Virginal Pregnancy of Mary Part 1.
On her return to Nazareth, Mary returned with ease to the life of the people, and resumed the humble occupations which she must have suspended in the more elevated sphere which she had just quitted. She became again the young housewife, active and diligent, who found time for work, time for prayer, time for reading the sacred books, whose whole conversation was in heaven, and who seemed to have applied to herself those beautiful and sage words of the Psalmist: "All the glory of the king's daughter is within." But meanwhile she advanced in her virginal pregnancy, and Joseph began to be full of anxious thought.
A poignant uncertainty, a painful perplexity, tortured the great and upright soul of the patriarch. At first he did not believe his eyes, and he found it more reasonable to doubt the testimony of his senses, than the purity of a woman who had always appeared to him a prodigy of candour and sanctity. But the condition of Mary became more and more visible; she was found with child, says the gospel^ which means that all Nazareth was informed of it, and that Joseph's relations, in the innocence of their hearts, offered him painful congratulations, which he was obliged to receive without changing countenance, and which struck him at once like a flash of lightning. According to the Proto-Gospel of St. James, in the first transports of his grief, he prostrated himself before God with his face on the ground, and all bathed in tears, crying out, "Who has betrayed me? who has brought evil into my house ? " Then, yielding to his tender affection for the young orphan whom he had ever regarded as the pearl and honour of her sex, he bitterly accused himself of not having guarded her with sufficient care. " Alas! " he said to himself, " my history is that of Adam ; when he reposed with the greatest confidence in his glory and happiness, behold on a sudden Satan deceived Eve with lying words, and seduced her." 1 When Joseph was sufficiently calm in mind to reflect, he found himself in great perplexity.
According to the Jewish law, adultery was punished by death. When there were no witnesses,—a single one would suffice,—and the woman denied the crime laid to her charge, she was led, by order of the Sanhedrin, to the eastern gate of the temple, and there, in presence of all, after snatching off her veil, placing about her neck a cord brought from Egypt, to put her in mind of the miracles which God had wrought in that land, and covering her shoulders with her dishevelled hair, because it was a disgrace for a Jewish woman to be seen with her hair in that state, a priest, pronouncing a terrible formulary of malediction, to which she had to answer Amen, presented her with the famous cup of the waters of jealousy, which were also called bitter waters, because they had the taste of wormwood. 2 This cup of malediction infallibly caused the guilty wife to die, unless the husband himself had been guilty of infidelity; for then the miracle did not take place, " because," say the doctors of Israel, "it would not have been just that one of the guilty should be absolved, while God punished the other." 3 A husband of a violent temper would not have failed to drag Mary before the priests of the Lord, to subject her to the formidable trial of the bitter waters; but Joseph, the most moderate, as well as the most just of men, did not so much as think of taking this extreme course. Not being able to retain Mary under his roof, since both the law of honour and the law of Moses conspired to prevent him from so doing, he wished at least to take all possible precautions to prevent this painful separation from casting any shade upon her virtue,—for he was a just man, and not willing publicly to expose her. " I will put her away," said Joseph mournfully to himself, " but before God, and not before the judges, who would condemn her to die, and me to cast the first stone at her; 4 I will save her from the reproaches of her family and the contempt of the world: but how can 1 get clear of this labyrinth, where dishonour and death present themselves at every outlet ? " And the son of David remained plunged in extreme depression of mind.
The gloomy sadness of the just man', to whom God himself had entrusted her, could not escape Mary, and no doubt it cost her a great deal to conceal from Joseph the glorious embassy of the angel; but how could she unveil an event so unheard of, so miraculous, as that of her divine maternity, with no other proof than her own word ? Persuaded with reason that, to be believed, the mystery of the Incarnation must be revealed by supernatural means, and leaving to Him, who had wrought so great things in her, the care of convincing Joseph of her innocence, " the daughter of David," says the great Bishop of Meaux, "at the risk of seeing herself not only suspected and forsaken, but even lost and dishonoured, left all to God, and remained in peace."
The Eternal, from the height of his starry throne, looked down with complacency upon the just man, whom he had subjected to this severe trial, 5 before he raised him to the supreme honour of being his own representative upon earth, and the angels, with their eyes fixed on the holy house of Nazareth, anxiously awaited the result of this close contest, in which humanity, duty, and the noblest sentiments of the soul were engaged. At last, the patriarch ended with an idea so generous and heroic, that it places him almost on a level with the Queen of angels: he resolved to sacrifice his honour, the esteem which he had acquired by a spotless life, the means of existence which gave him his daily bread, and the air of his native land, so good to breathe when one is drawing near to the tomb, in order to save the reputation of a wife, who did not even attempt to justify herself, and who was so cruelly accused by appearances. There was but one way of parting with Mary without ruining her, for her family would have been urgent for explanations which would have terminated fatally: and this was to banish himself, to go and die afar off in the land of exile, and to take upon his own head all the odium of such a desertion. There are resignations as glorious as triumphs, and sufferings patiently supported, which heaven rewards as munificently as martyrdom; the unknown sacrifice of the spouse of the Virgin was of this number. To reconcile together his duty and his humanity, he accepted by anticipation the sad reproaches of being a husband without a heart, a father without feeling, a man without conscience and without faith ; he accepted the contempt of his relations, the mortal hatred of the relatives of Mary, and resolved to tear off with his own hand the crown of his good name to cast it before the feet of that young woman, whose mysterious and inexplicable position filled his heart with sadness, and his life with bitterness.
St. John Chrysostom is never tired of admiring the fine and noble conduct of St. Joseph. "It was necessary," says this great saint, " that when grace was approaching, there should be many signs of this sublime dispensation. For as the sun, though not yet showing its rays, still at a distance enlightens the greatest part of the earth, so also Christ, when about to issue from that womb, enlightened the whole world before his birth. Therefore, even before his birth, prophets exulted, women prophesied, and John, not yet born, leaped in the womb. Here y also, Joseph exhibited great wisdom."
We have here adopted the opinion of St. John Chrysostom in preference to that of St. Bernard, who supposes that Joseph himself discovered the mystery of the birth of Jesus Christ, and that seeing Mary pregnant, he did not doubt, from the profound veneration which he had for her, that she must be the miraculous Virgin of Isaias. " He believed it," says the apostle of the crusades, " and it was with no other sentiment than one of humility and respect,—like that which made St. Peter afterwards say, ' Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord,'—that St. Joseph, who was no less humble than St. Peter, also thought of departing from the Virgin, not doubting that she bore in her sacred womb the Saviour of mankind."
This interpretation, doubtless one of great piety, and worthy of one who has been honoured with the title of the devout chaplain of Mary, is more in accordance with the ascetic notions of the middle ages than agreeable to the manners of the ancient Hebrews, and must fall to the ground before a careful examination of the text. In fact, the words of the gospel are so clear, that no small ingenuity would be required to obscure them.
1 Protevang. Jac., in the apocryph. of Fabric, t. i. p. 97.
2 Basn., liv. vii. c. 22.
3 Wagenseil, in Sotah, p. 244.
4 The Jewish law required that the accuser should cast the first stone at him whom he had caused to be condemned.—(Voy. Institut. de Moise, t. ii. p. 65.)
5 "Doubtless," says Bossuet (Elev. sur les Myst.), "God could have spared Joseph all this pain, by revealing to him earlier the mystery of the pregnancy of Mary: hut his virtue would not have been put to the trial which was prepared for him ; we should not have witnessed the victory of Joseph over the most untameable of all passions, and the most righteous jealousy that was ever conceived, would not have been laid prostrate at the feet of virtue."