THE ways of God are marvellous, both in their deliberateness and in their swiftness. He prepares His designs from eternity, then He matures them in time slowly and silently, and then, when the appointed moment comes near, He brings them about almost suddenly, and with great rapidity. We have been trying to follow in our thoughts the gradual preparation of the Blessed Mother of God for her wonderful position and work, and there has been no hurry or want of perfect deliberation about her course up to this time. All has gone on smoothly and quietly. The world has known nothing of the great work that was being founded in its midst. The very inmates of the sanctuary themselves may have had but little inkling of the beautiful growth of grace which had been proceeding so continuously and so secretly in one whom they saw constantly, and whom they must have noticed and admired for numberless graces of manner and conduct which she manifested, while at the same time her extreme modesty and love of retirement hid her from any attention which might have disturbed the work of the Holy Ghost in her soul. He had never wrought at any other time so splendid and magnificent a work as that on which He had been engaged in the soul of Mary. But, thanks be to God, He never has ceased, and never will, from working out most glorious achievements of grace in the thousands of souls in the Church, in the Christian family, in the homes of religion, or in the busy world, wherein He sees His own treasures, and brings about His own triumphs. This is that work of His on which, as the Apostle says, the Angels desire to gaze. It is in the eye of Heaven the most beautiful and the most important affair that is being carried on in this poor world of ours, the work of the Creator Spirit ''filling with supernal grace the hearts which He has created." And now the time was approaching, in the case of this one most blessed soul, for the great step in her onward career which was to change the whole current of her life, and affect the whole course of the Providence of God in His dealings with mankind.
Now the time had come for one of the swift acts of the Holy Ghost. Mary had reached the age, whether fourteen or fifteen as it may have been, which it was usual for the maidens who were brought up in the sacred precincts to leave that holy home for their parents' dwellings, thence to take their post in the condition for which they were designed, to be given in marriage, and become in due time the mothers and rulers of families of their own. She had grown on and on in the measures of her grace. But of the one thing which most nearly related to her future and to the plans of God concerning her, she had not the very faintest thought or imagination, namely, that she was to become the Mother of God. She may have known the Scriptures perfectly, she must have had a gift of intelligence concerning the ways of God as there revealed which surpassed by far all the learning of the doctors who taught in the schools of the Temple, she knew all the prophecies, she had unravelled all the types, she understood that the time was at hand, according to the prophecies which treated of that point, such as the predictions of Jacob and of Daniel, she had been long accustomed to pour out her heart in the most fervent prayer for the hastening of the advent of the Messias, and she had often thought how she would delight, if such might be her lot, to see Him in the flesh, and perhaps to be the handmaiden of the glorious Virgin who was to be His Mother. She may have been familiar, as has been said, with the visits of Angels, and have con versed with these blessed citizens of Heaven about the matters on which her thoughts were for ever dwelling, on which her whole heart was bent. But never from Scripture or Angel, the roll of prophecy, or the lights breathed over her mind in prayer and contemplation, had she caught the most distant hint that she was to be that most favoured among women for whose appearance in the world she so ardently longed. Her one thought seems now to have been, how she could serve our Lord in the virgin state, with the love of which she had been filled by the Holy Ghost, He Who sows, as the Church sings, the "counsel of chastity" in the hearts of His beloved brides.
It was a feature in the prophecies, that though the promised Redeemer was to come of the seed of David and to sit on the throne of His father David, there had never been any mention of any one who was to be His Father after the flesh. His Mother was the subject of prophecy, but nothing had been said of any one who was to be her husband. Commonly, we may suppose, people thought little about this, and expected the Christ to be born in the ordinary way. There was no room in the ordinary thoughts of men for any other anticipation. It was not yet thought of that a maiden could desire to remain in her virginal purity, to live among the people without the protection of a husband, and without the corresponding duties. God had His own reasons for hiding from His enemies, as the Fathers tell us, this part of His counsel concerning the Incarnation, and it was mainly by this concealment that Satan was kept in ignorance of the design by which our Lord was to come into the world as the Son of the Virgin. Mary had no plan of life sketched out for herself, beyond her one great desire. She left herself and her purpose, as always, in the hands of God. But this could not prevent the thought occurring to those who had the charge of her, that the time was now come for her to take the same course with other maidens when it was their time for quitting the Temple. It would appear certain that by this time the parents of the Blessed Virgin were dead, and she would therefore be under the charge of the priests who governed the com munity of maidens, and of her own nearest relatives who might be to her in the place of her parents. The Law provided carefully for such cases as hers.
