Like Us in All Things but Sin

For Advent, I have decided to share the beginning of a meditation in fiction form that I hope will someday be a novel. My plan is to share a chapter each Sunday until Christmas. The whole is a meditation still in progress on virtue, sinlessness and the Holy Family. In imagining the story, I have tried to fit my fantasy as faithfully as possible into the Sacred Story given in Scripture. This fidelity, however, does not extend to the traditions and historical information which I have incorporated from various sources. I offer these opening chapters simply as a bit of Biblical fiction that I hope will be enjoyable this time of year. If it does not appeal to you, no need to keep reading.

Below is the Prologue which introduces the Blessed Mother's parents, Joachim and Anna. I gleaned a lot of information from the book Saint Anne: Grandmother of Our Savior by Frances Parkinson Keyes, but I took a lot of creative liberties with the traditions she so carefully gathered together.


“That’s quite a compliment he just gave you, Achior,” said Eleazar. The two priests were talking privately in Solomon’s Portico. “At this rate, you’ll be high priest before your daughter is fully grown.”

“You flatter me, Eleazar, but that is not a race I am interested in running. If only I can serve the Lord with fidelity all my days, acquire a comfortable place in Jerusalem, and arrange a good marriage for my daughter, I will be a happy man.”

“If that’s the extent of your ambition, my friend, I wish you good luck,” laughed Eleazar. “All the more so since your dreams do not interfere with mine. How old is your daughter now?”

“Ismerion is nearly eight,” replied Achior.

“I saw her with her mother last month during the festival. She is getting to be very pretty. You know my son, Jonathan, is nearing his twelfth year. Our families have always been closely connected,” said Eleazar suggestively.

“The Lord grant that they ever remain so,” Achior returned.

“It will not be easy for you to part with an only daughter, I think?”

“Perhaps not, but my wife is determined to remedy the situation. She will not rest until she gives me a son. I am worn out with the attempt.” Achior winked, hoping his humorous tone would hide his feelings of disappointment. He and his wife had born no children after Ismerion, only frustration and heartbreak.

“Old boy, you make me almost jealous of your situation, difficult as I know it must be. When my Sara has finally gotten our five boys and two girls settled for the night, the only thing she is interested in attempting is sleep. And your Sephora is a beauty, not at all spoiled by years of child bearing.”

“Are you staying in Jerusalem after our week of service ends?” asked Achior, changing the subject.

“We usually do. It’s pointless to make the trip home to Hebron only to turn around and come back for Pentecost. Besides it gives me a chance to work on my connections. I have ambition if you do not. All right, maybe I won’t ever be named high priest, but a good seat on the Sanhedrin would not be unwelcome. It used to be a sure thing from father to son, you know, but all these Pharisees are rising up and claiming seats, as if they were the only ones who know the Law.”

“They do seem to prosper,” said Achior thoughtfully.

“What about you? Will you be staying?” asked Eleazar.

“No, I have my flocks to tend,” answered Achior.

“You may not be ambitious,” chided Eleazar, “but you are a wealthy man and a distinguished priest, Achior. When are you going to stop running about like a common shepherd?”

“Perhaps when I have that comfortable place in Jerusalem. Until then, I intend to keep a close eye on my shepherds. You cannot trust a hired man.” The dream Achior was really waiting for was a son to take his place.

The sun was high in the sky giving off a scorching heat. Achior took refuge under a wild olive tree and fell asleep to the sound of his sheep bleating lazily about him. He awoke as a great ball of fire began to form in the air before him. It had nearly reached the size of a man when a thunderous voice issued from it: “Achior, get up.” Achior stood.

Again came the voice: “Your wife will conceive and bring to term a healthy child.” Achior’s heart leapt within him despite his terror. “The name you are to give the child will be revealed when you enter your house. Go now.”

Not daring to disobey, Achior ran the three miles home. He was winded as he burst through the door. There on the couch in large golden letters was the name: ANNA. A girl’s name! Achior startled awake.

What a nightmare. It had seemed so real; Achior had dared to hope that at last God would grant him a son. What use was another daughter? Yet for the rest of the day Achior could not shake the terrifying announcement from his thoughts. When he came home that evening, his eyes strayed to the couch. It was the same as always. Before bed, he took his daughter Ismerion into his arms. “It would not be such a disappointment to have another,” thought he, “and it would comfort the woman to have a healthy birth, even if it were another girl. She has had such sorrow with all these miscarriages.” Achior said nothing of the vision, but was especially tender that night as he lay with his wife.

