Mary’s relationship with Joseph was briefly
complicated by her blessing. May I not abandon
my blessings due to worldly considerations.
When we think of the Holy Family, we think of the perfect family. We see God Himself in the form of a child. We see the mother of Jesus who accepted her role in perfect faithfulness to God at the word of the angel. We see Joseph who stepped up to be their protector and provider. We pray our families can be as perfect and holy as this one. It’s easy to forget that the situation wasn’t without controversy.
When his mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found with child through the holy Spirit (Matt 1:18).
Was the true parentage of Christ publicly known or was the Gospel writer simply letting his reader know the origins of her gravid state? We know of the Annunciation through the Gospel of Luke. This is the first mention in the Gospel of Matthew. Why does that matter? If it was widely believed that her pregnancy was of God Himself then she would be a great spectacle in their society and likely the object of widespread curiosity. She would be the fulfillment of prophecy (Is 7:14). Flashing forward, her name would likely be known in the palace of Herod as the mother of the savior he pursued. Where could they hide? How could Jesus grow in obscurity and be like us in all ways but sin if His origins were widely known to be miraculous from the start?
On the other hand, if the parentage of her child wasn’t widely known then this verse of Scripture is setting up a great controversy. Mary, a maiden betrothed to a man but not yet in his household, is found to be with child. Such a thing today has become too commonplace to cause great scandal. It was very different in the society in which Mary lived. The punishment for adultery was death!
If a man happens to meet in a town a virgin pledged to be married and he sleeps with her, you shall take both of them to the gate of that town and stone them to death—the young woman because she was in a town and did not scream for help, and the man because he violated another man’s wife. You must purge the evil from among you (Deut 20:23-24).
If a man commits adultery with his neighbor’s wife, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall be put to death (Lev 20:10).
Was the parentage of Christ widely known? Was even her pregnancy widely known outside of her family and betrothed? I don’t think so. If it was known publicly, it would have been dealt with publicly. I think the first verse above simply sets the stage with an aside for the reader to understand what happens next.
Joseph her husband, since he was a righteous man, yet unwilling to expose her to shame, decided to divorce her quietly (Matt 1:19).
In their day, betrothal was nearly the same as marriage. They were married in all ways except cohabitation. They had not consummated the marriage. That is why Joseph is called her husband and yet there is controversy around her pregnancy. That is why he finds himself in an awkward position. In this one sentence, there is an important contradiction. That contradiction tells a story.
A righteous man in the time of Joseph was zealous for the Law of Moses. This law required that a woman caught in adultery should be brought before the judges of Israel. If she was found guilty, she may be put to death. Joseph was a righteous man… but he made an unrighteous choice. Why? Mary. There was something so special about Mary that a man known to be righteous would make a choice to spare her rather than fulfill the strictures of the law.
What we know from the Bible about Mary comes from prophecy and her mentions in the Gospels. In prophecy, she was foretold in the Protoevangelium of Genesis…
I will put enmity between you and the woman,
and between your offspring and hers;
They will strike at your head,
while you strike at their heel (Gen 3:15).
Her virginal motherhood of God was foretold by the prophet Isaiah…
“Behold, the virgin shall be with child and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” (Is 7:14).
The momentous birth was foretold…
But you, Bethlehem-Ephrathah
least among the clans of Judah,
From you shall come forth for me
one who is to be ruler in Israel;
Whose origin is from of old,
from ancient times.
Therefore the Lord will give them up, until the time
when she who is to give birth has borne (Micah 5:1-2),
God created something new in them. Eve was made from a rib drawn from Adam. In the new Adam and Eve (1 Cor 15:45-49), man comes from the woman…
The Lord has created a new thing upon the earth:
woman encompasses man (Jer 31:22).
The genealogy of Matthew gives the family line of Joseph. Luke’s genealogy of Mary shows her as the culmination of God’s plan. Both family lines go through David. Jesus is Son of David directly through His mother’s lineage and also through the lineage of His foster father. The two Gospels pinpoint Christ as the focal point of both genealogies.
In the Gospels, Mary is always found in relation to our Lord. She is present in the major events of His life. She is called “full of grace” (Luke 1:28).The Lord is with her (Luke 1:28). She is blessed among women (Luke 1:48). She is called “mother of God” through her Son, God incarnate (Luke 1:32, 35, 43). She is present through the Passion and Death of our Lord and with the Apostles in the upper room at Pentacost. She is a central figure in the incarnation. Being “full of grace” and “not anticipating grace” from her Son, we believe she was preserved from original sin of Adam and Eve and prepared as a pure vessel to act as the Ark of the New Covenant (Ex 25:11-21)—more on that another time. Such a person likely made an impression on people around her. There had to be something different about Mary.
