Jesus had a grandma and grandpa: Lessons on the incarnation from our neighbors

Greg Allen Pickett

During the 12 days of Christmas, we focus a lot on Jesus’ birth and early life. This incarnation, God becoming flesh and dwelling among us, really matters. As mainline Protestants in the United States, I think we don’t often focus on this human side of Jesus.

Have you ever thought about Jesus’ grandparents? If we take the incarnation seriously, and think of Jesus as being fully human, Jesus must have bounced on his grandpa’s knee and been babysat by his grandma, right?

I’d not given much thought to Jesus humanity for the first 20 years of my life and faith journey. Sure, academically I understood the incarnation, but it never fully penetrated my consciousness and made its way into my heart. Then I started doing mission in partnership with the poor, particularly in Latin America, and my understanding of the incarnation began to really take shape.

In my relatively comfortable existence as a middle-class kid brought up in a relatively safe and comfortable country, I naturally thought more about Jesus’ divinity. I didn’t necessarily feel like I needed a Jesus who knew me inside and out, a Jesus who knew my personal struggles because he had lived them himself. I didn’t think about Jesus feeling hunger and eating (except at communion and the feeding of the five thousand), or feeling dirty and bathing (except when he washed the feet of the disciples or was baptized himself). Even the crosses I grew up with in my church were bare, symbolizing the risen Christ, but I never had to sit with the suffering Jesus who was bleeding, in pain, covered in dirt from his long walk up the hill at Calvary. Whether intentionally or unintentionally, I didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about Jesus’ full humanity.

By contrast, the brothers and sisters I met doing work in Latin America thought about the incarnation and Jesus’ humanity. They thought about it a lot. In Latin America and in other parts of the world, a whole extra-biblical narrative has developed about Jesus’ grandparents, Mary’s parents. Some of this is because of their veneration of Mary, but in my experience, it also has to do with a more robust understanding of the incarnation and Jesus’ humanity. They have even given Jesus’ grandparents names: Anna and Joaquin (or Joachim.) They don’t appear in the New Testament, but they can be found in the Gospel of James.

There is a popular folk-art carving from the Caribbean basin called “La Mano Poderosa” (meaning: the powerful hand). In this rendering you can see five finger-puppets on a hand that has been pierced by a nail and is bleeding, with dirt in the joints and under the fingernails. This image tells a powerful story of the human Jesus with the hand, the dirt, the blood and the finger-puppets. The puppets represent Mary, Joseph, Anna, Joaquin and Jesus.

This is a God who loved us so much that he became human, lived life among us, shared our joys and sufferings, and eventually died for us. By doing this, being Emmanuel, God with us, we know that God is with us in our highest highs and lowest lows. Does reflecting on Jesus’ grandparents help us to more deeply understand the incarnation and Jesus’ becoming fully human? It sure does for me, and I feel like I owe a huge debt of gratitude to my neighbors in Latin America who have brought the incarnation to life in new and profound ways, like naming Jesus’ grandparents.

Allen Pickett 2GREG ALLEN-PICKETT serves as the director of global mission at First Presbyterian Church of Atlanta. Prior to coming to FPC, Greg was the general manager for Presbyterian World Mission of the PC(USA). Greg has an amazing partner in ministry in his wife, Jessica, and a gregarious and compassionate daughter in elementary school, along with a ridiculous lab-beagle mix dog named Luna.