Saint Mary The Virgin - Her Surroundings And Family, The Immaculate Conception - Her Birth (About The Year 22 B.C.)¹ Part 1. By Rene-Marie De La Broise

AT the same time that the inspired Scriptures were announcing, or in various ways prefiguring the Saviour and His mother, the modes of thought and the hearts of the people were becoming, little by little, more attuned to that moment in which God had decided to accomplish His great work. Evil had increased to such a fearful extent as to threaten the reprobation of Israel, but at the same time good had increased in many souls, and one could see in preparation the surroundings in which the Messiah should be born and gather together His first disciples. Herod had taken possession of Jerusalem in the year 37, and was ruling over the whole land of Israel. This " half-jew," who came from Idumea, reigned with cruelty and magnificence—steeped in blood by domestic quarrels and by the revolts of his subjects ; covering Judea with profane monuments, celebrating the games, and rebuilding the temple of Apollo at Rhodes, in order to render his name illustrious in the Graeco-Roman world; respecting at the same time the customs of the Jews, zealous for the splendour of the ceremonies and festivals of the true God, and reconstructing on a larger and more magnificent scale the temple of Zerubbabel.

More and more did the scandals multiply, further did the Hellenic civilisation spread, and more and more did the Pharisee separate himself from impure contact and obstinately entrench himself behind the " pale of the Law," fortified with new precepts and scrupulous observances. The Sadducee, on the other hand, friend of secular knowledge, of opulence, and of easy life, showed himself tolerant of the dangerous novelties, and flattering towards human authority. The Pharisee, by pride, narrowness of mind, and hardness of heart, corrupted a doctrine almost entirely orthodox. The Sadducee raised his thoughts no higher than earth, and of the religion of Israel, observed only a certain number of external practices.

But happily, the nation was not entirely composed of these two rival sects. Besides these, there was a large body of the people who remained faithful to the grace of divine election. They were to be found in the highest ranks of society, and in the religious community grouped round the Temple; among the priests, as Zacharias, and among the elect, as Simeon and the prophetess Anna; in the towns and in the country, among the crowds, such as those who ere long followed Jesus, for ever priests to glorify God through His teaching and His miracles; and even in uncultivated Galilee were to be found upright and loyal natures, like Nathanael of Cana, the " Israelite indeed, in whom is no guile! " 2

Moreover, the faithful among the Jews of that time exhibited certain characteristics which already tended towards Christianity. " A man of understanding is faithful to the law of God, and the law is faithful to him." 3 This Law had been given to a people still in childhood, as a " tutor" and as a " governor," to fashion them little by little, and to prepare them for manhood in Christ; 4 and it must therefore, in submissive souls, have attained that end.

Its ancient teachings were now far better comprehended than they had been practised by a long succession of generations ; and, in the new divine words with which the sacred writings were enriched after the exile, it represented more and more the doctrine of the true Master, who for so long a time had been promised and awaited. Underlying the law of fear, one became conscious of the beginnings of the law of love ; the intercourse between the creature and the Creator became more trustful and free, and a filial spirit was awakening in the hearts of the people.

Even outward circumstances came to the aid of written revelation. These also helped in forming the minds of the people, and the best among the Jews had, even unconsciously, gathered divine teachings from them. Exiled or invaded, they had learned to separate themselves, especially in heart, from the obdurate heathen, and to give, in their sympathies and actually in the community of their religious life, a larger place to the stranger " fearing God."

