Memorial of Saints Joachim and Anne, Parents of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Lectionary: 399

I, the LORD, am your God,
who brought you out of the land of Egypt, that place of slavery.
You shall not have other gods besides me.
You shall not carve idols for yourselves
in the shape of anything in the sky above
or on the earth below or in the waters beneath the earth;
you shall not bow down before them or worship them.

The Jews gave us Jesus. The Greeks gave us a philosophical foundation for our religion. And the Romans? They gave us patron saints.
The scripture scholar and theologian Luke Timothy Johnson has described how the social-economic structure of the Roman Empire shaped Roman Catholic spirituality. In the Roman world who you knew was more important than what you knew; and your personal wealth was less important than either. Wealth in that world, as in ours, is ephemeral; it can vanish overnight.

Roman society throughout the Empire was built on connections. To get ahead you had to belong to the right family. Failing that you married into the right family or cultivated friends within the family. Families, of course, were always ascending or descending in power. The most powerful were emperors; the least were slaves. Scholars, artists, and skilled laborers jockeyed for position among powerful families, cultivating friends – call them patrons – who could give them work.
In that system the client promoted the interests of his patron, and the patron bestowed privileges and opportunities on his clients. Dr. Johnson points out university systems still work like that. If you want to get your doctorate, it helps to have the right mentor. He or she can usher you through the interviews and exams to get ahead. Also, from what I hear of power in our nation’s capital, the right connections still make all the difference for lobbyists, news reporters and civil servants.

Ancient Christians could not imagine a spiritual world without patronage and so they cultivated relationship with the martyrs. Before they were hauled into the arena, the devout asked prospective martyrs to pray for them and to carry greetings to their loved ones in heaven. Because memories were long in a world where no one moved very far from their place of birth, people befriended the saints and martyrs who had lived and died in their own small town. They might remember the saint lived “right there in that house,” worshiped God in that chapel, healed a leper on this street and is buried “there in our cemetery.” 
It helped if your patron saint was especially famous and beloved throughout the world, but how could you not love a saint who spoke your own dialect and enjoyed your local cuisine – even if she died three hundred years ago? In a world without change, time meant nothing.

The Protestant Reformation would attempt to uproot that system of patronage. As the structures of power mutated from connections to knowledge, skills and experience, a world embroidered with degrees, certificates and diplomas, Protestants dismissed patron saints as idols.
That was unfair. Patron Saints were friends in high places to those who lived on the margins of society. If the least among us are generally despised by the powerful, what would inspire them to hope that the Most Powerful All-Seeing God would care about them? But a humble saint, who lived right here in this neighborhood and scraped out a living as I do, who had reached the unreachable and attained the unattainable: she will pray with me before God.
On this feast of the parents of Mary the Mother of God, we thank God for the friendship, patronage and inspiration of Joachim and Ann, a married couple who adored their grandchild. 

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I love to write. This blog helps me to meditate on the Word of God, and I hope to make some contribution to our contemplations of God's Mighty Works.

Ordinarily, I write these reflections two or three weeks in advance of their publication. I do not intend to comment on current events.

I understand many people prefer gender-neutral references to "God." I don't disagree with them but find that language impersonal, unappealing and tasteless. When I refer to "God" I think of the One whom Jesus called "Abba" and "Father", and I would not attempt to improve on Jesus' language.

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