrounds the mystery of Joachim and Anne’s embrace, as this icon does. With that respect as our starting point, at least one thing I think this icon leads us to consider is the possibility of real holiness and virtue in the marital embrace, not only as an intellectual idea, but as a lived experience. The marital embrace of Joachim and Anne, as chastely portrayed in the sacred icon of the Immaculate Conception, should help all married couples to aspire to an intimate life that is “full of grace.” The conjugal act itself, John Paul tells us, as the consummate expression of the sacrament of marriage, is meant to be an expression of and participation in the “life ‘according to the Spirit’” (see TOB 101:6), that is, in the very life of the Holy Trinity.

Of course, if this “grace-filled” reality is to become a lived experience for couples and not just an intellectual idea, we must be willing to undergo a “full purification,” as Blessed John Paul II put it (see TOB 116:3). And this involves ongoing and often very painful trials. We are purified by fire, and that fire can “burn” in various seasons of our life with great intensity. Certainly, Joachim and Anne were no strangers to that journey of purification.

Since I first discovered it, the sacred icon of the Immaculate Conception has become one of my favorite treasures of the East. Contemplating the chaste love of Joachim and Anne has led me all the more, to use Blessed John Paul II’s words, to be “full of veneration for the essential values of conjugal union…. of the conjugal act.” It has led me to appreciate more deeply the fact that the conjugal act “bears in itself the sign of the divine mystery of creation and redemption” (TOB 131:5).

This July 26, as we celebrate the feast of Saints Joachim and Anne, may we be filled with great veneration for their marriage, and may we not fear the “full purification” required in following their example. Amen.

[NOTE: This reflection originally appeared on the Theology of the Body Institute blog on July 26, 2011.]

Image: Icon of the Immaculate Conception