Section VI. St. Joseph perceives the great Mystery of the Incarnation, through reverence resolves to leave privately the Blessed Virgin, but never for an instant doubts her fidelity.
We shall give the Gospel narrative — "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. 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 Mary thy wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost. And she shall bring forth a son: and thou shalt call his name Jesus. For he shall save his people from their sins. Now all this was done that it might be fulfilled, which the Lord spoke by the prophet, saying: Behold a virgin shall be with child, and bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted, is God with us. And Joseph, rising from sleep, did as the angel commanded, and took unto him his wife" (Matt. i. 18-24).
We confess that the above narrative, at first sight, conveys to the mind the impression that St. Joseph doubted the fidelity of his holy spouse and that seeing her pregnant he was thinking of putting her away privately, that she might not be stoned to death, which was the usual punishment for an adulteress among the Jews. Let us also here candidly state that the great St. Augustine, St. John Chrysostom, and many other Fathers, as well as learned Commentators, are cited in favour of the above opinion. Hence, it is clear that every body is free to adopt and believe, if he so chooses, this interpretation.
After careful study, we ourselves hold, and fully believe the opinion, which we hope to prove to be at least reasonable, and not inadmissible, that St. Joseph never for a moment doubted the fidelity of Mary the Immaculate Mother of God. This opinion, we are convinced, is borne, out by the sacred texts, by the unique events connected with the lives of Mary and Joseph, and by the authority of many Fathers and learned critics.
As we have already said, the opinion is a free one, and to some it may appear new and strange; yet when we find it based upon solid arguments intrinsic and extrinsic, we cheerfully adopt it, because we think it redounds to the greater honour and glory of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph.
In the first place we can easily believe that St. Joseph, who was of the royal house and family of David, from which the Messias was to spring, knew well from the Prophets and from the history and traditions of his nation, that the Redeemer of the human race was to be born of a virgin; and that the time announced by the Prophets was at hand. The whole Jewish nation was at this time anxiously looking out for the birth of the long-expected Saviour. Secondly, the extraordinary circumstances regarding his marriage with the Blessed Virgin, the secret inspirations and revelations doubtless communicated to himself, to Mary, and to the priests, regarding this mysterious union, must have, at least, dimly foreshadowed to him the dignity of his bride, that she was the Virgin whom the Prophets foretold, would conceive and bring forth a Son. And lastly, it is reasonable to think and believe that Mary herself after the Incarnation, and especially during the journey to Hebron and back, gave St. Joseph at least some intimation that the "Word was made flesh and dwelt among men."
But it may be asked, if St. Joseph did not doubt the fidelity of our Blessed Lady, how explain the text which tells us that he was thinking of putting her away privately, and that God even sent down an Angel from heaven to dissuade him from his purpose? The text is well explained as follows, and the reply appears satisfactory, if not convincing.
Take first the case of the Apostles. They had been in the sacred company of Jesus, so to speak, for years; they had seen with their eyes the stupendous miracles wrought by the Saviour of the world ; they had heard Divine Wisdom issuing from the sacred lips, as well as divine intelligence beaming in sacred eyes. At the Crucifixion they saw the sun darkened, they heard the earth quake, and saw the dead rise from their graves. Yet during the Life of our Blessed Saviour, at His Death, and after His Resurrection, they were ever hesitating, wavering in faith* and needed the coming of the Holy Ghost to believe fully and to realise the magnitude of the Mysteries of the Incarnation and Death of the Redeemer of the world. In like manner, though St. Joseph had learned and knew much about the coming of the long expected Messias from the Prophets and traditions of his nation, from the unique circumstances attending his Espousal with the Virgin-daughter of Sion, as well as from Mary herself; yet it was only when he saw with his eyes the great fact of the Incarnation, that his mind fully realised the stupendous Mystery, and awe-stricken, so to speak, by the presence of the majesty of God, he deemed himself unfit to live in such close intimacy with Jesus and Mary; and hence he was meditating on the private separation mentioned in the Gospel narrative. The Centurion said: "Lord, I am not worthy that thou shouldst enter under my roof;" and St. Peter cried out: "Depart from me, 0 Lord, for I am a sinful man." In the same spirit St. Joseph recognised the infinite sanctity of God Incarnate and the unspeakable sacredness of the Virgin-Mother, and hence his humility required, and received from God the command of an Angel to live and breathe in the presence of Jesus his God and Mary the Mother of God. We shall briefly quote the testimonies of a few of the many Fathers in favour of our opinion—an opinion which, we believe, redounds to the honour and glory of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. For who could entertain the very shadow of a thought that anyone, and last of all, the sanctified and heavenly-appointed St. Joseph, could ever doubt the fidelity of the Immaculate Mother of the Incarnate Son of God. A learned Commentator says: "That Joseph was convinced that it was more possible for Mary to conceive without man's concurrence than for her to commit sin."*
St. Jerome puts the following words into the mouth of St. Joseph: "What am I thinking of that I do not withdraw from her who is now the Mother of God? To leave so loved a treasure is painful and afflicting; but as I am unworthy to be in her society, and incapable of serving her according to her dignity, I will withdraw from her without her knowing that I leave her. If I absent myself publicly, giving men my reasons for the step, this miracle of sanctity will be made infamous; for as they are an unbelieving race, instead of adoring the fulfilment and truth of the sacred prophecies, they will ridicule my credulity, and insult her honour."
