To Jesus Through Mary at Christmas: The Wedding

ADVENT RETREAT: Joseph’s final fiat, no less than Mary’s, is an act of faith. His determination to take care of his wife and child remains one valuable for today.

Rosso Fiorentino, “Marriage of the Virgin Mary and St. Joseph,” 1523
Rosso Fiorentino, “Marriage of the Virgin Mary and St. Joseph,” 1523 (photo: Public Domain)

Both Advent and Mary’s pregnancy are well-advanced. Advent is half over and, after returning from Elizabeth’s, Mary is in her second trimester. Jesus is about 15 weeks old, with a beating heart, brainwaves, toes and fingers. He’s about six inches in length and probably sucking his thumb. Fortunately, he’s in the Holy Land rather than America, because Senator Lindsey Graham’s proposal to protect that 15-week-old child is considered here an “extremist” and “radical” idea that many recently used as a wedge argument to promote abortion. So, is the Jesus who came back from Ein Karem, who apparently managed to elicit John’s leaps, still not human? 

Mary is back in Nazareth. Joseph has had time to think. The Gospel doesn’t tell us when he did, but it tells us that he did. It tells us that he considered divorcing his fiancée. (In ancient Israel, betrothal was more than just an abstract promise to marry but less than marriage.) One can imagine his confusion: his Mary is pregnant, and he knows it wasn’t him. He can divorce her, but public exposure could also make her a public pariah if not stoned to death for her “infidelity.” Joseph, a “just man,” neither wants to hurt Mary and her baby nor, apparently, get further involved in this case. He “decided to divorce her quietly” (Matthew 1:19).

Now it’s Joseph’s turn for some heavenly instruction. “An angel of the Lord appeared in a dream” to Joseph. Joseph gets lots of heavenly messages in dreams. That’s not because Joseph was particularly narcoleptic, but because some of God’s greatest messages to Israel took place in dreams, something Bruce Vawter pointed out long ago.

Abraham is told by God in a “deep sleep” that he will be the father of many nations (Genesis 15:12). The same word (וְתַרְדֵּמָ֖ה) is used in Genesis 2:21, when God casts a deep sleep upon Adam to create woman (and the “discriminatory gender binary”). It was in a “dream” (וַֽיַּחֲלֹ֗ם: Genesis 28:10) that Jacob sees the ladder that joins heaven and earth, the ladder who is coming in two weeks — Jesus Christ, the bridge between heaven and earth. So Joseph’s message in a “dream” is just the next in a long lineage of turning points in salvation history, something a devout Jew like Joseph would have recognized understood.

In light of what Joseph learns — not to fear to marry Mary because her child whom Joseph will name (and to “name” in the Bible is to have a singular relationship to the named) “Jesus” — one can imagine Joseph’s confusion. His beloved has not only not been unfaithful but, in fact, has been miraculously touched by the Most High himself. Her child is “of the Holy Spirit” — not in the way every child is God’s gift of life, but in a unique and special way. And he is being asked by God to be part of that life, to assume a quasi-paternal role over it, to “name” the child and, through himself, include him in the Davidic lineage. 

Joseph’s final fiat, no less than Mary’s, is an act of faith. The Polish author Roman Brandstaetter also maintain that it is an argument for Mary’s perpetual virginity because Joseph, as a devout and observant Jew, would have recognized in piety that his beloved has been first and remains the beloved of God himself.

Imagine, then, having perhaps been confused where she stood with Joseph, to see him, probably like “a gazelle or a young stag” (Song of Songs 2:17) rushing toward her, proclaiming his love, and now wanting to marry her. Mary could now see something of her future, a future she had hoped for, a future with the man she loved. She would not be alone. She would not have to cope alone with a child. 

Hers had to be great faith in God’s Providence to have faced that possible future. Her great faith and trust in God showed that God, too, is always faithful.

Luke implies that Mary was still betrothed when she and Joseph arrived in Bethlehem and Jesus was born (see Luke 2:5). Matthew (1:24b), after recounting Joseph’s dream, simply writes “When Joseph woke up … he took Mary home as his wife.”

Theoretically, Matthew’s text leaves open that later wedding date but — regardless — let’s imagine the wedding. I follow the Polish novelist, Roman Brandstaetter — a Catholic who had been born a Jew and was thoroughly immersed in Jewish thought — in imagining their pre-Christmas wedding. The vision of their wedding is relevant, however, whenever it took place.

The usual procession from the bride’s home, accompanied by parents, neighbors and friends. The gathering beneath a canopy symbolizing heaven, with the exchange of wine drunken by the spouses. The happy, if in poor Joseph’s situation humble, celebration. Finally, the leading of the new bride into the bridegroom’s home, just as the angel had counseled Joseph not to fear to do (Matthew 1:20b). 

Would Mary, in her second or third trimester, now have an earthly home and an earthly spouse? Amid all the miraculous she had experienced, was life also assuming a certain normality? Brandstaetter imagines the young marrieds observing humble Sabbath suppers on Friday nights, the young wife lighting and praying over the Sabbath candles, the husband leading the prayers in honor of the Queen of the Week, the Lord’s Sabbath.

Responding to the dream and whether or not they were already married, Joseph took responsibility for Mary. By those decisions, Joseph provided for Mary’s and Jesus’s immediate welfare. He engrafted Jesus into a human genealogy. He provided Jesus with the essential and indispensable model of a father in the home, not to keep him on the “straight and narrow” but to help him grow “in wisdom and age and grace” as a Son of the Torah and as a normal human with a trade for his future

Though the marriage of Joseph and Mary would be unique in view of her perpetual virginity, the model of Joseph taking responsibility for Mary remains one valuable for today, especially in the typical human marriage where sex is a component. Many woman feel pressured toward abortion precisely because they feel alone: unsupported by parents and unsupported by the man with whom she is a parent. 

Lip service to equality aside, how many men are responsible for the deaths of their own unborn sons or daughters because they refused to step up and take responsibility for the woman with whom they “made love” rather than really loved? How many brave women who nevertheless protected their child’s life suffered poverty as a result of that man not taking his responsibility? How many children today suffer the deficit of the absence of a father until they themselves become adults? What can Joseph teach us?

At the same time, it’s not all on fathers. With the fall of Roe, the barriers the Supreme Court once erected to a father’s involvement in protecting his unborn child are also theoretically gone. But efforts to invent “Constitutional rights” to abortion or “codify Roe” usually try to avoid talking about the fact that they exclude fathers from any say in the fate of his child (or a parent’s in the fate of his grandchild in the case of a pregnant minor teen). Should Joseph have been excluded from the life of Mary and Jesus?

One week is left until Christmas. Next week, we get to Bethlehem — and Jesus — with Mary.

[In last and this week’s reflection, I acknowledge my dependence on Roman Brandstaetter’s life of Jesus, Jezus z Nazaretu (Jesus of Nazareth)].