Virginal Pregnancy of Mary Part 2.
It is not that instinctive movement of religious awe which makes us keep at a distance from a sacred object, which suggests to Joseph the idea of forsaking Mary; it is a thought of conscience and duty. "He was a just man," says Bossuet, "and his justice did not allow him to remain in company with a wife whom he could not believe innocent; for merely to suspect what had happened by the operation of the Holy Ghost, that was a miracle of which God had hitherto given no example, and which could not come into any human mind." 1
The words of the angel would have no sense, and would lead to a false conclusion, in the supposition of St. Bernard. "Fear not," says the ambassador of the Most High, "to take unto thee Mary, thy wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost." Does Joseph object his un-worthiness at the moment when he becomes certain that Mary bears in her womb the Author of nature himself? Does he lay before the angel his scruples, which must be now more urgent than ever. Does he ask that this humble cup, which the celestial envoy presents him, may pass from him to some more worthy mortal? He does nothing of all this; the storms of the soul are appeased, and he falls into the profound calm which follows great moral tempests.
It is objected that the great oracles relating to the Messias were familiar to Joseph as they were to all the Hebrews, that he must have known that the time of the Messias was near at hand, and that he ought to have understood from the very first, considering the holiness of Mary, that she bore in her womb the Saviour of the world. To understand the prophecies which treated of the mystery of redemption was not so easily attained as is here supposed. Whether the allegorical descriptions of the glorious reign of the Emmanuel of Isaias had led the doctors of the synagogue into error, or whether the avaricious thoughts of the Jews could not rise above the earth, and reduced everything to temporal possessions, it is certain that the Hebrew people, " that people of a hard head," had got upon a wrong track, and would not deviate from it. He who was sent from God, the Desired of nations, was to be a lawgiver, a leader of war, a magnificent and formidable monarch, like Solomon. The apostles themselves were long under a mistake as to the humble and peaceful mission of " the poor King who passed noiselessly along; " we see them clinging to golden dreams and kingdoms in prospect, even in sight of the deicide city, which their Master was entering to die. It was not without some difficulty that our Lord brought them back to a spiritual sense,—that he rectified their ideas, always ready to fall into the narrow compass of material and palpable goods, where they were tossed about by the ambitious reveries of traditionary doctors and Pharisees.
If then the apostles, those divine men who founded Christianity, had so much difficulty in divesting themselves of the prejudices of their childhood, they who lived in the midst of the miracles of the Messias, and in familiar intercourse with him, how could Joseph do this of himself, and without succour from above ? The coarse garment of the artisan but little accorded with the purple of the kings of Judah, and the thing of all least expected was to have a Messias born from the ranks of the common people. Galilee, moreover, was the last place which would have been thought of. " Doth the Christ come out of Galilee ? " said the doctors of the law to the disciples of Christ. In fact, the prophets had pointed out Bethlehem of Judah by name, Bethlehem, " the house of bread,' as the birthplace of the Messias: and the rabbinical commentators, improving upon the prophets, distinguished even the quarter of the town where he was to he born. 2 Joseph was too humble to suppose that his modest roof could harbour so much greatness, and the silence of Mary left him nothing to conjecture.
As to the project of sending back the Virgin to her family " out of pure respect," as some learned theologians would have it who adhere to the opinion of St. Bernard, it would have been impracticable in a nation so apt to take umbrage at everything that affected the honour of women. Mary was an orphan, and so far dependent upon her kinsfolk, who were not all of a peaceful temper, and some of whom had not approved of the union of their young relative with the obscure Nazarene. It is not likely that they would have accepted the reasons of Joseph, and admitted, without more ample information, that the Virgin bore in her womb the King Memos. It is much more to be presumed that they would have denounced the husband before the tribunal of the ancients, to force him to give the reasons which influenced his conduct; for there was no longer any question of a simple divorce, but of the condition of the child of Mary,—a young woman of noble blood and badly married, according to those eleven who had entered themselves on the lists to espouse the young and fair heiress of Joachim.