"Such," declares St. Bernard, "is the opinion of the Holy Fathers. Why did Joseph wish to leave her? Hearken not to my opinion, but to that of the Holy Fathers. Joseph wished to depart from her for the same reason that Peter kept off our Lord from him, saying: 'Depart from me, 0 Lord, for I am a sinner;' for the same reason that the Centurion kept Him from his house, when he said: 'Lord, I am not worthy that Thou shouldst enter under my roof.' But why privately, and not publicly? Lest the cause of the divorce should be asked. For what answer would that just man make to that stiff-necked people? If he should 8ay what he knew to be true, that he had every proof of her purity, would not the incredulous Jews ridicule him and stone her ?"*
The Blessed Virgin, in her revelations to St. Bridget, says: "Joseph seeing my form expand, through the power of the Holy Ghost, was filled with astonishment and admiration; not entertaining any undue suspicion of me, but remembering the words of the Prophets, foretelling that the Son of God should be born of a virgin, he thought himself unworthy to serve such a mother, until the Angel in a dream hade him not to fear, but minister to me in charity."* The learned Gerson holds the same opinion. "When," he writes, "St. Joseph saw his spouse with child, he became thoughtful and wished to leave her; he was not troubled, but the very greatness of the mystery which he now saw with his eyes surprised him, but without any idea of infidelity on the part of the Immaculate Virgin. It seemed to Joseph a wonder worthy of the greatest admiration, that new spectacle thus about to verify the prophecies which announced the Redeemer; he saw that the Son of God, conceived by the operation of the Holy Ghost, visibly grew in the most pure womb of his spouse, and this seemed to him new and wondrous. The agitation was no suspicion of infidelity, it was a kind of overpowering awe; and as Mary and Joseph equally shared that fear or doubt, which went no further than awe, the angel did not reprove them as faithless or incredulous ; nor did the Lord chastise them, as He did Zachary, when the priest asked the envoy of God for a proof of the fruitfulness of St. Elizabeth which he announced; he only told them by the voice of the Archangel not to fear. 'Fear not Mary! Joseph, son of David, fear not.' ... I cannot believe that the Blessed Virgin would have concealed from her holy spouse the apparition of the Angel, and the object of his coming. If I must express my opinion, I will affirm that I cannot doubt, that the Blessed Virgin, before leaving Nazareth for the hill country to visit St. Elizabeth, informed St. Joseph, that she had already given her consent that, without detriment to her virginity which she had vowed to God, the Eternal Word would take flesh in her womb; and that she had already conceived Him in her womb by the operation of the Holy Ghost. If this is well examined, it seems more probable that Joseph was informed of this mystery before Elizabeth; as well by the confidence due to him on account of his marriage, as for his eminent virtue, which raised him above all the Patriarchs, and Prophets, and all the Saints. If St. Elizabeth was favoured with a knowledge of this mystery, that she might understand, that she had in her house the Mother of her Lord; with far greater reason should St. Joseph be enlightened, for he was the spouse, companion, and guardian of the Blessed Virgin, and the reputed father of the Man God. At the words of the Blessed Virgin's salutation the Divine Spirit declared to St. Elizabeth the happy mystery which had taken place at Nazareth; and shall we believe that that Spirit would conceal what It had operated on his spouse from Joseph, a man enlightened, and chosen for the execution of the Divine Decrees, and as St. Bernard says: 'filled with a most lofty spirit, to penetrate and share in the most sublime mysteries.' "*
Any comment upon the above would only weaken the solid and convincing reasoning of the learned author.
