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Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Did Saint Joseph Doubt Our Lady's Virginal Conception of Christ?

In the Byzantine ritual churches, this is the week of the Holy Fathers of Christ. The Apostolic reading for Sunday's Divine Liturgy is Hebrews 11: 9 - 40, which praises the theological virtue of faith in those who came before Christ and prepared the world for him. The Gospel, Saint Matthew 1: 1 - 25, proclaims the genealogy of Christ. It also tells us how Saint Joseph "was a just man", and how an angel - presumably Gabriel - appeared to him in a dream and directed him:

18 Now the generation of Christ was in this wise. When as his mother Mary was espoused to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child, of the Holy Ghost. 19 Whereupon Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not willing publicly to expose her, was minded to put her away privately. 20 But while he thought on these things, behold the angel of the Lord appeared to him in his sleep, saying: Joseph, son of David, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife, for that which is conceived in her, is of the Holy Ghost. (Douay Rheims Version)

One of the most commonly held interpretations of this account is that Joseph did not understand that his betrothed was with child by the Holy Spirit, and therefore resolved to send her away secretly in order to spare her life and save his honor.

I used to hold this interpretation. Here is part of a sermon I preached on this text:

Joseph was bewildered when he found out that Mary was with child...he stumbled in unbelief concerning her condition. Why? Because in this situation Joseph judged by man made standards of wisdom. By these standards he knew that a woman gets to be with child by a man. And he knew the man was not him. It seemed impossible - downright foolish - to think that God had given her this child without a man. It may be hard for us to understand Joseph's problem. That's because we know all the facts of the case. We know that Mary remained a virgin and was with child of the Holy Ghost. Joseph didn't know that. What was he to think? What would you think if you learned your bride-to-be was pregnant? Would you have said, "How wonderful, thank you, Lord"?

Some Catholic interpreters also share this opinion. A footnote to verse 19 in the Confraternity New Testament (1941) reads, "Supposing only a natural explanation of her condition, Joseph, as just, might not proceed to marriage before the law, while his conviction of her innocence made him unwilling to expose her to reproach."

Nowadays I repudiate this interpretation, commonly held though it is.

Those who think that Joseph temporarily doubted Mary's virginal conception of Jesus will say that the clause "She was found with child of the Holy Ghost" is an anacoluthon, abandoning the straightforward narrative to give the reader the end of the story from the beginning.

But what happens if you read it as a straightforward narrative? In that case, you realize that when Joseph was informed of the source of Mary's pregnancy being the power of the Holy Spirit, he was firmly convinced of the truth of it. He understood and believed when she told him that her condition was the divine fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah (7: 14): "Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son." Now that fits much better with what we are told of Joseph, that he was a just man. But how can one be just, or righteous in the sight of God unless he believes all that God has revealed? The whole point of the apostolic reading from the 11th chapter of Hebrews is that the ancients were just through their faith. Hence it seems far better to take verse 19 as part of a simple narrative, and understand that Joseph believed his betrothed to have conceived supernaturally.

Another consideration which faithful Catholics and Orthodox cannot ignore, is Tradition. According to the Tradition received in the universal Church, our Lady had vowed perpetual virginity to the Lord. She was resolved to this vocation already as a three-year-old child when she entered the Temple to live there. Joseph understood and agreed to enter into a virginal marriage with her, solely as provider and protector. Hence when Gabriel announced that she would conceive and bear a son, the Virgin asked, "How shall this be, since I do not know man?" (Pos estai touto, how shall this be, not how can this be)

But if Joseph believed, what would account for his decision to "put her away privately"? The answer fits perfectly with the description of Joseph as just: It was his great humility. It was because Joseph did believe that Mary was the Virgin Mother of the Messiah that he felt himself unworthy to be her spouse. He did not wish to expose her condition of having virginally conceived Christ - which it was unlikely that anyone else would believe - and therefore resolved to put her away, giving her a bill of divorce without stating a reason, which was permitted according to Deuteronomy 24: 1.

Thus it makes perfect sense that the angel, speaking to Joseph in a dream, would say, "Fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife because that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. N.B. I have amended the Douay Rheims text here slightly, translating "because" instead of "for" (the causal use of "gar" in Greek, rendered by quod in Latin), and eliminating all punctuation which was not in the original of either St Matthew or St Jerome's version. Joseph had been afraid to take Mary his wife because that which was conceived in her was planted by the power of the Most High. How could he take to himself the most pure temple of God incarnate?

Faced with this magnificence of the Mother of our Lord, Joseph needed to be strengthened in the resolve of his soul to be the protector and provider for the Holy Family, his own littleness and unworthiness notwithstanding.

Doesn't this make Saint Joseph more lovable than ever?

1 comment:

Deborah said...

Joseph is Da Man. Thanks for a look at another side of the Nativity story.