During the season leading up to Christmas known as Advent, the Christian story of Jesus’ birth is often a centerpiece of Western culture. Yet many Christians also celebrate another miraculous story during this time: the Conception of the Virgin Mary, Jesus’ mother. The feast day is traditionally observed on December 8, exactly nine months before the celebration of the Nativity of Mary on September 8. And at the root of this holiday is a fascinating case of the representation of women in Christian apocrypha.
Since little is told about Mary’s life in the Bible, many of the traditions about her conception, birth, and childhood come from extra-biblical literature known as apocrypha. One of the earliest and most important stories in this category is the Greek Proto-Gospel Gospel of James, written sometime in the second century. Later, medieval writers in Western Europe used this story as the basis for adaptations. Among these, the most popular is the Latin Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew (composed in the seventh century), which expands the narrative; and a later text based on Pseudo-Matthew, the Latin Nativity of Mary (composed in the ninth or tenth century). While told with different details, in all of these, the main story revolves around a couple named Anna and Joachim, their daughter Mary (the mother of Jesus), and her life before she is betrothed to Joseph and gives birth to Jesus. All three are worth reading for a full understanding of the historical veneration of Mary in Christianity.
In these apocrypha, Joachim goes to the Temple in Jerusalem to offer a sacrifice, but is turned away because he and Anna have not been able to have any children. After his sacrifice is rejected, Joachim spends some time away from his wife as a shepherd, but finally returns after an angel visits him and promises that Anna will bear a child. One of the striking features of all of these accounts is the significant focus on women. In fact, all three place a heavy emphasis on female agency–first with the character of Anna, then (later) with Mary. Pseudo-Matthew and the Nativity of Mary especially present intriguing scenes.*
In Pseudo-Matthew 2:2-3, after Joachim has been absent for some time, we find Anna in a garden by herself, lamenting her situation and reflecting on her possible widowhood:
Yet she wept in her prayers and said: “Lord, you have given me no children; have you also taken my husband from me? For behold, five months have passed and I have not seen my husband, and I do not know where he might be dead, or where I might make his tomb.” And while she wept in the garden of her house, lifting her eyes in prayer to the Lord, she saw the nest of a sparrow in a laurel tree and sent her voice to the Lord with lamentation and said: “Lord, God Almighty, who has given children to all your creatures, and animals, and beasts of burden, and reptiles, and fish, and birds, all rejoice over children. Do you exclude me alone from your kindness? You know, Lord, from the beginning of my marriage I vowed that, if you give a son or daughter to me, I would bring it to your holy Temple.” And while she said this, an angel of the Lord appeared before her saying: “Do not be afraid, Anna, for your offspring is in God’s design, and that which is born from you will be given admiration in all ages to the end.” And when he said this, he disappeared from her sight. But trembling at having seen such power and hearing such words, she entered her room and threw herself onto her bed and as if dead she remained in prayer all day and all night.
Later, an angel appears to Joachim and gives him the news about Anna’s conception of Mary, telling him to return to his wife. Upon his return (3:5):
Anna ran to meet him and hung onto his neck, giving thanks to God saying: “I was a widow and behold, now I am not, I was sterile and behold, I have conceived.” And then there was joy among all their friends and family, so that all the land and people rejoiced about this news.
In the later, adapted Nativity of Mary, Anna’s prayer in the garden is omitted, as the author revised certain pieces of the story. But Anna is not relegated to a smaller role, as the author also adds a scene in which an angel announces the conception of Mary to her directly (4:1-3):
Then [the angel] appeared to [Joachim’s] wife Anna saying: “Do not fear, Anna, nor think that what you see is a ghost. For I am the angel who has brought your prayers and offerings before the Lord. And now I am sent to you to announce that you will give birth to a daughter, who will be called Mary, blessed above all women. Immediately full of the grace of the Lord from her birth, she will stay at home for three years of nursing. Afterward, dedicated to the service of the Lord, she will not depart from the Temple until her adult years, serving God in fasting and in prayer night and day, abstaining herself from anything unclean. She will never know a man, but alone without example, without stain, without corruption, without intercourse with a man, as a virgin she will give birth to a son; as a servant of God, she will give birth to the Lord; excellent in name and in deed, she will give birth to the Savior of the world.”
Again, Anna and Joachim are reunited soon after this scene (5:2-3):
Then mutually joyful at seeing each other and comforted by the certainty of the promise of offspring they gave thanks owed to the Lord, the uplifter of the lowly. Therefore, having worshipped the Lord, they returned home and awaited the divine promise in certainty and joy. So Anna conceived and gave birth to a daughter and, according to the angel’s command, the parents named her Mary.
While these accounts are considered “apocryphal gospels” by modern categorization, they are quite unlike the biblical gospels because they spend so little time relating Jesus’ life. Instead, Anna and Mary are brought to the foreground.
These features especially highlight the roles of Anna and Mary as major characters in a long line of biblical women (like the genealogies of Jesus’ family in the New Testament) without whom there would be no Messiah. There are certainly parallels here with the story of Sarah’s long-lasting infertility in Genesis (made explicit in one angel’s expanded speech to Joachim in the Nativity of Mary), and the fulfillment of God’s promise to give her and Abraham a son. In many ways, the conception of Mary also foreshadows the later conception of Jesus, related in the narrative as a parallel to the canonical Gospel of Luke. Both Anna and Mary undertake the primary act of advent: waiting.
In the medieval West, both the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew and the Nativity of Mary were pivotal in the development of saint’s cults for both Anna and Mary. As their veneration began to flourish in the tenth and eleventh centuries, these apocrypha gained in popularity. For many religious women in the Middle Ages, the literary representations of Anna and Mary were important models of devotion to God. For Christians, both also remain examples of women who had major roles to play in world history. During the season of Advent, the apocryphal stories of Anna and Mary are important reminders that women have for centuries been seen as an integral part of the Christian tradition.
* Passages from the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew and the Nativity of Mary are my own translations from the Latin texts in Libri de nativitate Mariae, ed. Jan Gijsel and Rita Byers, 2 vols., Corpus Christianorum Series Apocryphorum 9-10 (Turnhout: Brepols, 1997).