If today were not a Sunday, we would be observing the liturgical memorial of Saints Anne and Joachim, the grandparents of Our Lord. I would like to reflect a bit on Christ’s grandmother, trusting that His grandfather won’t feel any more neglected than when we consider Jesus’ holy Mother, without mention of His holy foster father, Saint Joseph. Holy people are never jealous of others!
Let me begin by stating what is undoubtedly known to any devotée of Saint Anne, namely, that we have absolutely no information about her in Sacred Scripture. We do know that a church was erected in her honor in Jerusalem by the sixth century and that an ancient Byzantine icon portrays Anne enveloping her daughter Mary with her mantle, while Our Lady holds the Christ-Child in her lap.
The only data about Anne (actually, “Hannah” in Hebrew) comes from various apocryphal sources like the Proto-Evangelium of James or the Pseudo-Matthew or the Gospel of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Because they are not canonical gospels, that is, part of Sacred Scripture and thus guaranteed total reliability, we cannot assert the claims of the several apocryphal works with any degree of certitude. Interestingly, the Koran has a great deal to say about Saint Anne, as it does about Our Lady herself.
What comes across consistently in all the documents, though, is that Anne was greatly distressed because she was childless, as was her husband Joachim. Of course, in biblical theology children are always considered the greatest blessing possible, while being deprived of children is deemed the greatest curse. Very often in the Bible, however, we encounter holy couples who are childless, not as a divine punishment but so that Almighty God can work His wonders in and through them. We think of the long-awaited and devoutly-prayed-for birth of Samuel, whose parents Hannah and Elkanah serve as types or foreshadowings of Anne and Joachim. One clear lesson to be drawn from such people is the contrast between their attitude and that of so many in modernity, as child-bearing is often treated as a disease to be avoided at all costs. How far such individuals stray from a biblical pattern of thought and, on that very score, how far they stray both from the divine will and from the gift of true happiness that comes to those who conform their wills to that of the good God.
I would like to spend the rest of this essay, however, reflecting on the meaning of Saint Anne’s name. As you should recall, names in the Bible were very important, setting a course for the person, describing his personality, and expressing hopes for his future. Again, we see the stark difference between the world of the Bible and our own era, in which children are named after shallow movie stars and unreliable, unstable sports figures. The ancients had a wisdom so many in our time lack, for study after study shows that people who have good, strong names which they like tend to do exponentially better in life than those who have names which become seen as silly and trendy with the passage of time and a source of embarrassment to those who bear them later in life. How prudent was the Church’s perennial insistence on giving our children the inestimable gift of a name of the great heroes of our Faith, whose intercession and example would never fade.
“Hannah” means “grace.” Theologically speaking, grace is both a power and a relationship. As a power, grace gives us the capacity to do and to be beyond our normal human capacities. Grace is not simply a higher octane of what we possess at a natural level; it is an infusion of the power of the Holy Spirit, first given to us in Baptism and increased in every worthy reception of the sacraments. In this way, it is also a relationship – a relationship with the Triune God. As in any natural power or relationship, growth is possible as well as loss. Every virtuous act we perform is a result of God’s grace, which moves us to act in a positive manner, accompanies our action, and brings it to a happy conclusion. The accomplishment of the virtuous act then deepens our relationship with Almighty God. Each positive response to the impulse of divine grace positions us for future positive responses. Conversely, failure to respond to the movements of God’s grace brings about a diminished relationship with our God.
Those of you old enough and fortunate enough to have learned your Catholic Faith from the Baltimore Catechism will remember that there are two types of grace: sanctifying and actual. I should note that the current Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches the same. And so, paragraphs 2023 and 2024 teach us:
Sanctifying grace is the gratuitous gift of his life that God makes to us; it is infused by the Holy Spirit into the soul to heal it of sin and to sanctify it. Sanctifying grace makes us ‘pleasing to God.’
Actual grace, on the other hand, is a special, holy “nudging” of the Holy Spirit urging us to do the good or to avoid the evil at hand. Once more, we see that a positive response makes us grow in sanctifying grace, making us more pleasing to God and thus closer to Him. God’s grace is never lacking to us; it is always available to us, even before we ask for it or even before we know that we need it. Grace in Latin means “gift,” and it is a constant sign of the generosity of the Blessed Trinity, which places the divine power at our disposal. It is important to note, however, that as a gift it is never forced upon us; because of God’s immense love for us and His respect for our human dignity, He also gives us through free will the capacity to reject the gift of His grace, which is always an overture of His love. Because Saint Paul heard the Lord say, “My grace is sufficient for you” (2 Cor 12:9), he could face temptations and trials with the confidence embodied in a line like, “I can do all things in him who strengthens me” (Ph 4:13).
