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The missing St. Anne

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During an assignment at Seton School in Manassas this week, I noticed a large statue nestled in a corner at the front of the school's newly constructed chapel. I was surprised to find out that the statue was of St. Anne, Our Lady and the baby Jesus, specially designed for Seton's new chapel. In 30 years as a practicing Catholic, I had never seen an image of St. Anne with the child Jesus, let alone three generations of the Holy Family.

I've since learned that there is a famous painting of the trio by Leonardo da Vinci on display at the Louvre Museum in Paris, but the concept still feels like something of a rarity in religious art. After doing a little reading, I think I know why.

Catholics know nothing for sure about the life of St. Anne or her husband, St. Joachim. The gospels never mention the maternal grandparents of Jesus. The only source of possible information is from an apocryphal work written around 150 AD, but the credibility of that source is dubious. Even in that legend, there is no mention of them beyond Mary's early childhood, much less any role they may have played in Jesus' life. We don't even know for sure if Mary's parents were really named Anne and Joachim.

Regardless, Catholics have a long history of honoring St. Anne. As Catholic Online puts it: "For those who wonder what we can learn from people we know nothing about and how we can honor them, we must focus on why they are honored by the church. Whatever their names or the facts of their lives, the truth is that it was the parents of Mary who nurtured Mary, taught her, brought her up to be a worthy Mother of God. It was their teaching that led her to respond to God's request with faith … It was their faith that laid the foundation of courage and strength that allowed her to stand by the cross as her son was crucified and still believe.

Did St. Anne ever meet her grandson? We don't know. But it's an aspect of Jesus' life that's interesting to think and wonder about. The statue at Seton School hints at something larger, too: a kind of seamless unity between the young and old, forged by love and service to God. Isn't that something of a rarity in today's "throwaway culture"? Sometimes, it's too easy to forget what the elderly can teach us.

In the absence of solid facts, artistic creativity can still give us a lot to think about. St. Anne, pray for us.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2016