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The Holy Family

Marriage of Joseph and Mary

In considering the marriage of Joseph and Mary it is important to grasp from the outset the Jewish conception of the betrothal as distinguished from the marriage ceremony itself. A betrothal among the Jews was different from an engagement as we know it. The espousals were a solemn contract concerning a marriage; they were made before witnesses, and had for object the union of the parties. According to Jewish legislation, the betrothal established between the bride and the groom a legal bond much closer than with us. The betrothed woman was considered as the wife of the man from the moment of the betrothal (Deuteronomy 22:23-24), although she had not yet entered the habitation of her husband. The husband could not repudiate his betrothed without giving her a bill of divorce; in case of fornication with another man the betrothed was treated as an adulteress.

The engaged couple were given, by anticipation, the titles of husband and wife. St. Matthew likewise assigns these titles to Mary and Joseph even before the marriage ceremony had taken place: "Whereupon Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not willing publicly to expose her, was minded to put her away privately. 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 (by marriage ceremony) Mary thy wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost" (Matthew 1:19-20). Ordinarily the consummation of the marriage was consequent to the marriage ceremony. Still, no imputation could be cast on the honor of a woman whose child was conceived after the espousals and before the social ceremony. Hence, in Mary's case, her honor before the people was saved by her betrothal.

When the day of the marriage arrived, the bridegroom ordered a banquet to be prepared at his house, and being dressed in festive garments and accompanied by young men of his own age, in the midst of joyous songs and the sound of musical instruments, he went to the house of the bride. The Parable of the Ten Virgins (Matthew 25:1-13) gives us a vivid picture of these Oriental customs. The bride, attired in brilliant clothes, with a crown on her head, and escorted by maidens of her own age, was then led to the house of the bridegroom. This ceremony, however, was a mere social custom. It added nothing to the intrinsic nature of the marriage contract, and could be dispensed with at the will of the parties. The legality of the bond was established by the espousals.

Three months had passed since the Incarnation of the Word. Lest the reader even for a single moment entertain an unfavorable suspicion, the Evangelist frequently reminds us that Mary was "with child of the Holy Ghost." But Joseph was as yet unaware of the mystery, and hence a struggle arose in his soul. For he was a "just man," that is, a strict observer of the Divine law which was his constant rule of conduct. Could he, a just man, marry a woman who according to appearances was guilty of grave fault? "Whereupon Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not willing publicly to expose her, was minded to put her away privately" (Matthew 1:19). In what this "private" dismissal of Mary would have consisted, is not indicated; exegetes are of the opinion that Joseph would have given her a bill of dismissal before two witnesses without, however, indicating the cause of the dismissal, and then depart for some other region; at any rate, Joseph was determined not to expose Mary publicly, that is, not to bring her before the tribunal of the judge. At first sight it seems hard to explain Mary's silence toward St. Joseph in such serious circumstances and important matters. But her secret was God's and she thought she ought not to reveal it until God inspired her to do so. She was fully confident that the same Holy Ghost Who presided over the whole mystery would make it known to Joseph at the proper time. Then again she probably hesitated to offer an explanation which she could not prove and which might have been regarded as an arbitrary assertion.

We do not know how long this perplexity in Joseph's soul lasted. Finally, God Himself solved the vexing problem: "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" (Matthew 1:20). Joseph therefore was to be at ease and peace in regard to their engagement and as soon as possible contract marriage with Mary. According to Scripturists, this marriage ceremony took place after Mary's return from the home of Elizabeth, about four months after the Incarnation of the Word.

Theology advances the following reasons to show why Christ was born of a virgin:

1. The first Person of the Blessed Trinity is the real and true Father of Christ; it was unbecoming that He transfer His dignity to a mere man.

2. Christ wished to avoid the mode of man's procreation which is infected with original sin.

He Who came to satisfy for sin, decreed not to incur the taint He had come to destroy. Theology also seeks to explain why the Redeemer was born of one legitimately united in marriage rather than from an unmarried virgin. In the first place, it was due to Mary's office to protect her honor and good name; to those who would be slow to believe that such a miracle had been wrought - and there were many such among the carnally minded Jews - conception by an unespoused virgin could serve as a basis to impugn her character. Secondly, Mary needed the help and protection of her virgin consort in the rearing of the Divine Child. During the days of Christ's Nativity, the days of trial, poverty and even of flight to a distant region, it was becoming that the young mother should have a protector at her side. It was fitting, too that the Child should find beside His crib someone who, in the name of His only and heavenly Father, would safeguard Him, labor for His support, and initiate Him into the life of labor which He was to lead for many years.

A Davidic Family

That Joseph belonged to the house of David is clear from the words of the angel: "Joseph, son of David, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife" (Matthew 1:20). The Davidic origin of Joseph is mentioned explicitly in connection with the edict of enrollment: "Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth into Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family of David" (Luke 2:4).

Mary's Davidic origin appears clearly from the angel's message: "The Lord God shall give unto Him the throne of David His father" (Luke 1:32). For Jesus to be the "Son of David" in a real sense, for the royal blood to flow in His veins, it was necessary that His mother be personally descended from the family of that ruler, because Jesus had no father according to the flesh. The Davidic origin of Mary is also insinuated in the following passages: "His Son, Who was made to Him of the seed of David, according to the flesh" (Romans 1:3); "Be mindful that the Lord Jesus Christ is risen again from the dead, of the seed of David, according to my Gospel" (II Timothy 2:8); "For it is evident that our Lord sprung out of Juda" (Hebrews 7:14). What is implicit in Scripture is made explicit in the early fraction of the Church. St. Ignatius of Antioch, St Irenaeus, St. Justin Martyr, Tatian, Tertullian and subsequent writers represent Mary's Davidic origin with all desirable clearness. The relationship of Mary and Elizabeth does not imply that the Blessed Virgin was not a scion of the royal race. That relationship came simply from a marriage between a member of the family of David, to which the Mother of Christ belonged, and a descendant of Aaron.