We may take it for granted that our Blessed Lady would not in any way disclose to those who had the charge of her the desire which she had conceived of living a life in the service of God, and in the holy state of virginity. This was a secret which was altogether for herself and her God. The instincts of the saints lead them uniformly to be silent on such matters, and it was not till it was necessary that she should put the question, that she asked the Angel Gabriel how it was to be that she \vas to become a mother, pleading the difficulty of her virginal vow. It is not at all likely that she would have communicated this secret to any of those who had now to be the directors of her path in life.
The old tradition tells us that the priests collected all the unmarried men of her own tribe and family, and that out of all these so brought together as candidates for the hand of Mary, St. Joseph was chosen by a miraculous designation, the rod which he bore in his hand being seen to flower, while those of all the others remained as they were. It cannot be said that this pleasing legend rests upon any certain historical authority, and we may again remind our selves here of what has been already said about the comparative unimportance of these embellishments of the story before us. The legend represents the truth that the hand of our Blessed Lady was of priceless value, and that the good Providence of God, Who had chosen her to be the Mother of the Incarnate Son, had also watched over her in this respect of providing for her, in a marvellous manner, the Spouse to whom she might with safety be confided. The incident of the flowering rod is found in the account of the designation of Aaron for the office of the High Priest. But in any case we here come for the first time across the mention of him who was to be so dear to Mary and to her Divine Son, who was to have so blessed and lofty an office in guiding them and guarding them in their earthly course, who was to be raised to so high a level of sanctity by his constant intercourse with them, and to fill so magnificent a throne in the Kingdom of Heaven in correspondence to his services to them upon earth. While the training of Mary had been going on in the sacred precincts of the Temple under the guidance of the Holy Ghost, the same Divine Lover of souls had been preparing the great sanctity of Joseph in his quiet shop or cottage at Bethlehem. Now the time was come for the union of those two glorious lives, which had hitherto been flowing almost side by side along the course of perfection, without being conscious of the destination of God by which it was decreed that for the rest of their lives, and for ever after this life, they were to be inseparably one.
If the legend of which mention has been made be set aside for the moment, we are not thereby deprived of most sufficient authority for the Divine appointment of St. Joseph with regard to our Blessed Lady. It is well known that almost every possible opinion has been formed about the precise grade of their relationship, and as to the particular line of ancestry by which either of them was connected with their royal progenitor, David. But the result of the discussion seems at least to make it quite certain that St. Joseph and our Blessed Lady were very nearly related one to the other. By some it is thought that he was her uncle, by others that he was her first cousin, and it is very reasonably thought that he was the person pointed out by the Law as her husband, on account of the fact that she was an only child, and the heiress of the little property which had been possessed by St. Joachim and St. Anne. St. Joseph was probably a few r years older than his blessed bride, but there seems no ancient authority for the belief that he was at this time far advanced in years. As her nearest relative on the father's side he was her natural protector, and it is quite reasonable to think that, living as he did near Jerusalem, he had often visited her while she was in the Temple, and was a partner of most of her secret thoughts. He was the person to whom the priests would naturally turn when the time had come for bestowing her in marriage, and, according to the precedent of the daughters of Zalphaad in the Pentateuch, it would be a duty incumbent on him to become her husband, and so preserve the inheritance of St. Joachim in the family to which they both belonged. This seems to be the simple and natural explanation of the facts concerning the marriage of the Blessed Mother of God.
