Saint Joseph; The Virgin Marriage (About The Year 7 B.C.)—The Annunciation (25 MARCH, 6 (?) B.C.) part 1.

The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne by Leonardo da Vinci 
GOD had sanctified Joachim and Anne beforehand, to make them worthy of Mary; and, after having given her to them, He blessed them anew because of her. The stream of blessings received by the Immaculate flowed back upon her parents. Her presence under their roof, her first words and the first outward signs of her piety, the sacrifice of leaving her in the Temple and the sight of her ardour in giving herself to God, the discovery, when they went to visit her, of her marvellous progress— all these things had been for them, encouragement and help in holiness. When they had attained the abundant measure of grace which made them solemnly honoured by all the Christian Church, God called them from this world. This happened, it is commonly affirmed, during the sojourn of Mary in the Temple. 1

The separation from them had been the first sorrow of their daughter, and losing them was a grief still more bitter. For, the more Mary loved God, the more she loved, in Him and for Him, all her relatives. In surrounding with an ardent affection those to whom she owed her existence, and those who had consecrated her life to prayer and to the service of the Temple, she was conforming to the Divine will; in ministering to them, perhaps at the time of their death, and certainly mourning them with a profound grief, she was also acting in accordance with the most holy and pure love. But her sorrow was peaceful, with an inward consolation, for she knew that they slept in the grace of God, and in expectation of the Redeemer, who would open to the righteous the gates of heaven.

Perhaps her orphan condition had some influence upon that " state of humility" 2 of which Mary spoke soon afterwards. " When my father and my mother forsake me," she could say in her prayer, " then the Lord will take me up." The more she was separated from human affection, the more did God Himself direct the conduct of her life.

It was not only the loss of her parents that estranged her from the world. Voluntarily, and from her inmost heart, she had forever detached herself from the world. We see by one of her sayings to the angel Gabriel, that before the day of the Annunciation, she had, in a definite manner, dedicated her virginity to God. 4 We do not know, however, at what precise period she renewed this vow. 5 It agrees so exactly with our idea of Mary that we need not seek too far for its origin. From her first act, her love of the Immaculate was shown in the gift of her whole self; this gift excluded beforehand everything which could share her heart; it included a most pure intention of pleasing God in all things, and a perfect consecration to His service. The day came when Mary comprehended how acceptable is virgin purity in the divine sight. And from that time, desirous of always preserving that precious virtue, and of making by a vow the practice of it more steadfast and perfect, she bound herself by a formal and explicit undertaking. It sometimes pleases God to put this promise in the hearts and on the lips of children who are called to a state of great perfection. Who can say how early the Holy Spirit inspired her, the most perfect, the most enlightened of His creatures, to do that which caused her to be for ever known as " the Virgin " ? " After her shall virgins be brought to the king " 6 ; but it is she who raises above the world the standard of virginity; she stands first, because no one before her had taken a similar vow, or at least because the finest virtues belong in a special manner to the grace of the New Testament which blossomed in the world only after the appearance of Mary and Jesus.

In taking a pledge so new among the people of Israel, Mary certainly did not believe, as has occasionally been too lightly said, that she renounced the possibility of becoming the mother of the Messiah. But neither did she dream of thereby anticipating that motherhood. Very far from hoping for herself so great an honour, and entirely free from every personal consideration, her mind dwelt upon God alone, her single and most pure intention was to please Him. Having besides, an intimate experience of the influence of grace, and feeling that she therein followed the direction of the Spirit of God, she gave herself up to His guidance; without foreseeing anything, she referred to Providence the difficulties which might influence her decision, at an age when all others would have followed a different course.