The Davidic origin of Jesus Christ was never a matter of doubt. The prophets and the psalms proclaimed that through the Messias the throne of David would endure forever. The two historians of the Sacred Infancy - St. Matthew and St. Luke - wishing to prove irrefutably to their readers, whether Jews or Greeks, that Jesus was truly descended from King David, drew up a list of His ancestors from official documents. Throughout His public life the title "Son of David" is attributed to Him by individuals as well as by the crowd. The two blind men, the Syro-phoenician woman, the blind man of Jericho, the enthusiastic multitude at the time of his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, appeal to Him and acclaim Him as the "Son of David." After a miraculous cure which He had just performed, the enraptured witnesses say to one another: "Is not this the Son of David?" (Matthew 12:23; cf. Matthew 9:27; 15:22; 20:30; Mark 10:47; Luke 18:39). If the title "Son of David" did not belong to Him, why did He do nothing to undeceive and to correct the multitudes, especially when He saw that this title, accepted by Him, was arousing their enthusiasm? If Jesus was not the Son of David, how was it that His enemies did not attempt to destroy His authority either during His public life or during His trial before the Sanhedrin, by declaring and proving that He did not belong to the royal family? Later on, when the Apostles in their preaching took as their starting point the Davidic origin of their Master, no one contradicted them (Acts 2:30-36).

Although both St. Matthew (Matthew 1:1-16) and St. Luke (Luke 3:23-38) drew up a list of Christ's ancestors, a discrepancy exists between the two lists in regard to the names between David and our Lord. Naturally we should expect to find the same names in both genealogies. But while St. Matthew gives only twenty-six names between David and our Lord, Luke has forty-one. What is more, the only names which are common to both lists are those of Salathiel and Zorobabel. According to St. Matthew, the father of St. Joseph was Jacob. According to St. Luke, St Joseph's father was Heli. The problem created by the discrepancy between the two genealogies is almost as old as the Gospels themselves.

The oldest known explanation, attributed to Julius Africanus, is based on the Levirate Law.

According to this law, when a married Israelite died without offspring, his brother or closest relative was obliged to marry the widow provided she was still of an age to become a mother. The first male child issuing from this second marriage was regarded as belonging to the deceased and became his legal heir. According to this theory, Jacob (next to the last on St. Matthew's list) and Heli (next to the last on St. Luke's list) were sons of the same mother but having different fathers, Mathan in one case, and Mathat in the other. St Joseph, the offspring of this marriage, was actually the son of Jacob, but legally was reputed as the son and heir of Heli. The same Levirate law operated in the case of Salathiel. The two genealogies of our Lord are dissimilar, since one of them - St. Matthew's - mentions the real ancestors, while the other - St. Luke's - lists the legal ancestors of St. Joseph.

The explanation based on the Levirate Law is not acceptable to some scholars. They question the fact that this law was still operative in our Lords time (but cf. Matthew 22:23-28) or that it was applicable to uterine brothers, or that double genealogies were kept. Hence they propose a different solution: St. Matthew enumerates the ancestry of St. Joseph, St. Luke those of Mary; the first list contains our Lord's legal genealogy, the second, his natural and real genealogy. The scholars place the clause, "as it was supposed the son of Joseph" (Luke 3:23) in parenthesis and read: "And Jesus Himself was beginning about the age of thirty being (as it was supposed the son of Joseph but in reality a descendant) of Heli-."

This explanation seem forced and less acceptable than the first.

There is nothing in St. Luke's account to indicate that he intends to give Mary's genealogy. A further difficulty lies in the fact that this theory makes Heli the father of the Blessed Virgin while tradition call him Joachim; possibly, however, Heli and Joachim may be different forms of the same name.

Discussion Aids

Set I

1. How did a Jewish betrothal differ from modern engagement?
2. Were the betrothed given the title of husband and wife? Were they permitted marriage rights?
3. Describe a Jewish marriage ceremony. What was its value as far as the matrimonial contract was concerned?
4. Why did Joseph wish to put Mary away privately? In what would this "private dismissal" have consisted?
5. Explain Marys' silence in regard to the manner of Christ's conception.
6. How was Joseph's perplexity solved?
7. When did the marriage ceremony take place?
8. Why did Christ wish to be born of a virgin?
9. Why was Christ born of a married virgin?

Set II

1. Prove the Davidic origin of St. Joseph. Of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
2. Show how the Davidic origin of Jesus Christ was a matter of common belief.
3. What discrepancies exist between the two genealogies of Our Lord in St. Matthew's and St. Luke's Gospels?
4. What two explanations of these differences have been advanced by Biblical scholars?
5. When is the feast of the Holy Family? Read the proper parts of the Mass.
6. Make a list of the virtues practiced by the Holy Family. Show how each one of these virtues can be a light and an inspiration to every human family.

Religious Practices

1. I will have a reverent regard for womanhood which was so highly honored by the divine maternity of Mary.
2. I will frequently reflect on the sacredness of the married state which was honored by Christ's being born of one legitimately married.
3. I will frequently reflect on the dignity of family life which was sanctified by the thirty years of Christ's hidden life spent within the Holy Family at Nazareth.