Assuredly, the old covenant brought nothing to perfection ; those outlines of virtues and of Christian sentiments would never have ended in Christianity itself, without the personal revelation of Jesus; and the teaching and example of the .Master were, above all, needed to detach man from the good things of this world and to teach him self-denial and suffering; in a word, to give him the knowledge of the cross. This great innovation had, however, been foreshadowed and prepared for. For instance, in the Old Testament, the law of trial imposed upon the just, shows that it was not altogether unknown, and it revealed itself more clearly as the time of the Redemption drew nigh. The book of Tobias gives in appropriate words the lesson underlying the poetical discourse of Job: " Because thou wast acceptable to God, it was necessary that temptation should prove thee." 5 The Book of Wisdom condemns the epicurean, whose ambitions are limited to the enjoyment of this present life; and it glorifies the just, dead in torments with a hope full of immortality. 6 And, in fact, at the time when the last books of Wisdom were written, the choice between the material good of this world and the blessings of the future life was placed no longer before one or two chosen persons, but before the multitude ; the kings of Egypt and of Syria were beginning the era of persecution, and the synagogue, symbol of the Christian church, offered to God the first-fruits of the martyrs. Then awoke a more lively faith in the resurrection and in immortality. In the presence of torments and imminent death, these great realities beyond the tomb seemed also to draw nearer; the hope of eternal life was never more firmly held than before the tribunal of Antiochus. It is true that at this time no clear idea of that " kingdom of heaven" which Jesus came to preach had been set forth ; but righteous souls were prepared to understand it without too much wonderment, and to accept it without much opposition.

It was very fitting that the family destined to give the Messiah to the world should belong to this faithful section of the Jewish people. The few names and the little information that we are able to gather, harmonise well with the order of events. And the initiation of these descendants of the royal line into the evangelical law of poverty and detachment from the earth, had been assisted by the loss of wealth and worldly position.

The Gospel speaks of two branches of the house of David. It makes them both unite in " Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus"; 7  Mary herself most certainly came of the race of kings. 8 It is not at all probable that she was descended from a third genealogical line, unknown to us; but rather, from the testimony of antiquity, though somewhat confused and not altogether in accord, it would seem that she was related to Saint Joseph himself, and that by following the lists of St Matthew and St Luke we are brought very near her. 9 One of these two branches sprang from Nathan, son of David, who is named without any further details in the Book of Kings. It appears to be mentioned by Zechariah the prophet, as by right of the family of the Messiah; 10 but on the whole it always remained in almost complete obscurity. The other branch, on the contrary, had supplied during four and a half centuries the whole series of the nineteen kings of Judah, from David down to Jehoiachin; after which, in accordance with the prophecy of Jeremiah addressed to the latter prince, it lost the sceptre for ever. 11 During the exile, the two branches drew near again for a moment, and, in the person of Zerubbabel, who seems to have belonged to both, they sent forth a last radiance. Then for five centuries the lineage of the two sons of Zerubbabel, Abiud and Rhesa, presents only names totally unknown, down to Jacob, father according to nature, and Heli, father according to the law, 12 of Joseph the carpenter. In overthrowing the earthly throne of Judah, God had not forgotten His promises and ever faithful mercies to David; but, in fulfilment of the ancient prophecies, the blessed seed of Jesse sprung silently, unnoticed, and mysteriously from the roots of a fallen stem. 13

It was at Bethlehem that Jesse dwelt, and where David was born. Some ancient traditions also place at Bethlehem the ancestors of Saint Joseph, and represent a part of the royal family as always inhabiting the land of Judah. Other remnants of the illustrious race had gone, perhaps to hide their humiliation, to live in far-off Galilee. It is difficult to decide to which of the two groups the parents of Mary belonged; whether they lived at Jerusalem in the house which is attributed to them, on the north of the Temple and near to the piscine probatique, or whether they were settled at Nazareth. Perhaps the preference may be given to Jerusalem, while remembering at the same time that there were at Nazareth some relatives of the holy family. 14

This holy family presents itself to us like an ancient picture of which only vestiges have survived the ravages of time. In it, some faces and some figures are well preserved, others are half effaced, and between the fragments of the group there are lacunÓ• too great for it to be possible to discern clearly the connection between the various persons.

Of all the relatives who surrounded Mary at her entrance into the world, Zacharias and Elisabeth are known with most certainty. The fact that Elisabeth, daughter of Aaron, was a cousin of Mary, 15 proves that, as has already been shown, there had been alliance between the royal and the priestly families. Perhaps, though this hypothesis is not proved and the tradition is obscure, it was Mary's mother who belonged to the consecrated race; and thus, in accordance with the providential fitness of things, the Virgin mother and the Messiah took their origin from the royal blood mingled by alliance with that of priests.