An eloquent Italian author writes thus: "Few are the authors who say that St. Joseph doubted the Blessed Virgin, and wished to leave her in consequence. God forgive me for thinking so great a Saint guilty of such a fault. The Doctors commonly affirm that St Joseph had no doubt or suspicion however slight; but he was filled with confusion and wonder, because it had not yet been revealed to him how his spouse was to conceive in her womb the only Begotten of the Father. Beholding then with his eyes that fulfilled which he had not wholly understood; full of confusion at the thought of his own unworthiness to be in the company of a being, served by the highest monarchs, he resolved in his humble breast to leave her, but with such prudence that her honour should not be exposed to the words of the people.'' (Sinicalchi).
A devout Client of St. Joseph thus writes: "Well versed in the oracles of Isaias, and the traditions of his nation, Joseph, like the mass of the Jews, expected that the promised Messias would be born of a virgin of the tribe of Judah, and descendant of David; but before the Angel had revealed the mystery to him in dreams, it did not appear to him by any authentic and solemn testimony of Heaven, that his illustrious Spouse was the virgin to conceive, and to give to the world the glorious Liberator. At most he might know it privately from the lips of his Spouse; or it might be suggested by reflections convincing him that the time of the mercies of the Lord was already accomplished; so his Espousals with a daughter of Judah, and descendant of David, consecrated by a vow of perpetual virginity, were as the first dawning above the horizon of the long-expected day of the Jews, certain signs that the coming of the Saviour was at hand. The ancient prophecy of Jacob, wherein he announced to his son the head of the tribe of Judah, the birth of the Expectation of the Gentiles, now seemed vividly verified; for the sceptre of Judah was now broken, and natives deprived of all public authority. Herod of Ascalon, surnamed the Great, was King of the Jews. He was an Idumean on his father's side, an Arab in his manners, a: foreigner, too, on his mother's side, a usurper of the crown of Judea by the protection and overwhelming influence of the Romans. This stripping Judah of the power and sceptre; this wresting of both from the famous Tribe, and from the royal line of David, were the signs of the coming of the Messias; and by them, joined to the circumstances of the Espousals of the Blessed Virgin, every one must feel that Joseph had ground to augur the lot of his Spouse, and deem her selection probable.
We might cite other authorities; but from the arguments and quotations already produced, we believe that the opinion is at least probable, and can be safely held and believed that St. Joseph, at the time of his Espousal, learned by "divine inspiration" that Mary his chaste spouse was destined to be the future Mother of the Redeemer. Secondly, that the Blessed Virgin herself, at the time of the Incarnation, or very soon after, confided to St. Joseph the secret of the great Mystery. Thirdly, that God sent His Angel from heaven, not to remove any doubt or suspicion about the fidelity of the Immaculate Mother of God ; but to confirm, by authentic and divine testimony, what St. Joseph had already privately known, that the Word Was Made FLESH; also to stay with Mary as her guardian and protector; and finally, as reputed father, to give the name Jesus to the newly born Redeemer. "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. And she shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name Jesus. For he shall save his people from their sins" (Math. i. 20).
St Joseph, and the Journey of the Blessed Virgin from Nazareth to Bethlehem.
We shall give the Gospel narrative: "And it came to pass that in those days there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus; that the whole world should be enrolled. This enrolling was first made by Cyrinus, the Governor of Syria. And all went to be enrolled, every one in his own city. And 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. To be enrolled with Mary his espoused wife who was with child" (Luke, ii. i-5).
