4th Sunday of Advent, Matthew 1:18-24
Joseph her husband, since he was a righteous man, yet unwilling to expose her to shame, decided to divorce her quietly.
Great humility, devotion and piety are required of any who would hope to contemplate the great mysteries hidden in the inner life of the Holy Family. Far be it from any to approach so holy a home, so mysterious a union as the marriage of Joseph and Mary, without first purifying one’s heart and mind of every vain and unworthy thought! It is holy ground we upon which wish to tread, and we must remove our sandals – that is, we must free ourselves from the spirit of the world and of the present age; an age in which marriage and family life so terribly shipwrecked – with simplicity of heart and purity of mind, we look to the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, and we ask: What was St. Joseph really thinking, when he had intended to put Mary away secretly? Did he perhaps suspect the most holy Virgin of sin? Did he perceive the gift he had received?
In matters so highly sensitive, we will not rely upon our own reasoning, nor less on the reasoning of the modernist biblical “scholars” of our day – men who know little of true piety – rather, guided by the expositions of St. Thomas Aquinas and the learned scholar Fr. Cornelius a’ Lapide, we will look to the sound interpretation given by the Fathers of the Church.
The history of the marriage between Joseph and Mary
Before considering the particular question at hand – what was in St. Joseph’s heart when he had intended to divorce the Blessed Virgin – we must briefly consider the historical circumstances of the betrothal and marriage between Joseph and Mary. This history is based on the limited evidences given in Sacred Scripture, and on the teachings of the Church Fathers (as received by St. Thomas Aquinas; ST III, q.28, a.4; q.29).
Before she was betrothed to Joseph, the Blessed Virgin Mary did not take a vow of virginity. It seems, however, that she desired to make this vow; but was reluctant to do so, as it was not yet clear to her what was the will of God in this matter. It is for this reason (namely, that she had not yet made a vow of virginity, but desired to make one), that Mary was able to be legitimately betrothed to Joseph – for it would seem impermissible for a vowed virgin to enter into marriage.
After Mary was betrothed to Joseph, but before the marriage ceremony, she approached her future husband and revealed to him the desire of her heart – to make a vow of virginity. The couple prayed together and asked the Lord what was his will; and it was revealed to them that they should together vow to live only as brother and sister, protecting and guarding the virginity of Mary. At this point, neither Joseph nor Mary suspected that the Christ Child would be born to them. It was at this time, before the Annunciation, that Joseph and Mary were ceremonially married. Joseph then took her into his home and under his care. [On this point, various opinions are possible – perhaps they were not ceremonially married until after the Annunciation and after the angel spoke to Joseph in the dream.]
Having made the vow of virginity, Mary received the angel’s greeting at a time when Joseph was not present – Mary alone heard the message of the angel. It is clear that Mary and Joseph had together vowed virginity, since Mary says to the angel, “How can this be, since I know not man?” But, if she had not vowed her virginity together with Joseph, she may have believed that the child to be conceived would be of Joseph through a natural bond. From this it is clear that both Joseph and Mary had agreed to live in a state of perpetual continence and virginity; having a true marriage, but only as of a brother and a sister.
Mary, however, did not reveal the angel’s message to Joseph – for she desired to humble herself rather than to proclaim boldly the great work of God in her. Either from seeing the increase in her figure (as most of the Fathers believe) or, perhaps, from Mary’s own telling (as I myself conclude), St. Joseph learned that his wife was with child – but he knew not the manner of her conception, nor that the child was truly the Son of God. It was at this time that St. Joseph intended to divorce Mary quietly, so as not to expose her to shame.
Did Joseph think Mary a sinner?
It would seem most impious to suppose that St. Joseph could have thought ill of the Blessed Virgin Mary – how could he think her an adulteress? This, however, is the opinion of several of the Fathers of the Church: St. John Chrysostom, St. Augustine, and St. Justin Martyr are all of the opinion that Joseph suspected evil of the Blessed Virgin, as though she had conceived by another man. Cornelius a’ Lapide rejects this opinion stating: “But we say, far be from any such suspicions concerning a virgin so holy or a man so just. How, indeed, could Joseph have suspected adultery in such a wife, or uncleanness in her parents’ house?” I concur with Lapide.
Origen, St. Basil, Theophylact, St. Bernard, and St. Bridget of Sweden all hold that Joseph intended to divorce the Virgin, not because he suspected evil of her, but because he recognized that she was the Mother of God, and he considered herself unworthy to be the guardian of so great a Woman. Hence, the intention to divorce is a sign not that he thought ill of Mary, but that he considered himself far too great a sinner to be given so holy a bride and Child. Lapide considers this opinion to be contrary to the sense of the text, and I concur.
Finally, Lapide offers his opinion: “Plainly and surely, Joseph, seeing the Blessed Virgin with child, was astonished at the novelty of the thing, and his mind was agitated by contending and fluctuation emotions, and he reasoned somewhat in this way: ‘I know that this Virgin is most holy, wherefore I do not believe that she has been false to her vow. Still, she is with child, and I know not by me. But by whom I know not. Can it be by a former husband? Or can she have suffered violence on her journey, when she went to visit Elizabeth? Can she have suffered illusion from some spirit during sleep? Or, what would be more consonant with her sanctity, is she with child by an angel, or by the Deity Himself? Well, however, the case may be, I am unwilling to retain her, if an angel, or God Himself, desires to have her. Wherefore I will resign her, and put her away from me.’ God, permitted this to take place in order that the conception of the Blessed Virgin by the Holy Ghost might be attested unto all, both by Joseph and by the Angel.”
This, likewise, is my own opinion: Joseph did not suspect evil of Mary, but he did not know what to think. She herself had told him that she was with child (as it seems to me), but had plainly not explained the full circumstances of the conception – knowing that God would reveal all in the proper time. Joseph knew the child was not his, yet he could not believe that Mary would have been unfaithful to her vow of virginity. Yet, as Mary gave no other account as to the conception, Joseph was deeply troubled and confused. In this state of confusion, he desired to do what seemed most appropriate – hence, he made up his mind to divorce her quietly, seeking to preserve both her good name and his justice. Joseph, however, had not yet completely resolved himself to this act, for he was yet deeply troubled; it was when he was in this state that the angel of the Lord came to him.
Thus, St. Jerome tells us: “This is the testimony to Mary’s purity, that Joseph, knowing her chastity, and wondering at what had happened, hides in silence the mystery of which he was ignorant.”