According to the divine plan, the Word made flesh must be born of a virgin. But it was not fitting that this great miracle should be exposed to the sight or to the discussion of men: the righteous believed it from the Word of God, and on the testimony of a trustworthy revelation ; while it remained hidden to the unbelieving. It was, says a very ancient tradition, 7 hidden even from the spirits of evil; for it is a belief very wide-spread, and founded upon Scripture, that evil spirits never knew clearly and with certainty that Jesus was the Son of God. 8

Further, it was necessary that the Virgin, chosen of God, should have in this world a help and support to take care of her and her Son. During the days of the birth of the Messiah, which were to be days of trial, of poverty, and even of flight into a far country, it was fitting that the young mother should have a protector at her side. And it was also suitable that the Child should have near His cradle some one who, in the name of His only Father in heaven, should take the place of an earthly father, guarding Him, working for His support, and later, initiating Him into that laborious life which He was destined to lead for many years.

It was therefore under the veil of marriage that the mystery was accomplished. In that virgin, and yet very real union, the bride and bridegroom truly gave themselves to each other, but as one would give jewels already consecrated to God, which one would deliver into faithful hands, to be guarded with a supreme reverence. They would exchange their tendernesses, their cares, the anticipation of each other's wishes, and enjoy all that happiness which makes for married people the community of life; but their mutual affection into which nothing earthly entered, encroached in no degree upon the entire dedication of their hearts to God alone. It was in God that they loved each other ; they were united only to help one another to serve Him better; they would have no other thought than Him, no other desire than that of pleasing Him. 9 And soon, the Child which heaven would miraculously bring to their chaste home, would be for them an incomparable blessing, and the supreme bond of their hearts in the love of God alone. Such a holy and perfect union as this goes far beyond earthly thought ; the idea of it could come only from heaven; and, if every marriage reminds us in some degree of the reciprocal love of Christ and His Church, 10 none ever symbolised as theirs that fruitful and virgin union.

It was necessary then, to find "a faithful and wise servant, whom God might appoint to be the comfort of His mother, the foster-father of His own flesh, and the only and trusty helper in the eternal counsels. 11 " This man, to whom all ages owe their gratitude, since, after Mary, he helped to introduce the Saviour to the world; this man, who has a right to special worship on the part of the Church, since, as guardian of the body of Christ, he is thereby constituted the protector of His mystic body; this man, God had long beforehand chosen and prepared. He was a relative of the Virgin, older than she by perhaps fifteen or twenty years, 12 the brother of Cleophas, the son born of Jacob to be the lawful heir of Heli, the humble carpenter, Joseph.

Concerning his early years, Scripture is absolutely silent. The Gospel speaks of him briefly, in giving the ancestry of Jesus, then it leaves him in obscurity. For a long time Joseph was neither known nor honoured among the faithful as he deserved to be. It was only after long ages, at the time marked out by Providence, that Christian thought fully comprehended how much nobleness and sanctity there was in his character. The inner life overflowed in the soul of this silent and unknown artisan; the rarest virtues there attained their full development; the love that is charity reigned there and governed all his acts. The Gospel, in passing, calls him " just"; and a moment of reflection makes us understand with what entire justice he acted, and what perfection was his. For it was to his faithful hands that God confided His immaculate mother ; his heart was bound to the heart of Mary, and therefore to the heart of Jesus also, by the most intimate affinity and the purest affection; and in short, since he was judged worthy of contracting that union, which required a likeness of soul and a certain equality, it must be that no one, so much as he, could have resembled the queen of angels, and could not in the same degree have sustained comparison with her.

No document worthy of credence tells us how Joseph was chosen to be the guardian of Mary, or the circumstances of Mary's acceptance of Joseph as a husband. 13 The Church, in its liturgical prayer, speaks of this as the ineffable Providence of God. 14 And, in fact, the only possible explanation is the intervention of the wisdom and power of God, guiding by secret and wonderful ways the souls who confide in Him. Mary, in choosing virginity, gave herself up to that Providence which is always faithful. Providence inspired Joseph with a resolution similar to that of Mary; it made known to each of them the intention of the other; 15 it manifested to them that it would be pleasing to God to see them united, in order that they might together preserve what they had promised to Him.