Nine months later, Sephora gave birth to a hearty female child. She apologized to her husband that it was not a son, but, even so, she could not hide her joy and relief that the child was living and strong. That night it was Sephora who had a mysterious dream. She dreamt that while she was tenderly swaddling her newborn a name appeared in golden letters inscribed on the infant’s chest and forehead. In the morning, Sephora spoke of it to her husband.

“I think we must name our daughter Anna,” she said.

Achior was troubled; he had not told Sephora of his dream. He had been too afraid to get her hopes up. “That is not a name in use in either of our families,” he commented nonchalantly.

“I had a dream last night. The name Anna was written on the girl in golden letters. And after all, it is a beautiful name, and she is a beautiful girl,” explained his wife.

“The name means ‘favored’ does it not?” asked Achior, unable to hide his wonder at the coincidence.

“Yes, I believe so. Is there something wrong, my husband?” responded Sephora.

“I had a dream. It was months ago, just before you were with child. I was shown that same name. What can it mean?”

“I think it means that her name must be Anna,” said Sephora decidedly. “And of course it is the same name as the mother of Samuel in the Scriptures. Perhaps our Anna will be favored with a holy child. Then you will at least have a mighty grandson, since it seems I cannot give you a son.”

Achior comforted his wife. Looking down at the newborn, he said, “She is a favored creature, I grant it. We will name her Anna, and I will love her more than seven sons, because she is your daughter, Sephora.”

Sephora cheered and said, “You know, I am not ready to give up on having a son. In fact, I am only encouraged. Perhaps, our little Anna is a prophecy that we will be favored next with seven sons.”

Achior kissed his wife; he loved her indomitable spirit. Unfortunately, Sephora was not to have any more children. She died from complications of pregnancy just after Ismerion’s marriage to Jonathan, son of Eleazar. Anna was four; she became Achior’s whole world.

About a year after her marriage to Jonathan, Ismerion gave birth to a daughter whom she named Elizabeth. Ismerion’s father-in-law, Eleazar, disappointed that his first grandchild should be a girl, expressed concern that Ismerion had inherited her mother’s affliction. Fortunately, not two years later she bore a son, the first of many. It was a comfort to Achior and saved him from further shame before his kinsman and old friend.

Anna was always strong. She was not as pretty as her sister, nor as well behaved. She ran wild among the sheep. Her zeal for life was contagious and matched only by her generous heart. She had a vivid imagination and as indomitable a spirit as her mother’s. Anna loved her father more than life and even as a small girl took pride in caring for him.

Marriage, and with it separation, were far from Achior and Anna’s minds when she first came of age at twelve and a half. But by the time she was sixteen, Anna had started to catch eyes and even to have her eye caught from time to time. Achior demanded the best for his favorite daughter. He began to search among the sons of Aaron. Only the finest priestly families would do. There was one promising young man of the clan of Abijah, but his father considered seventeen-year-old Anna already too old to marry his son. Instead, arrangements were made for Zechariah to wed Ismerion’s daughter Elizabeth, leaving Achior no choice but to broaden his search. His daughter was nearing eighteen, and it was fast becoming a matter of scandal that she remained unmarried.

It was around this time that Achior became acquainted with Levi, an honorable old man of the tribe of Judah. Levi’s family was ancient, but not wealthy. They had never quite recovered after returning from the Babylonian exile and had long been settled outside Judea in the north. Achior considered it an admirable feat, that under these circumstances, this ancient clan had managed to keep the Davidic line unbroken and entirely pure of pagan influences for so many centuries. Levi had a son named Matthat, who, thanks to his congenial habits, soon became not only a business partner, but also a close friend.

Matthat had two grown sons. The elder was married and had taken over the family farm when his father and grandfather relocated to Jerusalem. The younger, Joachim, was at this time about twenty years old, honest, hard-working and handsome. His close friends and family called him Heli, a derivative of Joachim after the sort of twists and turns nicknames take. From their first encounter, Heli fell madly in love with Anna. However, Achior resisted marrying a daughter of Aaron, his daughter, outside of the priestly class.

Fortunately for the love-struck young farmer, the arguments in Joachim’s favor were many and convincing. Not least of all was that Anna blushed at the mere mention of his name. Achior already had a son-in-law from his own tribe to be his legal heir. Having recently achieved his dream of a comfortable place in Jerusalem with a coveted appointment to a permanent service in the Temple, what Achior desperately needed was a son-in-law to take over management of his numerous flocks. Joachim, though not a shepherd, showed promise. What is more, he had no land or fortune of his own, which was ideal: it meant that after the wedding, Joachim would have to attach himself to Achior rather than take Anna away. It would be no trouble for Achior to ensure that his son-in-law made his fortune working for him so that after his death, Anna and his grandchildren would be well situated.

