Friday, July 26, 2013

God's Grandmother

Today the Church celebrates Saint Anne, the mother of the Blessed Virgin Mary and thus the grandmother of Jesus. The Pauline calendar revisions removed her husband Saint Joachim's separate feast from the calendar and joined his memory with that of Anne in today's somewhat downgraded celebration. So today is actually the feast of both of Mary's parents, both of Jesus' maternal grandparents.
In terms of historical facts, all our information about Joachim and Anne – including even their names - is derived from 2nd-century apocryphal literature, notably the Protoevangelium of James. The account of Mary’s birth in the Protoevangelium has a certain obvious resemblance (including the mother's name) to the Old Testament’s account of the birth of Samuel. In the East the Protoevangelium was accorded greater authority than it was in the West, and there was a church dedicated in her honor as early as 550. Eventually, however, the story of Joachim and Anne was incorporated by Jacobus de Voragine in his 13th-century Golden Legend, after which Saint Anne became one of the most popular saints of the Latin Church. It was Saint Anne whom the young Martin Luther invoked when he was famously caught in a storm and fearfully prayed, “Help me Saint Anne. I will become a monk.” Devotion to Saint Anne has continued to be very popular in the Church, and she is fittingly the patron saint of grandmothers.

Grandparents are an important part of the social fabric. As family life experiences increased stress in contemporary society, grandparents are often called upon to play a larger role in the raising of their grandchildren. Of course, in earlier times - before the nuclear family became normative - grandparents were often on the scene in extended family networks and often played a prominent part in the care and education of their children's children. Growing up I had only one living grandparent, but she lived with us. My mother worked part-time. so my grandmother had an important part to play in how I experienced my childhood. I've often traced my lifelong interest in religion in part to her influence. Since she spoke no English, she was also a very vivid connection to our Italian heritage.

For most of history our elders were valued for their experience and wisdom. In contrast, contemporary society has seen constant change - especially technological change - which has seemingly rendered the experience and the wisdom of the old less useful to subsequent generations. Now that I too have achieved senior citizen status, I am acutely conscious of my technological backwardness; and (more problematically) I realize that the experiences that formed my values are not the same as those of today's youth, for whom my "wisdom" is irrelevant ignorance.

In his very first address to the full College of Cardinals after the conclave that elected him last March, Pope Francis addressed this issue. “Courage, dear brothers!” he began. “Probably half of us are in our old age. Old age, they say, is the seat of wisdom. The old ones have the wisdom that they have earned from walking through life. Like old Simeon and Anna at the temple whose wisdom allowed them to recognize Jesus. Let us give with wisdom to the youth: like good wine that improves with age, let us give the youth the wisdom of our lives.”
It is perhaps not the best thing - in fact, I am sure it isn't - that we clergy are so disproportionately old. A more balanced age distribution among the clergy would better reflect society and better serve the Church. (As a practical matter, it would also increase the Church's overall energy and give younger clergy more time to learn from the experience of their elders before being forced to assume positions of leadership).
That said, it is our reality right now, which we need to own. Even as energy diminishes and health becomes more fragile, we need to continue. But we need to do so in the same spirit suggested by Pope Francis - not just soldiering on, but generously intoxicating the world with the "good wine that improves with age."


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