Thence would have resulted two grave facts: either Joseph would have kept silence, and then he would have been condemned to take back his wife, with the prohibition ever to separate from her, 3 or he would have declared upon oath that the child which Mary bore was not his ; and then the child, disowned, became incapacitated for any employment; his birth, denied in its source, shut him out from the assemblies of the nation, the public schools, entering the temple, and the synagogues; his posterity, paying for his disgrace, would not have been admitted to the privileges of the Hebrews till the tenth generation; he became a Praia, — without an asylum, without rights, without country,—and the decree which would have condemned his mother to be stoned would have branded in the forehead, both him and his descendants, with Cain's mark of reprobation. But things would not have come to this pass: rather than submit to this stain upon their royal genealogy, the proud descendants of David would have killed the Virgin with their own hands. Such examples are not rare, and appear again even in our days in Judea, as well as in Arabia. 4
Joseph was too wise and too humane to place himself in either alternative; and it happened, as it always does, that the more generous course was also the hotter. He resolved then to leave his city, and the woman who since their chaste hymen had made his life so sweet and happy. As he was preparing for this sad separation, and sleeping with troubled sleep upon his solitary couch, " The angel of the Lord appeared to him in his sleep, saying: Joseph, son of David, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost. And she shall bring forth a Son; and thou shalt call his name Jesus; for he shall save the people from their sins."
After this dream, and the word of the angel, Joseph found himself changed. The honour which God had done him, in transferring to him his own lights over his only Son, had not in the least affected his humility; but he had become father, he had become spouse, in heart, and his only thought now was, to take care of Mary and her divine Infant.
St. John Chrysostom asked himself why the angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph, and not manifestly, as he did to the shepherds, to Zachary, and to the Virgin. "He was," said he, answering himself, "a man of wonderful faith, nor did he need such a vision. For the Virgin, to whom so great a thing was announced, and much greater than to Zachary, required a wonderful kind of vision even before the thing itself took place ; and the shepherds, as being less refined, had need of a more manifest vision. But this man after the conception, being beset with an evil suspicion of mind, and yet ready to be brought back easily to good hope, if any one should appear to guide him in this matter, receives the revelation See then what great things are done ; the philosophy of the man is exhibited, and what the angel declares so opportunely serves to confirm his faith, and the word itself remains without suspicion, which shows that he suffered what every man might justly endure." 5
1 Bossuet, Elev. but les Myst., t. ii. p. 135.
2 Whence comes he (the Messias)? From the royal city of Bethlehem, of Judah. Where are his parents to be found (those of the Messias) P In the quarter Biral Harba of Bethlehem Judah, —(Soo Talmud of Jerusalem.)
3 Inst, de Moise, t. ii. liv. vii.
4 Niebuhr relates, that "in a coffee-house of Yemen, an Arab having asked one of his fellow-countrymen if he was not the father of a young woman lately married in his tribe, the father, who suspected some intention to ridicule in this question, and thought the honour of his family compromised, coolly rose up, ran to his daughter's house, and without uttering a word plunged his cangiar in her heart.” F. de Geramb mentions an anecdote of the same kind:—" The widow of a Catholic of Bethlehem," says he, " was the object of a painful suspicion; not knowing how to escape the vengeance of her relations, she took refuge in the convent of the Fathers of the Holy Land, and placed herself under the sacred protection of the altar. Her asylum was discovered, the gates of the monastery were forced, and the young woman dragged, with her hair all dishevelled, into the public marketplace, amidst the shouts of the populace and the suppliant voices of the religious, who implored, in the name of a crucified God, forgiveness and mercy for this unhappy creature, who protested with tears that she was innocent. She appealed in despair to her father and her brothers, adjured them in the most moving manner to save her from a cruel death: they came forward sullenly; each held a dagger; the poor creature shuddered; and a moment after, the three daggers were buried in her breast, and the murderers, washing their hands in the blood of their respective daughter and sister, congratulated themselves on having washed away the disgrace of their family."
5 S. J. Chrysostom., Serm. 4, in S. Matt.