In the end, however, what finally pushed Achior to assent to the union were the dreams that surrounded his daughter’s birth. Had not Sephora pointed out that Anna was the name of the mother of Samuel, that great prophet of long ago? Most of the Sadducees, who were his friends and relations, scoffed at the expectation of a Messiah, which was running rampant among the common people. Achior, it is true, had no desire for a bloody revolt, however glorious, to free the nation from Roman occupation, or more likely to get them all killed in the attempt. Yet in his heart of hearts, he longed to see Israel free to follow the Law of the Lord under the reign of a righteous Davidic King. Achior became convinced, therefore, that his Anna would be the chosen mother of the Messiah; Joachim was a descendant of David.

The young couple were married amid great festivity and joy. Alas, all too soon they discovered that like Samuel’s mother in ages past, Anna was unable to conceive. No matter how many prayers were poured out, vows made, or sacrifices offered, there seemed nothing that could change this fact. After about five years of fruitless marriage, Joachim and Achior’s relationship became markedly strained. Another two years found the estrangement nearly complete. One day, Achior blatantly declared that he regretted the marriage. He blamed the infertility on his son-in-law who must have committed some terrible sin, and he demanded that Joachim free his daughter by writing her a bill of divorce. Neither Anna nor Joachim wished this in the least. Anna begged her father to relent, which he did out of love for her. Nonetheless, things remained tense until scandal forced Achior to acknowledge that Joachim was not the cause of the problem.

Elizabeth, Achior’s granddaughter, was also barren. She had been married to Zechariah for over five years when his prominent family finally insisted a doctor be consulted. The doctor pronounced against the wife. The diagnosis came at a time when Achior and Eleazar, Elizabeth’s paternal grandfather, were both potential candidates for a seat on the Sanhedrin, made up of seventy elders. Eleazar was not shy in pointing the finger at his old friend and rival, digging up painful memories of Sephora’s difficulties in child-bearing, citing Anna’s infertility and heavily implying Achior must have cursed God and sinned against the law. During this bitter ordeal, Joachim stood by his father-in-law faithfully, never gloating or reproaching him in the least. On the contrary, it pained him to see Achior questioning why such a terrible chastisement would befall his family even to the third generation.

Achior was a warm-hearted man, and his love for Anna was great. Despite the growing discouragement in his heart, he always spoke to her optimistically. “Rebekah waited twenty years for Esau and Jacob,” Achior would remind his daughter, “and Sara was past ninety when Isaac came along! Your son shall be even greater.” The years passed.

Anna, now thirty-eight, stood beside her father’s deathbed. Ismerion was there with her husband and sons. Joachim was there. All were silent. The venerable old man’s breathing became increasingly labored, but his spirit remained alert. Achior looked at his daughters and his eyes shone. Ismerion took his hand and said her good bye. “You have done well, my daughter,” he gasped looking at her sons with pride. She drew back in tears. Anna leaned over her father to arrange his head more comfortably on the pillow. Their eyes met. She could read pain and disappointment in them.

“I am sorry my father, I have failed you.” She began to sob. He gazed at her blankly for a moment. Then he began to shake his head and was trying to speak, but his eyes closed and a moment later death took him.

Despite his trials, the old priest had remained highly respected. Achior was mourned by many and buried with honor in a tomb outside Jerusalem. As planned from the beginning, the inheritance was divided between his two sons-in-law in such a way that all real property went to Jonathan because Joachim was not of the same tribe. Jonathan, not a shepherd by trade, desired Joachim to continue as manager of the vast flocks, but Joachim would only agree to stay on until Jonathan’s sons could be trained, a competent man hired, or the sheep sold. Joachim had by this time a healthy flock of his own with numerous sheep and lambs as well as a modest property near Nazareth, the Galilean village where he had grown up and where his elder brother still kept the family farm. He was ready to settle down to a simpler existence.

