More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us.

Romans 5:3-5

At the conclusion of every Divine Liturgy, there is a dismissal prayer, called the “Apolysis”. In this prayer, we ask Christ to “have mercy on us and save us” through the intercessions of many saints, which include “the Apostles” (not by name, just the group of them), “the Martyrs” (again, not by name, just the group of them), the saint whose Divine Liturgy we are celebrating (either St. John Chrysostom or St. Basil), the saint of the church (different for each church), and the saint of the day (changes each day of the year). There are five names that are in every Apolysis at every Divine Liturgy throughout the year. First, there is Christ, because He is the One whom we are asking to have mercy on us and save us. There is the Virgin Mary (the Theotokos, the Mother of Christ), St. John the Baptist (the Forerunner of Christ), and Sts. Joachim and Anna (the parents of the Virgin Mary).

Everyone has heard of the Virgin Mary and St. John the Baptist, but most people, both outside of Orthodoxy and plenty of people who are Orthodox, do not know the story of Joachim and Anna. Joachim was from the tribe of Judah, a direct descendant of King David. Anna was the daughter of Matthan, who was a priest from the tribe of Levi. All the priests were descendants of this tribe. Matthan had three daughters—Mary, Zoia and Anna. Zoia would be the mother of Elizabeth, who was the mother of St. John the Forerunner.

Joachim and Anna had been married for fifty years, without children. Anna’s cousin, Elizabeth, and her husband, Zacharias, had also not been able to have children. Two thousand years ago, people thought that suffering was a result of falling out of favor with God. There was a stigma in not having children, and this was not only sociological, but spiritual. Joachim and Anna were generous in giving, offering one third of their income to the poor, one third to the temple and living off one third themselves. Joachim received criticism for his sacrifices, because they came from childless hands. Joachim studied the genealogy of the tribes of Israel and discovered that there was no righteous man who did not have children. He was in despair. Joachim and Anna prayed to God that HE would give them a child in old age, as He had for Abraham and Sarah, with whom He made the first covenant in Genesis. While Joachim was tending his flocks and Anna was praying in her garden, they were each visited by an angel, and told that they would give birth to a daughter through whom would come the salvation of the whole world.

They conceived shortly thereafter, and the Virgin Mary was born. Joachim and Anna took the Virgin Mary to the temple when she was three years old to be raised by the priests in the temple. Both had passed away by the time Mary came out of the temple at approximately age 13. (Much of the information in the preceding three paragraphs came from

When we reflect on the story of Joachim and Anna, many of us will connect with it in some way. Think of these people, not only giving a tithe (10%) of their income to the temple, but giving 33% and another 33% to charity. Think of how they were ridiculed for their piety, in the face of not having children, and how they had to stay steadfast in the face of criticism. Think of how they must have been when they got married, excited for a future filled with children and grandchildren, as their peers enjoyed. And yet, this was not God’s plan for them. Their part in God’s plan for the salvation of the world involved waiting until old age to have a child, to not be able to watch the child grow up in their home—she was raised in the temple—and to not see the amazing things she did in her adult life, because they had already reposed by that time.

Yet, Joachim and Anna played crucial roles in God’s plan for the salvation of the world—they bore the Theotokos, who bore the Christ, the Savior of the world. They are so important that they are two of five names mentioned at every Divine Liturgy in every church around the world.

Each of us has a role to play in God’s plan for the salvation of the world. Some of the roles are more “glamorous,” and some are more anonymous. Some involve more ease and some involve more hardship. In many instances, people are like Joachim and Anna, later in years, disappointed in how things turned out for them, reflecting back on their earlier years and knowing that they would not have drawn up their life plan the way it actually turned out.

I have read the verses from St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans 5:3-5 many times. Many times when we have a setback, we hear the idea that it is “character building.” I’ve always found that phrase to be patronizing. Sometimes we have setbacks that are totally the fault of someone else, or are so horrific we want to quit, or we start to lose our minds because we are so stressed out. “Character building” is a trite phrase which many times, I believe, does more harm than good to someone. Here is a different way to look at life’s setbacks. Rather than focusing on how they build our own character, perhaps it is healthier to look at how they help us imitate the character of Joachim and Anna, or other figures in the Bible who didn’t have the perfect life. If I am suffering in my own personal character, I might have the temptation to feel slighted, to lash out at the Lord and lament “Why me?” But if while I am “suffering” I place myself in the place of Joachim and Anna, or Zacharias and Elizabeth, or any other Biblical figure who suffered, then the suffering becomes motivating, even empowering. Because now I am not looking at the breaking down of my character, but the building up of my character to imitate someone who is righteous.

Jesus tells us that “he who endures to the end will be saved.” (Matthew 10:22, 24:13, Mark 13:13) If endurance is what leads to salvation, then it is easier to tolerate suffering, because that leads to endurance, which shapes our character, which produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because hope is not in the things of man but of the things of God. Our hope is not in what society says we should conform to but what God commands us to. Our hope is in Christ leading us to eternal life.

The story of Joachim and Anna is one we can all relate to on some level. Life didn’t get lived out the way they probably planned it would, but the way that God planned. His role for them was crucial in His plan for the salvation of the world. Which is why today we exalt them as saints on earth, and God exalts them in His heavenly Kingdom. We can’t base how we live on the expectations of others, and sometimes not even on our own expectations, but rather allowing God’s plan to unfold in our lives and working in concert with Him to play our role in His plan for the salvation of the world.

Have mercy on me, O God. Have mercy on me.
O Creator, You worked salvation in the midst of the earth, that we might be saved. You were crucified of Your own will upon the Tree; and Eden, closed until then, was opened. Things above and things below, the creation and all the peoples have been saved and worship You.
(Canon of St. Andrew of Crete, Ode Four, Trans. by Fr. Seraphim Dedes)

Our entrance into God’s heavenly Kingdom will not be based on how much of our plan we accomplish, but on how we fulfill God’s call for each of our lives.