|16th century, Russian icon|
Extra-Gospel sources tell us that this devout older couple was ridiculed for their barrenness, their offerings refused by the High Priest. St. Joachim, filled with grief, went to the desert to pray. St. Anne prayed at home. When I first read about them, I thought, oh people, you have to be together, work with God, you know? Thankfully, an angel appeared to both of them telling them that their prayer will be answered, not just with any child, but with Mary, full of grace, who would give birth to the Savior. Joachim and Anne met at the temple :) and the rest is history.
As you can imagine, many women who hope to conceive a child ask for these saints to pray for them. Myself included.
This feast of the Immaculate Conception causes a lot of confusion ... when we were going through RCIA, we wondered about Mary, full of grace. What does it mean? And what did it mean to be preserved from the stain of original sin? Does it mean Mary has no need of a Savior? I am not sure I can explain this well, but let me try with an example. It means that Mary, instead of falling into the pit of sin like all of us and then being saved by Jesus, was prevented from falling into the pit in the first place (by the merits of Jesus before He is Incarnated as a human). She was given ALL the graces necessary to become the Mother of God, but she still had free will and could've said no. But she didn't. She lived in the Divine Will by the grace of God.
Here's the official language of the Feast:
We declare, pronounce and define that the doctrine which holds that the Blessed Virgin Mary, at the first instant of her conception, by a singular privilege and grace of the Omnipotent God, in virtue of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Saviour of mankind, was preserved immaculate from all stain of original sin, has been revealed by God, and therefore should firmly and constantly be believed by all the faithful. —Pope Pius IX, Ineffabilis Deus, December 8, 1854