It was over a year before the transition was complete. Much had changed in this time for Anna and Joachim. While his father-in-law had lived, Joachim had been readily accepted among Achior’s social circles. After Achior’s death, however, Eleazar and some of the other priestly families questioned Joachim’s presence among the priestly society. Joachim was called an outsider and cruelly taunted regarding his inability to beget children. Constantly prodded to admit to some hidden sin or divulge the sin of his father-in-law, shame increasingly bore upon Joachim. He had no answer. He would not besmirch the dead, and his own conscience was clear. Had he not always tried to keep the Law? Did he not treat his wife and his hired men well? He gave generously to the temple and even more in alms. He could not explain even to himself why they were thus cursed, but he felt it each day more heavily.

Joachim began staying away longer and longer, hiding amongst his sheep, which were now permanently pastured in Galilee. He could not face his wife’s relatives and their other acquaintances in Jerusalem. Soon he found he could hardly face Anna. He recalled her last words to her father and he blamed himself. What’s more, he knew that he had not amassed the fortune that Achior had desired for Anna’s comfort.

“Heli, I want to come with you to Nazareth,” Anna said one day as he was preparing to set out. It was to be an absence of several months.

“It is no place for you, my wife. The life of a shepherd is not easy.”

“You forget I grew up in the sheepfolds. I have been among the sheep longer than you. I am still strong. Besides don’t we have a small house in Nazareth so that you need not spend all your nights in the fields? You need not spend them alone.”

“Anna, please. Nazareth is no place for you. It’s a small backwards town and the house is little more than a dark room built into a grotto. You will be better here with Ismerion in your father’s house. You are accustomed to comfort and fine things. You will be happier here with your family. In Nazareth, you would spend long days and even many nights alone. Let me go.”

“But Ismerion spends much of the year in Hebron. Am I to go with her, or be left alone in Jerusalem?” Anna protested.

“You may go to Hebron, or, if you prefer, go to stay with Elizabeth. You know you will be warmly welcomed in Zechariah’s house,” said Joachim.

“But I want to go to Nazareth to be with you, my husband.”

“The Lord is against us, Anna. It has to be this way. I’m sorry; I have no hope left. Don’t you see? It will only bring you further pain and shame if we stay together.”

“Don’t you love me anymore, Heli?” Tears streamed down Anna’s face as she asked this. “I know that neither my father nor you were sinners. The Lord will grant us children. We must keep trying. Please don’t leave me, my husband. I know that because I have not been able to give you children I have disappointed you and my father, the two people I love best in the world, but let us not give up yet. I am not so old as that! My frame can still bear children if the Lord will give them. He may yet relent. Let us beg him once more to make us fruitful.”

Heli felt his love for Anna profoundly in that moment, and for a moment he was renewed by her indomitable hope. They knelt in prayer asking God for the glory of his name and in keeping with his justice to bless them with children who would praise his holy name after they were gone. Together, they vowed to offer their first-born to the Lord’s service just as Anna had done long ago with Samuel.

Heli came to his wife that night, but the next morning Joachim left for Nazareth without Anna.

Anna mourned as for the death of her husband. Her heartache was so much the greater because of how powerfully she had known his love for her and hers for him that last night together. He had never before held her the way he did then. Their hearts had truly been one and their desires were pure. Now they were apart. Joachim insisted this was what was best for her, but she feared she would never see him again. That month her womanly flow dried up, and she said, “I am an old woman and a widow now; it is truly over. There is nothing left for me but to die.” Anna began to give away all of her fine things.

Two months passed. Anna was pouring out her grief in the Temple as she did each day, when a young man in a white linen tunic approached and told her she must go find her husband because their prayers had been answered: Anna was with child, a daughter beloved by God. Suddenly Anna’s eyes were opened and she realized her mistake. She had become so used to disappointment that when the sure sign of pregnancy had come at last, she had failed to recognize it as such. Still, she could hardly believe it for joy. She looked about for the mysterious messenger, but he was gone. Incredulous and yet overcome by a desperate hope, Anna left the Temple running wildly in the direction of the nearest city gate.

Heli was there! A mysterious young man had met him too, a few days earlier. He had been told to go in haste to Jerusalem, where he would find his wife looking for him at the sheep gate. He must take her back with him to Nazareth, because she was with child. He had set out immediately. They met in one another’s arms and embraced, forgetful of all propriety.

Joachim was convinced the young men were angels, but Anna laughed dismissively, “Oh, Heli, why would the Almighty send angels to announce the birth of a girl?” Their rejoicing and wonder were no less for it, and they remembered their promise to offer their daughter to the service of the Lord in gratitude for this great favor and in fulfillment of many a desperate vow uttered over the years.

Seven months later Mary entered their lives.

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