As the Solemnity of Saint Joseph, Husband of the Blessed Virgin Mary approaches on March 19th let us contemplate the betrothal and love of Joseph and Mary, and how it can help couples and also single people in their search for a spouse. Pope Benedict XVI reminded us on July 5, 2010 that the “The espousals between Joseph and Mary are an episode of great importance.” While it is mentioned very little in scripture, it was the foundation for the family into which Jesus Christ was born.
St. Pope John Paul II wrote in His Apostolic Exhortation Redemptoris custos (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, like those mentioned in the parable of the wise and foolish virgins (Matthew 25:1-13) and the wedding at Cana in John 2:1-11.
The Betrothal of the Virgin Mary and Joseph
“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. This 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 was sometimes up to a year, also allowed the bride to mature in age – 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 and they even challenge the apocryphal writings that say he was an elderly widower with other children. Regrettably later, artists make Joseph appear as an old man trying to defend Our Lady’s perpetual virginity. Modern mystics like Venerable Maria de Agreda, Mother Maria Cecilia Baij, and Blessed Anne Catherine Emmerich, in their visions see Joseph as a young man at the time of his espousal to Mary. Scripture describes the Old Testament Joseph as having, “A beautiful countenance and comely to behold,” (Gen 39:6) and this too is what the New Testament Joseph is like in the eyes of his bride.
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 a 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 in Italy. 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 January 23rd and it dates back to 1684 under Pope Innocent XI. The feast continued for many centuries until 1961 when it was removed from the calendar; however, in 1989 the Oblates of St. Joseph obtained special permission to celebrate the feast.
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. Yes, there was supernatural attraction for each other, and yes, it was love at first sight! Pope Benedict XVI said on March 18, 2009, “Joseph teaches us that it is possible to love without possessing.” Their love 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.”
Saint Pope John Paul II says of Joseph in Reedemptoris custos, (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.” because the Holy Father continues, “Mary was united to Joseph by the bond of marriage… Joseph approached as no other person ever could.”
Was this a real marriage?
We can find answers to the this question in the traditions of the Church. 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. According to tradition, John the Baptist was cleansed of original sin in the six month (Lk.1:41) while in the womb as was prophet Jeremiah (Jeremiah 1:5) but for Joseph it was right after conception according to the approved apparitions of Our Lady of America. Therefore, their fiat or yes to each other was truly the most unique and total surrender of two beings in all history.
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 of Hippo further confirms in De nuptiis et concupiscentia (ch.11 and 12), “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.”
It is reasonable to understand that 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.”
Learning from Joseph and Mary
Couples and even single people should be invited to look at the union of Joseph and Mary. Here they may discover what it means to be true soul mates. St. Augustine summarized this beautifully when he reflected, “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 natural family planning methods in accord with Church teaching in order to achieve or avoid conception.
The witness and intercession of Joseph and Mary are means of helping couples rediscover true spiritual communion of minds and hearts and thus reopen lines of communication when that is needed. St. Pope John Paul II testified to the power of their witness when he wrote in 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.” Pope Benedict XVI concurs by stating on March 18, 2009, “In contemplating Joseph, all men and women can, by God’s grace, come to experience healing from their emotional wounds.”
“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, please shed light upon and intercede for single persons seeking a spouse and for all married couples around the world. + Amen.
NOTE: The sources for this article involved more than 25 books of research and I take no credit for this article other than stringing thoughts and ideas together to show the betrothal and love between Joseph and Mary. I take no credit for all the cotton and thread.
Originally published in Deacon Digest magazine and posted with permission.
Mass for the Feast of St. Joseph
Mass for the Solemnity of Saint Joseph, Husband of the Blessed Virgin Mary is Thursday, March 19, 2015 at 6 pm at Saint Mary Cathedral. Following the mass there will be a reception and display of St. Joseph statues at the Bishop’s Hall. Bring your statues of St. Joseph to be blessed and to share stories. St. Vincent de Paul Society will have a St. Joseph’s “table for the poor” so please bring canned or packaged goods.