As the Solemnity of Saint Joseph approaches let us contemplate the betrothal and love of Joseph and Mary and how it can help couples today. It is mentioned very little in scripture. Yet it was the foundation for the family into which Jesus Christ was born.
Blessed Pope John Paul II says in the church document Guardian of the Redeemer, “According to Jewish custom, marriage took place in two stages: first, the legal, or true marriage was celebrated, and then, only after a certain period of time, the husband brought the wife into his home.” The first stage was known as the betrothal and the second stage was the great wedding feast such as that of the 10 maidens in Matt. 25:1-13 or that at Cana in John 2:1-11.
“Mary was betrothed to Joseph but before they lived together.”(Matt. 1:18) Betrothal was much more than the modern day “engagement.” Its juridical consequences were similar to those of Catholic marriage today for which the union has not yet been consummated, even though the wedding has already been validly celebrated. The betrothed were already called “husband” and “wife” enjoying the same legal rights as spouses who had already celebrated their marriage feast, which is why we see very early in Matthew 1:16, “Joseph, the husband of Mary” and in verse 19, “her husband Joseph.” Only cohabitation and conjugal relations were excluded during the period of betrothal, “But he knew her not.” (Matt. 1:24) Infidelity carried all the consequences of adultery and separation required a formal decree.
“A virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph.” (Lk. 1:27) During the betrothal period, the rabbis intended for the bride to have time to prepare her trousseau, and the groom, time to fulfill the promises of the contract and prepare the new home with all its furnishings. This betrothal period, which sometimes was up to a year, also, allowed the bride to mature in age as the normal betrothal age was 14 or 15 for a girl and 18 for a young man. On the question of Joseph’s age, third century iconographs picture Joseph beardless and young especially in the catacombs of St. Hippolytus in Rome. In the fourth century the sarcophagus of St. Celsus in Milan, also picture Joseph as beardless and young. The Fathers of the Church and saints concur that he was a young man. Regrettably later, artists make Joseph appear as an old man trying to prove and defend Our Lady’s perpetual virginity.
What was the betrothal ceremony like?
Joseph and Mary would have fulfilled the letter of the law as they did at the presentation of Jesus. Mary would have held out her hand. Joseph would have placed on her finger the gold ring symbolizing union and possession, saying: “Here is the ring that unites you to me in the sight of God according to the Mosaic Rite.” He then would have handed his bride the written contract and silver coin representing her dowry or marriage portion.
Amazingly today, Our Lady’s nuptial ring is kept in a rich gold and silver reliquary in Perugia’s San Lorenzo Cathedral. It was publicly venerated there by Blessed Pope Pius IX when he visited the city in 1857. The feast of the Espousals of the Joseph and Mary was commemorated for many centuries in the old Latin calendar on January 23.
We nevertheless guard against thinking that the betrothal of Joseph and Mary was only a legal fiction. “We must stop imagining the Virgin as a cloistered nun or young girl living like a hermit since Mary was legally Joseph’s wife,” says, Fr. Roland Gauthier. They married because they loved one another. Joseph loved our Lady, and Our Lady loved Joseph, not with a brotherly love, but a pure conjugal love. It was so deep that any carnal relation was made totally superfluous. In the words of St. Josemaria Ecriva, “Anyone who cannot understand a love like that knows very little of true love and is a complete stranger to the Christian meaning of chastity.”
Blessed Pope John Paul II says of Joseph in Guardian of the Redeemer, “The conjugal love which he experienced as a man…proved to be greater than this “just man” could ever have expected within the limits of his human heart.” The Holy Father continues, “Because Mary was united to Joseph by the bond of marriage…Joseph approached as no other person ever could.”
Was it a real marriage even though they had no sexual relations?
Joseph and Mary gave their full and free consent to God and to one another. Mary, being sinless, surrendered herself totally as no creature could; Joseph, being cleansed of original sin right after conception according to the approved apparitions of Our Lady of America could also come as close to total surrender as a non-immaculately conceived human being possibly can.
God says to Adam and Eve that they are to become, “Two in one flesh” Gen. 2:24; but of Joseph and Mary it might be said that they were two in one spirit. St. Ambrose the teacher of St. Augustine says, “They were one Spirit.”
The church’s catechism is very clear that they were spouses and St. Augustine further confirms, “Every good of marriage was fulfilled in the parents of Christ: offspring, loyalty, and the sacrament.” Pope Leo XIII states, “The consummation of their love was in Jesus.”
No other marriage in all of history was ever more loving, more perfect, and more holy than that of Joseph and Mary. Their union of heart was more intimate than was ever found in any other marriage. Each found in the other an incomparable beauty of soul.
St. Bernadine of Siena describes this greatest of all loves best when he says, “Mary and Joseph were but one heart and soul; they were two in one same mind, one same affection, and each of them was the other’s second half, because Our Lady and he were so to speak, only one person. The heart of Mary with that of Joseph, and the heart of Joseph with that of Mary, who ever could imagine a union so intimate, a grace so great!”
Archbishop Fulton Sheen also describes it as something out of this world, “The world’s happiest marriage for they brought to their espousal not only their vow of virginity but also two hearts with greater torrents of love than had ever before coursed through human breasts. No husband and wife ever loved one another so much as did Joseph and Mary.”
What can I learn from Joseph and Mary for my marriage? Can they teach me something?
With the marriage crisis looming all around us, more and more couples need to look at the espousal of Joseph and Mary that they may discover what it means to be true soul mates. St. Augustine answers all these questions best when he says, “Joseph is the husband of Mary, her partner in continence, not by carnal embrace but by affection, not by union of bodies but by what matters still more: the communion of souls. Faithful married couples may learn from their example that, if they practice continence by mutual consent, their marriage can remain and be called such if the affection of their minds is preserved even without the sexual union of their bodies.” The idea of couples being continent makes a lot of sense especially when St. Paul says, “By mutual consent for a time, to be free for prayer,” (1Cor. 7:5) or if using NFP in order to achieve or avoid conception.
In an over sexualized world, the model and intercession of Joseph and Mary are the antidote that can help couples re-discover true spiritual communion of minds and hearts and thus re-opening lines of communication. Spiritually speaking, husbands should strive to imitate Joseph and wives should strive to imitate Mary. This coincides with what Blessed Pope John Paul II says in document Guardian of the Redeemer, “Whereas Adam and Eve were the source of evil which was unleashed on the world, Joseph and Mary are the summit from which holiness spreads over all the earth.”
Here then are, two virginal souls promising each other true love and fidelity that would also consist in preserving their virginity. They have acted, it might seem, in a manner absolutely opposed to the hastening of the coming of the Redeemer. Yet for this very reason and for the value of their act, they have merited that God should place in the cradle of their virginal home a child, his only Son. On their own initiative they had signed the contract, and made the promise which would prepare them for their unique, tremendous mission.” (Michael Gasnier O.P.) St. Joseph, Patron and Protector of the Universal Church, shed light and intercede for all the couples around the world on March 19, 2012. (See Below)
Recommended Books for More
Originally published in Deacon Digest magazine and posted with permission.