According to the customs of the Jews, marriage comprised three successive acts. There was at first some negotiation between the two families, and an understanding — and it was here that God intervened —ending in the free consent of both parties, and their promise to wed each other.

1 Painters have frequently represented Saint Anne with Mary and the Child Jesus in their pictures of the Holy Family. But the greater number of writers place the death of Mary's parents before the Incarnation. There are, however, no texts of real historical value, nor decisive arguments on one side or the other.

2 St Luke i. 48. Mary could above all say that God had regarded His servant who was but a humble creature and nothing before the Creator. Nevertheless, it is possible that in the word Taireivwcrts, which expresses the state of humiliation, is also comprehended the humble condition to which she found herself reduced in the eyes of the world.

Psalm xxvii. 10.

4 St Luke i. 34.

5 Theologians have put forward various hypotheses. According to St Thomas (3b p., q. xxviii., a. 4), there was at first the desire, or rather, a conditional vow ; then the will of God being clearly made known, an absolute vow at the time of marriage. According to Suarez (De mysteriis Christi, t. II., disp. vi., sect. 2), "... Many virgins are consecrated to God by the vow of chastity, almost from the cradle ; there is every reason to believe the same of her, the chief of all virgins, who stands at the head of them all and is their perfect pattern." Of these two opinions I incline to that expressed in the passage quoted from Suarez. I have added the distinction between entire implicit consecration to God, and explicit consecration by the vow of virginity.

6 Psalm xliv. 15 (Vulgate).

7 Ignatius of Antioch: Epistola ad Ephesios, xix. (PG. v. 660).

8 This ignorance can only be explained by two reasons : the intelligence of evil spirits, turned away from truth and all that is good, is unable to fathom the mysteries of God and spiritual things ; and further, God can stay them upon the threshold of the sanctuary and prevent them from giving a complete account of what they have learned.

9 See I Corinthians vii. 32-35.

10 Ephesians v. 23-32.

11 St Bernard : super missus est homilia ii., § 16 (PL. clxxxiii. 69-70).

12 Propriety, but a propriety which is self-evident, is the chief and excellent ground of this assertion. God wished that His Son should be born under the appearance of marriage, and it was therefore necessary to make that marriage as suitable and well-assorted as was possible. Without doubt then, He gave the Virgin a spouse who was virgin also, of an age which commanded respect, without being too far removed from Mary's age. This is the reason why at the present day everyone thinks of Saint Joseph, at the time of the birth of Jesus, as a man of thirty or thirty-five years old. It was by following a false idea, and not depending upon traditional documents, that the authors of the apocryphal Gospels saw in Mary's guardian the octogenarian whom they described. This conclusion must be altogether abandoned, and it is to be regretted that any of their wrong conceptions have found their way into a part of ancient ecclesiastical literature, and in consequence into Christian art.

13 It appears impossible to separate the truth, underlying the legend of the rods sent to the High Priest in order to obtain a sign from heaven. This legend, moreover, presents itself with diverse variations and corrections. The most ancient version which has come down to us (Protevangelium of Jesus, viii., ix.) conforms neither to history, nor to the dignity of St Joseph, nor to any probability of truth. How can we credit that summons of the suitors at the sound of the trumpet, and that dazzling miracle, when God desired silence and secrecy ? By the side of the legendary explanation, it has been attempted to give the scientific explanation that some considerations relating to kinship and Jewish legislation may have obliged Mary and Joseph to make a mutual agreement ; but all this is very uncertain.

14 Prayer of the Patronage of St Joseph.

15 " Ad secundum, dicendum quod beata Virgo, antequam contraheret cum Joseph, fuit certificata divinitus quod Joseph in simili proposito erat; et ideo non se commisit periculo nubens." St Thomas on the fourth book of the Sentences, dist. xxx., quest, ii., art. I, solution 2, ad 2nn .