Was it necessary for Mary to be espoused to Joseph if the incarnation required a virgin?
From our previous discussions, it is known that Joseph and Mary were husband and wife, and that Saint Lawrence of Brindisi would even say that they were destined to be together. Yet, we know that Joseph did not contribute to the conception of Jesus who was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit in the womb of Mary. The prophecy of the coming of the Messiah pointed to Mary’s virginal birth.
Likewise, studies have revealed that Mary was of the stock of David, the lineage of Nathan. So, Jesus could still be traced to have come from the stock of David according to prophecy. Then, the questions arise, was it necessary for Mary to be espoused to Joseph if incarnation required a virgin? Of what importance or need was the presence of Joseph in the picture? In other words, what is the place of Saint Joseph in the economy of salvation? To further expand on this question is to state the importance and place of man in the life of woman, of husband in the life of wife and family, and vice versa.
This question is not of today but has been asked centuries ago as early as in the first four centuries. Many saints and theologians have been able to give plausible answers to this question. In attempt to answer this question, Saint Basil, a Cappadocian father and doctor of the Church, proffered four reasons. First, he says it was necessary for Mary to have been espoused to Joseph in order to spare her the disgrace of being thought to have defiled her virginity.
We can find this view in Origen’s earlier thought. Secondly, it was to conceal Mary’s virginity as to deceive the devil so that salvation should take place. He explained this further that “The devil needed to be deceived since the devil knows Isaiah 7:14 which reads: “well then, the Lord Himself will give you a sign, a young woman who is pregnant will have a son and will name him Immanuel.” With this knowledge, the devilthereafter would have come hunting for the virgin whose son he knew would bring an end to his dominion.
According to Saint Basil, “the betrothal to Joseph was intended to draw attention away from Mary so that the prophecy concerning the birth of a Saviour could be fulfilled”. Some other saints and theologians share this view and Saint Bernard of Clairvaux would add to its truth that it is not the case that God feared the devil, God is powerful but also wise, He waits for the right time. Venerable Bede also shares this view and said, this is one of the reasons Saint Joseph is invoked as Terror of demons.
Thirdly, Mary was espoused to Joseph in order to honour the state of marriage. And the fourth reason is that she was espoused to Josephso as to anticipate the pre-ordained time for the incarnation to arrive. In a like manner Saint John Damascene opines that Mary had to be espoused to Joseph because the birth of Christ needed to be kept secret from the people. His was “from the people” and Saint Robert Bellarmine would add “for some time”.
Saint John continues that Joseph had to stand in as a father and that if Joseph had not acted in that capacity, it would have been recorded that Jesus had no father, and thus was illegitimate. We come to the understanding that as of then, the mystery of incarnation was not well understood as we have it today. Mary and Joseph were people of faith that they could grasp the mystery with understanding.
Then, Saint John also raised the point that, probably, Mary could have even been dead by stoning before the birth of her Son. We wonder what it would have been by now. Thank God for the presence and availability of Saint Joseph in her life. Saint Robert Francis Bellarmine gave more reasons why Mary had to be espoused to Joseph.
He says, so that the mystery might be hidden for some time; that her honour would be safeguarded otherwise she would be considered an adulteress;that she might have the consolation of a husband in so many labours; that God wished in this manner to approve the conditions of virgins and married women; God repudiates the condition of prostitutes; and that God wishes to confound the heretics who condemn either marriage or virginity.
Saint Bellarmine confirmed the place and role of Saint Joseph as pivotal to the person and mission of Mary and the incarnate word. Likewise, Saint Joseph becomes a model to all men; fathers, husbands, and to family life. T he view of Joseph’s necessary marriage to Mary being a model to family life and upholding it was further enunciated by this woman doctor of the Church, Saint Hildegard of Bingen, a virgin and miracle worker.
Explaining Matthew 1:18, she gave reasons why Mary had to be married to Joseph. From a vantage female perspective she said, “God considered righteous the first arrangement whereby God himself united Adam and Eve. He contemplated and wished the mother of his son to be betrothed to a man, so that he would protect her faithfully and caringly, and so that she would be subject to him.
It was just that every woman who had an infant should have a husband to protect her. There is justice in this, and humility follows in submission to it. For if Mary did not have a protector and if, as it were, she needed no husband to protect her, pride would have snatched her easily. Clearly, by the intent of the union, she was given the name ‘mother’ in the presence of God and his people”.
This is just it; we could see how Joseph’s life speaks so loudly into the heart of our generation today where single parenting (single fatherhood/motherhood) andthe notorious phenomenon of “baby mammas”for contempt of marriage and being under a man’s authority as husbandhave become so rampant. She takes us back to the original design of God where man and woman, or male and female He created them.
And we can see that the woman and the man are both created equal and need each other equally as husband/father, and wife/mother in marriage, and hence should eschew the pride of single parenting. Saint Thomas Aquinas always has a systematic way of presenting his arguments and summations. He is not left out here too as he givestwelve responses, putting them in three stages why Mary should be espoused to Joseph.
In summary, the first stage is “for the sake of Christ himself” that lest Jesus be rejected by unbelievers as illegitimate; so that in a customary way, Jesus’ genealogy be traced through male line; for safety of the new born; and Jesus might be nurtured by Joseph, his father. The second, “for the sake of Mary” that Mary be exempted from punishment, that is, not stoned to death; Mary be safeguarded from ill-fame; and that Joseph might administer to her wants.
Then, the third stage, “for the sake of the entire mankind” that Joseph be witness to Christ being born of a virgin (Joseph becomes a trustworthy witness); that the very words of Mary might be rendered credible; that all excuse be removed from those virgins who, through want of caution, fall into dishonour; to typify the universal Church, which is a virgin, yet espoused to one man; and since Mary is espoused and a virgin, both virginity and wedlock are honoured in her person.
Then, the question may arise, among all the young men at that time, why was it to Saints John Damascene and Bernard of Clairvaux answer rightly that Mary was espoused to Joseph because he was a just man, steadfast observer of the law from his youth. Saint Bernard goes further to say that even when he didn’t want to expose Mary publicly, it was because he was a just man. Joseph would not have been a just man had he countenanced one that is guilty (in the eyes of the law) neither if he had condemned the innocent.
Then, one may want to ask, why then did he want to put her away? Saint Bernard answered, “Just as Peter was struck with awe at the greatness of Christ’s power (Luke 5:8), just as the Centurion was struck by the majesty of Christ’s presence (Matthew 8:8), Joseph was naturally afraid at the novelty and splendour of the miracle and depth of the mystery. When one recalls that the holy Elizabeth exclaimed with fear and trembling, ‘whence is this to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” His justice translates into love, why when the angel asked him not to be afraid but take Mary as his wife, he did as the angel said.
In Saint Joseph, we find a worthy model for any state of our life – whether the journey is long or short, smooth or rough, whether or not the goal is within the range of human eye, whether our pace is fast or slow, with you, Joseph, we are sure of always going the right way. We thank God for the gift of Saint Joseph to the Church and to humanity, and the opportunity of deepening our knowledge, love and devotion to Saint Joseph especially in this year of St. Joseph. May Saint Joseph continue to intercede for us all. Amen
Rev. Fr. John Alabi is a priest of the Oblates of St. Joseph based in Ibadan.