It has been said that our Lady would almost certainly be guided by the Holy Ghost to keep a strict silence with regard to her vow of virginity, leaving it to God to provide in His own way for the preservation of what she had promised to Him. But her new relation to St. Joseph would make it necessary for him to become the sharer of her secret, whether before the time of the actual espousals or after. He had already, indeed, a sort of authority over her as her nearest of kin, and this alone would give him a right to her secret desire. It was now as it was afterwards with regard to the Incarnation of our Lord in her womb. Mary did not speak, but left to God the time and the manner of the disclosure. We may be sure that God did not disappoint the secret wishes of her who trusted herself so entirely to Him, and when ever, or by whomsoever, it was that St. Joseph was made aware of the virginal purpose of his blessed spouse, he was guided at once to give it his most hearty consent, and to join in her purpose as to the life which they were to lead together. The union of their hearts had perhaps been long complete before they engaged in this ne\v tie between them, and their common desire to lead a life of the most perfect continence in the married state became a fresh bond of union between them.
Thus we find our Blessed Lady at the time of her espousals prepared by the silent action of Providence for her great office. The immense graces which she had brought with her to the Temple were now multiplied tenfold by the life which she had there led in prayer and worship, and contemplation, and the practice of every lowly and holy virtue. Besides this, there had been certain stages at which it is reasonable to suppose that she had received fresh outpourings of gratuitous graces from the un measured bounty of God. Such may have been in an especial degree the time at which she conceived her purpose of virginity, or when she consecrated that purpose to God by her solemn vow, and also the time of her espousals, which were a great act of most prudent obedience and abandonment of her self into the hands of God.
We must here find room for another thought which naturally suggests itself with regard to this subject. It must be certain that in proportion as the instinct of silence fettered the speech of Mary and of her future spouse as to the great object of her desire, she would be urged by another most powerful instinct to the most earnest and fervent prayer for him on whose dispositions so much de pended for the execution of this desire. It must therefore have been a point on which our Blessed Lady must have exerted all her fervour of intense and even passionate petition before God for the guidance of her blessed spouse, that he might have a great assistance of the Holy Ghost to breathe into him the same holy counsel of perfection which she had herself conceived by the inspiration of the same Divine Guide. The most reasonable conclusion at which we can arrive in this matter is that the prayer of our Lady was now poured forth with immense persistency and determination, and that St. Joseph obtained the great grace, which made him a worthy companion of our Lady in this holy resolution, by the working of the Holy Ghost in his soul, and that he was aided most powerfully by the intercession of his blessed spouse. We read in the stories of some of the Christian martyrs that they have won by their prayers the wonderful grace of conversion for their spouses, and also frequently the further grace of the holy instinct of continence in the married life. It is not wonderful that God should be willing to grant so beautiful a grace in the case of such as St. Cecilia and others like her, or later in the history of the Church, in the instances in which husbands or wives have been persuaded by their partners to the observance of continency. Much more may it have been the case with the blessed Joseph, the appointed Spouse of Mary, for it was in the Providence of God that he should be chosen for this especial purpose that he might be the husband of our Blessed Lady, but that she should remain for ever a most perfect Virgin.
The many reasons for this arrangement are rehearsed by St. Bernard and others. But it is remarkable that St. Jerome tells us that the very ancient Father St. Ignatius of Antioch put forward especially the reason that it was fitting that the Mother of God, though a perfect Virgin, was still to be, to all human appearance, the wife of St. Joseph, in order that the Virginal Conception of our Lord might be concealed from the devil. It was not that our Lord could not bring about the designs of His wisdom without any interruption or assault on the part of the enemy. For of course His power was and is infinite, and no creature could withstand His will. But He preferred to act with the utmost gentleness and wisdom rather than by power, and to avoid rather than overwhelm the opposition of His foes. This is noticeable all through, that the enemies of God and man were caught in their own devices, scattered, as our Lady says, in the imagination of their hearts. For this reason the manner of the birth of our Lord from a pure Virgin was to be concealed from Satan, as well as for a number of most holy and beautiful reasons besides this. Our Lord could certainly have brought about this arrangement in many ways, as by direct revelation to St. Joseph, as well as by the prayers made for him by Mary. But there is a beauty and fitness about the method which appears to have been chosen, that Joseph should owe the wonderful grace of resembling Mary in her love for virginity, to the prayers of his virgin bride.