Yet nearer to Our Lady, the Gospel places that other Mary who was the wife of Cleophas 16 and the mother of James, Joseph, Simon and Jude. 17 She was older than Mary, even by several years, at least if we may believe that her son Saint James the Less was ninety-six years old when he was martyred under Nero. In spite of the difference in age, she is especially named as " the sister " 18 of Mary, in the same way that her sons are the " brothers of the Lord." This close relationship was doubtless due to her marriage with Cleophas. For this Cleophas, according to a well-founded opinion, 19 was the brother, probably the elder brother, of Saint Joseph. 20 In this case the union of the two families would be still further strengthened by the marriage of Our Lady ; the two Marys would thus become sisters-in-law, and the sons of Cleophas would legally be cousins-german of Jesus, which corresponds very well with the relationships suggested in the Gospel.

The younger brother of Cleophas, Saint Joseph, thenceforward himself becomes part of the holy family. Solely desirous of rendering his life pleasing to God, the humble young man awaited in silence the time of the fulfilment of the intentions of Providence.

¹ This approximate date is based upon two chronological considerations: Mary appears to have been about fifteen years old at the time when she became the mother of God, and, according to the most probable calculation, the Incarnation took place in the year 6 B.C., or thereabouts.

2 St John i. 47.

3 Ecclesiasticus xxxiii. 3. This version differs from the recently recovered Hebrew text, in which, however, this verse is incomplete.

4 Galatians iv. 2 ; iii. 24, 25.

5 Tobias, xii. 13.

6 Book of Wisdom. iii. 4.

7 St Matthew i. 16.

8 St Luke i. 32; Romans i.3; 2 Timothy ii. 8; and unanimous tradition.

9 According to several commentators, the list of St Luke brings us not only near to the Holy Virgin but quite down to her. Heli (St Luke iii. 23) may be Joachim, father of Mary and father-in-law of Saint Joseph (Heli is an apocope of Heliakim, and Heliakim is the same name as Joachim, the former formed from Elohim and the latter from Yahveh). This opinion possesses a certain amount of probability. The other, however, which sees in the two lists two genealogies of Saint Joseph is more widely accepted and better supported. Cf. the article " Genealogie de Jesus-Christ," by M. F. Prat in the Dictionnaire de la Bible, Upon all these questions see the articles Genealogie and Levirat by the same author in the Dictionnaire.

10 Zechariah xii. 12. See Knabenbauer's commentary upon this passage.

11 Jeremiah xxii. 30.

12 In the most commonly accepted explanation, this law is that of the levirate, which occurs several times in the genealogy of our Saviour. Heli and Jacob were two brothers, born of the same mother. Heli having died without children, Jacob espoused his widow—this is the levirate marriage—in order "to raise up seed to his brother." This offspring was Joseph, who, born of Jacob, was legally regarded as the son of Heli.

13 Isaiah xi. I (note the Hebrew text).

14 Upon the question of the birth-place of Mary, opinion is divided between Jerusalem and Nazareth. Some have also suggested Bethlehem, and others Sepphoris. A certain number think that Mary's parents may have possessed two houses, or at least that they may have lived successively at Nazareth and Jerusalem. Without having the riches which legend attributes to them, it is possible that Anne and Joachim may have possessed two modest dwellings, or have acquired them successively ; I do not know, however, whether these theories are well founded.

15 St Luke i. 5, 36.

16 The opinion here expressed supposes that Cleophas, or rather Clopas (St John xix. 25) is the same] as Alphaeus (St Matthew x. 3, and elsewhere). See Dictionnaire de la Bible, s.v. Alphee and Cleophas, 2.

17 Cf. St Matthew xiii. 55, and xxvii. 56 ; St Mark xv. 40; Jude i. I.

18 It seems that this word should not be taken in its literal sense, for it is very difficult to believe that Anne and Joachim may have had an elder daughter previous to the Holy Virgin.

19 This is based principally on the testimony of Hegesippus, cited by Eusebius : historia ecclesiastica, III. xi. (PG., xx. 248).

20 Cleophas may have been born of a first marriage of Jacob. Afterwards, the latter, having become a widower, would have espoused the widow of Heli. See note 2, p. 34.