A few years ago when a Byzantine Catholic priest was giving me a tour of his church, I discovered a large, prominent icon of a hugging couple. When I took a closer look, I noticed that there was a marriage bed behind them. It was clear that this was a beautifully chaste representation of conjugal love and union. With my great interest in the theology of the body and the history of “spouse symbolism” in the Church, I naturally wanted to get to know the story behind this “icon of conjugal love” in Eastern theology.
“You know who you are, don’t you?” asked the priest. “No, I do not.” “That’s Joachim and Anne,” he said. “Do you know what we call this symbol?” “No, not me,” I replied with an interest in learning. “The Immaculate Conception.” I was filled with a feeling of wonder and also deep gratitude for the “holy daring” that is often found in Eastern theological tradition.
To be honest, I had never thought about the reality of Joachim and Anne’s loving union. When I thought of the “coming” of Mary in her Immaculate Conception at all, the word “conception” made me think of that miraculous event in Anne’s womb when the full merits of the death and resurrection of Christ were applied. in advance ”to Mary from the first moment of her existence (see CCC 491-492). But regarding the union of Joachim and Anne that preceded the biological and theological event of Mary’s conception, I never really thought about it. I might even have thought it shouldn’t be considered. But here, in this sacred icon – unknown to most of us in the West – the tradition of the Eastern Church maintains the chaste, loving union of Joachim and Anne as the main symbol for contemplation in the mystery of the Immaculate Conception.
What should we do with it? It goes without saying that we must respect the important veil that surrounds the secret of the embrace of Joachim and Anne, just as this icon does. With that respect as a starting point, at least one thing that this icon contemplates for us is the possibility of real holiness and virtue in the conjugal embrace, not just as an intellectual idea but as a lived experience. The conjugal embrace of Joachim and Anne, as chastely portrayed in the sacred icon of the Immaculate Conception, should help all married couples pursue an intimate life that is “full of grace”. The conjugal act itself, says John Paul, should be the perfect expression of the sacrament of marriage, expression and participation in the “life according to the Spirit” (see TOB 101: 6) in the life of the Holy Trinity.
If this “graceful” reality is to become a lived experience for couples and not just an intellectual idea, we must of course be ready to perform a “complete purification”, as Blessed John Paul II put it (see TOB 116 : 3). And this includes ongoing and often very painful exams. We are purified by fire and this fire can “burn” with great intensity in different times of the year in our lives. Joachim and Anne were certainly no strangers on this path of purification.
Ever since I discovered it, the sacred icon of the Immaculate Conception has become one of my favorite treasures of the East. Reflecting on the chaste love of Joachim and Anne made me all the more drawn to use the words of Blessed John Paul II to “be full of reverence for the essential values of conjugal union…. of the conjugal act. “It made me appreciate more deeply the fact that the conjugal act“ bears within it the mark of the divine mystery of creation and redemption ”(TOB 131: 5).
On this July 26th, as we celebrate the feast of Saints Joachim and Anne, we may be filled with great admiration for their marriage and not fear the “complete purification” that is required to follow 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
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