The espousals of two loving souls who come together with a pure desire to serve God in the holy estate of marriage is always an occasion of most happy and holy joy to them and to their friends. And if joy can be conceived in greater and greater intensity in proportion to the greater and greater perfection of the two who are thus united, we can see that no joy on the occasion of earthly espousals could ever have been so great and so intense and so heavenly as that which now took up its home in the hearts of Mary and Joseph. The union between them was most perfect in every respect, and it was made far more beautiful and entrancing in its de lights by the bond of the possession of this hitherto unknown purpose, of the life of purity in which they were to aid one another to serve God in perfection. No depth of love and sympathy was ever like that which characterized this marriage. They seemed to be at the end of their hopes for themselves, to have attained a height of happiness which could never be surpassed, and which could only increase in intensity as the years of their tranquil life flowed calmly on. And yet we know that this was but the beginning of what God was about to do for them, and that, within a very few weeks of the happy ceremony of their marriage, He was about to work in Mary the most wonderful and the most merciful of all His condescension's in the carrying out of the Incarnation, in a manner which no mind or imagination of men or Angels could have conceived. He was to raise Mary to a position in His Kingdom to which there can never be any parallel, while her holy husband was to have his own great share in her work and in her exaltation.
Thus we may suppose the life of our Blessed Lady to have passed on for the first fifteen years of her existence. It had begun with the most wonderful outpouring on her of the special favours of God, Who had destined her from eternity for the highest lot that He could bestow on a creature. Each successive stage of her existence had been marked by fresh dowries of grace, in harmony with the conveniences and requirements of her office in His Kingdom. It is true that her own matchless faithfulness had corresponded perfectly with the blessings bestowed upon her, and more than that, she had received from the very beginning the capacity of using her graces with perfect intelligence and consummate prudence. Her life had been a succession of bounds onwards in His service, in intelligence, in fervour, and intensity of love.
It is possible that she was allowed to experience the trials which were to be usual in the saints who were to receive great gifts from God, and to occupy very high positions in His Kingdom, the trials of becoming the objects of the most intense malignity of the Evil One, who marks with especial hatred anyone who seems to be called to great favours from God. He did not know the secret of her Immaculate Conception, or of her marvellous elevation, of the special and unusual graces which she had received, much less of her great destiny in God's Kingdom. But he could discern that she was holy, pure, humble, fervent in prayer, and diligent in the use of the means of grace which were open to her. He could not but desire to spoil the apparently fair prospect of her sanctity, and his repeated failures must have irritated him greatly, and provoked his spite to vent itself on fresh and most malignant assaults, which were permitted by God in order that she might triumph over him. He could not reach to the disturbance of her interior peace, and he was obliged to assail her entirely from without. But this would only make him exert himself the more, to produce in her some fear or hesitation, or un faithfulness of some other sort in her service of God. All, we may be sure, had failed. And now that she had become the mistress of a quiet home like any other bride of her age, it may be that he had relaxed some of his malice, and thought that there was, after all, nothing wonderful in her grace. For the crown and finishing bloom of the sanctity of this blessed soul was in a grace which beyond all others is pleasing to God, and at the same time utterly unintelligible to Satan, the grace of humility. This was a grace which, if he could have had before his fall, would have preserved him therefrom, and which, if he could have had it after his fall, would have been able to procure him pardon. But Satan might be, and was to be, humiliated continually under the hand of God, the feeblest of Whose creatures were to be so strengthened as to defeat him. He might be humiliated, but humble he could never be.
In this, the favourite grace of her Blessed Son, Mary was next to Him, though equal to Him no one could be, because He in His created nature had the occasion and the ground for it which no one else could have, in that He had received the unique and unrivalled grace of the Divine union. In this grace then no one could be as Jesus Christ is, because no one could be so highly exalted and enriched by the free bounty of God as He. But next to Him in the scale of elevation, and next to Him in the scale of gratitude and humility at the sight of her elevation, and the free gifts bestowed upon her, came His Blessed Mother as she was so soon to be made, great in grace, great in the use of grace, great in prayer and the converse with God which had been her blessed occupation from the first, great in purity, great in fortitude, great in hope and reliance upon her God, great in the intelligence of the Scriptures and of the ways of God, in all knowledge and in all faith, and in all charity to others, and in all zeal for their salvation, great in all other spiritual gifts of every possible kind, but above all other graces and virtues and beauties and gifts, great in the pre-eminent splendour of her humility.