We don’t know much of Mary’s early life from the Bible. Stories were written in the early Church and oral traditions were carried forward. We can read accounts in the Protoevangelium of James (an apocryphal Gospel dating to the end of the second century), the visions of Blessed Anne Catherine Emmerich, and the writings of many saints. They paint a picture consistent with the Gospels but not regarded as canonical dogma. I share these stories not as an article of faith but as an argument to understand the contradiction noted above.
Joachim (also called Eliachim or Heli) and Anna were the parents of Mary. Joachim was of the lineage of David and Anna was said to be a descendent of the priestly family of Aaron. From this, the Christ sprang from both a royal and priestly family. They prayed for years to have a child but were denied. Anna promised God that if her prayers were answered, she would dedicate the child to the Temple. Her prayers were answered.
When Mary was three years old, she was taken to the Temple. It is said she walked up the steps unaided. She was among young women who served until the age of twelve. Young girls were considered marriage-eligible at twelve years and six months of age. They could be betrothed in marriage but consummation would be a year after.
In her time at the Temple, she is believed to have taken a vow of perpetual virginity. This would explain her question to the angel, “How can this be, since I have no relations with a man?” (Luke 1:34). She isn’t ignorant on the production of children. She could simply assume her marriage to Joseph will result in a child… so why the question? The context of the question makes sense if it comes from her vow… how will she cooperate with the will of God and still keep her vow?
Her “graduation” from the Temple presented a problem. How could she be given in marriage with a vow of virginity? She needed a protector, not a traditional husband. Older, widowed men of the house of David were convened and the priest prayed for a sign from God. No sign was given. It was noted that Joseph hadn’t been present at the convocation. They were reconvened with Joseph in attendance… and his staff flowered. It was the sign. He was chosen. Many statues and paintings of Joseph show him holding a flowering staff.
Why were only men from the house of David convened? Mary seems to be an only child… she was a miracle baby born from older parents. That makes her an heiress to her parents’ estate. They may have desired to keep the family wealth in the line of David… however meager it may be. The line of David converged on their marriage so there could be no doubt of our Lord’s birthright to David’s throne.
Joseph knew of Mary’s vow of virginity and respected it. Mary knew of Joseph’s role as her protector and accepted him in faithfulness and trust of God. She questioned how she would bear a child and keep her vow to God. He may have questioned how he could be a part of so great a mystery.
It’s against this backdrop that he decided to divorce her quietly. I’m sure she was honest in her explanation to him. As a righteous man, the law requires testimony by two to verify the truth (John 8:17). Who can back up Mary’s claims? If he didn’t believe her, the righteous man would have turned her over to the authorities. Believing her, Joseph may have been frightened by the prospect of caring for God’s Son and His mother… or he may have deemed himself unworthy. His sense of justice is confused—not sure how best to fulfill the law in righteousness. He decided to make a quiet exit.
God tends to call the humble and simple to do the great work of Heaven. The Apostles were among the lowest of society. We don’t know of any words uttered by St Joseph but I picture a dialogue similar to the one from St Juan Diego when our Lady asked him to do a great thing…
I ask you to give this charge to another…more worthy of respect who will be believed, because you know, my Lady…that this is not something for me to do.
As our Lady herself verified the words of St Juan Diego on his tilma, God intervened for Joseph. An angel came to Joseph in a dream to confirm Mary’s words…
“Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home. For it is through the holy Spirit that this child has been conceived in her. She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet:
“Behold, the virgin shall be with child and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel,” (Matt 1:20-23)
Joseph was a righteous man. Once the conflict in his righteous intentions was resolved, he set out to do the will of God. In the words of prophecy, he found purpose. This had been foretold and was now to be fulfilled. All strictures of the law had been fulfilled. There is no further mention of discord in their relationship. He wanted to do the right thing, he simply needed the contradiction resolved for him.
Had he succeeded in divorcing Mary, he would have missed out on one of the greatest blessings ever offered a man.
We can question our great blessings, too. Many people get cold feet when contemplating a coming wedding. Parents may regret having children when their lives are thoroughly changed. We may have doubts in our faith as we encounter distractions in the world. The seed of faith sown in us may encounter rocks or thorns (Matt 13:20-22) and we may be tempted to stray from our path. We make excuses for our lack of faith and blame our troubles on the world Christ has already conquered.
When we choose to follow Christ, we make ourselves enemies of the world (James 4:4). We will be mocked for our faith. We may be physically abused and even killed. The more we become conformed to Christ—the more we look like Him to the world—the more the world will treat us as it treated Him.
We must not become distracted in our love for God and our neighbor. Christ loved us to His death and will continue to love us forever (1 Chron 16:34). We have nothing to fear. Our home is not here. If the world should drive us out, we will find our home in Heaven for eternity. Our end on Earth is the beginning of our true life… life everlasting. We must persevere in the faith as it is necessary for us to undergo many hardships to enter the kingdom of God (Acts 14:22) and hold fast to our Lord’s promises through the trials of life.