When his mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found with child through the Holy Spirit. (Matthew 1:18)
For two thousand years, Christians wondered what Joseph was thinking when he heard that Mary was “with child.” After all, a virginal conception is a virginal exception. Many people assumed that Joseph thought Mary guilty of infidelity. But the Angel cleared it up for him in a dream. Around the year 200 A.D., a weird account of Christ’s life (that never made it into Bible) – the “Proto-gospel of James” – invented this entertaining rendition of Joseph’s reaction:
“She was in her sixth month. And then, behold! Joseph came home from work. He entered his house and found Mary great with child. He smote his face. He cast himself down on sackcloth and wept bitterly, saying: ‘How am I to respond to this young woman? I received her from the Lord my God a virgin, and I have not kept her safe. Who is he who violated my home? Who has defiled my house and my virgin?’ Joseph arose from the sackcloth and called Mary. He said to her: ‘O you, who were cared for by God, why have you done this? You have forgotten the Lord your God!’”
And so, this explains why Joseph wanted to “divorce her quietly” (calling off a betrothal required a divorce in those days). Sounds like an episode of “Divorce Court.” This text of the “Proto-Gospel of James” fed this outlook among many Christians, including St. Augustine.
But there is a problem with this. The Gospel calls Joseph a “righteous man” (Matthew 1:19). In the Hebrew world, the title “righteous” or “just” was not a way of saying ol’ Joe is a nice guy. When a man was called “righteous,” it meant that he impeccably observed the Law of Moses. That was no small feat. Just read Deuteronomy, and you’ll see what I mean. If Joseph was “righteous,” and if he thought Mary guilty of adultery, he would have had her stoned (see Deuteronomy 22). In the 5th century, St. Jerome, who studied Hebrew under a rabbi, figured this out. So he had another explanation: Joseph was confused.
St. Jerome said that Joseph trusted Mary but was unsettled. So he decided to end the relationship: “Knowing her chastity and marveling at what had happened, [Joseph] buried in silence a fact whose mystery he did not understand,].” So said St. Jerome.
But this raises the question: Would Joseph be called “righteous” if he abandoned Mary because he was confused? There must be a more plausible explanation. Perhaps it is this: Mary came clean and told Joseph that she conceived by the Holy Spirit. He believed her. But he didn’t know how to deal with it. After all, it is unprecedented. He felt unworthy of the Mystery. He wanted to humbly bow out and get nice one-man flat in Galilee. Hence, an angel had to reassure him.
The 6th century deacon and poet, Romanus the Melodus, put these words in Joseph’s mouth: “O luminous One, I see a flame, a fire which surrounds you and I am terrified of it. Mary, protect me and do not consume me. Your guiltless womb is suddenly become a furnace filled with fire; let it not melt me, spare me, I beg you. You wish that I as Moses of old should also take off my shoes, that I should approach you and listen to you and, that, enlightened by you, I should say to you — Hail, unwedded bride!” This view – that Joseph wanted to step away from the Virgin with Child just as Moses was told to step away from the burning bush (see Exodus 3) – was common among ancient Christians in the East. Moreover, Byzantine hymns call Mary the “Unwed Bride” before whom even the angels stand in awe, fear and wonder.
St. Thomas Aquinas (13th century) held the same view: “Joseph wanted to put away the Blessed Virgin not as suspected of fornication, but because in reverence for her sanctity, he feared to live with her.” St. Bernard of Clairvaux (12th century) agreed as well. The 20th century theologian, Jesuit Father Ignace de la Potterie, said that the angel appeared to Joseph in a dream not to snuff out his fears of infidelity but to assure him that it was safe to “take her into his home.” St. John Paul II said the same thing: “Even though he decided to draw back so as not to interfere in the plan of God which was coming to pass in Mary, Joseph obeyed the explicit command of the angel and took Mary into his home, while respecting the fact that she belonged exclusively to God” (Guardian of the Redeemer, 20).
Joseph was probably thinking along these lines: “I must step back. I am not worthy of this awesome Mystery. This is above me. Moses took off his sandals before the burning bush. I’ll step back from my virgin. She has conceived the Son of God by the power of the Holy Spirit.”
Others had similar experiences before Christ. John the Baptist said: “He must increase and I must decrease” (John 3:30). St. Peter said: “Go away from me Lord, for I am a sinful man” (Luke 5:8). The centurion said to Jesus: “I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof” (Matthew 8:8). Zaccheaus would only look at Jesus from afar. The woman with the hemorrhage would only touch his cloak. When Jesus said to the soldiers, “I am he,” they fell to the ground (John 18:6). At the Annunciation, even Mary said, “How can this be?” though she never doubted. Jesus’ parable about the tax collector and Pharisee in the Temple lauds that sense of humility before the sacred (Luke 18:9-14).
This exposes Mary’s perpetual virginity. And another fact: Jesus did not have siblings. Mary’s conception of Christ was sacred. All others gave way. On the down-to-earth level, if Jesus had siblings, could you imagine the rivalry? “Why can’t you be like your older brother?”
How do we approach sacred Mystery? If St. Joseph the “righteous man” feared to approach Jesus and Mary, how should we approach him in Mass? In the Eucharist? In one another? In each child, born and unborn? We should prepare to approach the Christ-child with the same wonder and humility as Joseph. There is liberation in saying before Christ “I am not worthy” and yet, with an angel’s assurance, feeling no fear in taking Christ into the home of your heart.