The Fathers of the Church were fond of asserting that “God became Man that men may become gods” (cf. CCC 460). At Holy Mass, as the priest mingles the water and wine, he prays, “May we come to share in the divinity of Christ who humbled himself to share in our humanity.” This is a bold petition, to be sure, but do not misunderstand what is being said here. This is not “New Agism” or Shirley Maclaine gone wild. In truth, the whole point of the Incarnation – why Saint Anne’s Grandson came among us – was to deify the human race, enabling us to share in the divine nature. As close and intimate as was the relationship between our first parents and their Creator, it was nonetheless an external relationship. Through the mystery of the Incarnation continually present in the Church, our relationship in grace is one which is interior and thus more profound. While Adam and Eve shared God’s friendship, we share in His very life. Through Christ’s Paschal Mystery (that is, His Passion, Death and Resurrection), we are made filii in Filio (sons in the Son).
This process of divine filiation and deification occurs primarily through the sacraments, so that what we might call a “subset” of sanctifying grace is sacramental grace. In Baptism, the Lord makes that first overture of love. The astonishing nature of this undeserved grace is underscored in a most dramatic way as infants are baptized: Long before we are bright or beautiful, indeed while we are still in the state of original sin (that is, in the grip of Satan), God approaches us and introduces us to His very life. Confirmation empowers us to be strong and faithful witnesses to Christ, His Gospel and His Church, in the midst of an unbelieving and often hostile world. In the Holy Eucharist, the Sacrament of all sacraments, we are nourished with the Body and Blood of the God-Man and, in a marvelous reversal of nature, that Heavenly Food doesn’t become us, we become It! In the Sacrament of Penance, when in a state of either partial or total alienation from God, God once more reaches out to us in pitying and merciful love. In the Sacrament of Holy Order, men are configured to Christ the High Priest, receiving the power of the Holy Spirit to sanctify others in His Name and Person. The Sacrament of Matrimony makes a man and woman capable of being mirror images of the love the Divine Bridegroom has for His Bride, the Church. When we are physically debilitated, the Holy Spirit strengthens us through the Sacrament of the Sick.
As you should be able to see clearly, the grace of God surrounds us at every moment of our earthly pilgrimage to eternity. How fortunate we Catholics are to have what so many others do not have and often long to have. How grateful we need to be for such ready access to divine power, and the best way to demonstrate that gratitude is to have frequent recourse to these avenues of grace.
A fundamental principle of theology holds: Lex orandi, lex credendi (the law of prayer is the law of belief). In other words, what we believe is found in our liturgical prayers which, in turn, teach us the Faith and reinforce it with regularity as those prayers are recited year after year. One of the great blessings flowing from the new and improved translation of the Mass is its constant underscoring, faithful to the original Latin text, of the centrality of grace in the life of a believer. Do you recall the Collect from last Sunday’s Mass?
O God, who show the light of your truth to those who go astray, so that they may return to the right path, give all who for the faith they profess are accounted Christians the grace to reject whatever is contrary to the name of Christ, and to strive after all that does it honor.
And the Collect for this Sunday?
Show favor, O Lord, to your servants, and mercifully increase the gifts of your grace, that, made fervent in hope, faith and charity, they may be ever watchful in keeping your commands.
Notice how both of them highlight the role of grace in keeping a disciple of Christ on-course in the pursuit of Christian virtue.
And now, a quick, last word about actual grace. God is always willing to assist us to do good and avoid evil, however, we must be attuned to the presence of His grace. A famous story is told of British journalist Malcolm Muggeridge, the biographer of Mother Teresa, who became quite enamored of the Catholic Church and all things Catholic, although an Anglican himself. This phenomenon caused a reporter to ask him one day: “With all the lovely things you say about the Catholic Church, why haven’t you become a Catholic?” Muggeridge’s pithy reply: “No grace.” Many years later in the final years of his life, Muggeridge and his wife entered the Catholic Church. Another reporter queried: “Why now?” His even pithier reply: “Grace!” I would suggest that God’s grace was really there from the start but that the venerable gentleman didn’t perceive its presence. The Hound of Heaven, however, never ceases to pursue those He loves with offers of His grace, which is both His power and His life. That realization made Georges Bernanos have his protagonist in Diary of a Country Priest utter as the last words of that powerful novel: “All is grace!” Grace is the first word that is spoken on our behalf, and it will be the last.
Saint Anne, a graced grandmother bore the one who was “full of grace.” She, in turn, bore the One Who is Grace Incarnate. And so, we see concrete proof, indeed flesh-and-blood proof, of what Saint John taught in the Prologue to his Gospel: “From his fulness have we all received, grace upon grace” (Jn 1:16).
If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!