It’s such a shame

What little we “know” of the parents of Mary, mother of Jesus, comes from legend and tradition reaching back into the second century.

The story begins in grief. It is not their childless state that throws Joachim and Anne into crisis after twenty years of marriage, but it breaks in via those who would cast their lives as symptoms of shame.

First, Joachim is explicitly rejected at the altar of the Lord as he brings his offering of first fruits. The priest shames him, saying that he has no right to offer sacrifice since the Lord has not granted him fruit of his loins. Joachim is crushed, devastated. Ashamed, he flees into the wilderness, and remains there, fasting, praying, and nursing his wounded soul.

Anne is left behind, not knowing if her husband is alive or dead. She must have heard about his rejection by the priest, his public shaming. She would be worried sick, and ashamed herself of having been unable to provide him with a child to cover his shame. To add insult to injury, her own servant spits contempt at her: “If God has shut up your womb, and has taken away your husband from you, what can I do for you?” (The Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew).

When the twin angels announce to the couple that Mary will be born, a gift from God, they are rescued from their grief, restored to one another, and received back into their community.

The community loves little Mary, until she shows up pregnant. Now, the shame is not on any lack of fertility but on its unexpected abundance. According to Pseudo-Matthew, even Joachim and Anne join in shaming their daughter, even as they were subjected to shame by the same institution.

So much pain is visited upon these individuals, and passed down through the generations, by religious people who claim to speak for God, but who fail to recognize or receive the messages of multiple angels who, while they were visiting Joachim, Anne, Joseph, and Mary, could surely also have put their priests in the picture.

Perhaps it is this family history that makes Jesus so sensitive to those subjected to the soul-killing effects of shame, especially the women, suspect for their sex, such as one caught in adultery, or another of dubious reputation weeping at his feet.

In her study of shame, Daring Greatly, Brene Brown defines shame as “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.”

This is the feeling that drove Joachim into the wilderness, and Anne to distraction; that lingered long enough to distract them from the message that Mary brought back from the angel who appeared to her, as to her mother and her father, promising new life.

When their daughter presented them with their first grandchild, one has to believe that some healing happened, since the love of Jesus has power to heal our wounds and restore our bruised souls to gladness.  Better, though, to be tender in the first place, recognizing our tendency to shame; to be gentle in how we speak to and about one another; to listen to our better angels before bruising the dignity of any one beloved of God.

Featured image: Triptyque de la confrérie de Sainte-Anne à Louvain, by Quentin Matsys [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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