St. [Joseph having got from God's Angel the authentic, solemn, and divine testimony, that Mary had conceived of the Holy Ghost, and was the Mother of God, changed his resolve of leaving her, and watched over her and ministered to her with the greatest reverence and affection. The prophets not only foretold the coming of the Redeemer, but pointed out the very place of his birth. "And thou Bethlehem Ephrata," said Micheas, "art a little one among the thousands of Judah; out of thee shall he come forth unto me that is to be the ruler of Israel" (v. 2.) God, by His over-ruling Providence, fulfilled the above prophecy. At this time the Emperor Caesar Augustus had raised the Roman Empire to the zenith of its glory; and to ascertain the strength and wealth of his realm, ordered a census to be taken of all his subjects, and hence issued a decree that all persons should be registered in their own provinces and cities.
Up to this time the Blessed Virgin and St. Joseph lived at Nazareth ; but being of the royal house and family of David, they were ordered to be registered in Bethlehem, which was called the City of David. This long journey, of about eighty miles, over a mountainous country, was travelled, it is believed, by Mary and Joseph in about five days. We can well imagine with what tender care, reverence, and love, St. Joseph ministered to the Mother of Jesus during this long and fatiguing journey. The shades of evening were falling thick and fast on Bethlehem, enveloping the little village in its sombre mantle, when the holy travellers, Mary and Joseph arrived at their destination: needless to say that the holy Virgin was fatigued and exhausted, yet resigned and joyous. For centuries past the Patriarchs and Prophets had been supplicating heaven, with sighs and tears, for the coming of the Messias. "Send forth, 0 Lord," they cried, "the lamb, the Ruler of the earth" (Isai. xvi.l.) "0 that thou wouldst rend the heavens, and wouldst come down, the mountains would melt away at thy presence" (Isai.lxiv.l.) Drop down dew, ye heavens, from above, and let the clouds rain the just: let the earth be opened, and bud forth a saviour: and let justice spring up together (xlv. 8.) Not less fervent was the prayer of the Royal Psalmist: "Lord, how down the heavens and descend" (Ps. cxliii. 5). "0 Lord God of Hosts, how long wilt thou he angry against the prayer of thy servants? How long wilt thou feed us with the Dread of tears, and give us for our drink tears in measure? .... 0 God of Hosts, convert us; and show thy face, and we shall be saved. Stir up thy might and come to save us." (Ixxix.) "Now, therefore, 0 Lord," cries out another Prophet, "hear the supplication of thy servant and his prayers; and show thy face upon thy sanctuary, which is desolate, for thy own sake. Incline, 0 my God, thy ear and hear; open Thy eyes and see our desolation, and the city upon which thy name is called. ... 0 Lord, hear, 0 Lord, be appeased ; hearken and do; delay not for Thy own sake, 0 my God, for thy name is marked upon the city, and upon thy people" (ix. 16-19). The Prophet Jeremias prayed thus: "Remember, 0 Lord what is come upon us: consider and behold our reproach. . . . We are become orphans without a father: our mothers are as widows. 0ur fathers have sinned, and are not; and we have borne their iniquities. . . . The joy of our heart is ceased; our dancing is turned into mourning. The crown is fallen from our head: woe to us, because we have sinned. Therefore is our heart sorrowful; therefore are our eyes become dim . . . But Thou, 0 Lord, shalt remain for ever, Thy throne is from generation to generation. Why wilt Thou forget us for ever? why wilt Thou forsake us for a long time?" (Lam. v. 1-20.)
The prayers are heard; the Word is made Flesh; the Messias has descended; and is come to be born, as the Prophets foretold, in the City of David. 0ne might expect that not only the Bethlehemites, but all the people of Judea, would be ranked in solemn procession to welcome and salute the Mother of their Redeemer. One might expect that a gorgeous palace, decorated with all that genius could design, and wealth enrich, would be placed at the disposal of Mary, for the birth of the "Just 0ne," "the desired of the eternal hills," the long-expected Messias. But far from it. "He was in the world, and the world knew him not. He came unto his own, and his own received him not" (John i. 10). At Bethlehem nobody recognised Mary or Joseph. No inn or lodging-house would open its door to shelter Mary from the winter's blast. Not even one kind hand was found to offer the smallest refreshment to the holy travellers worn out from the fatigues of the long journey. "The foxes have holes and the birds of the air nests; but the Son of man hath not whereon to lay his head" (Luke, ix. 58). After passing from inn to inn, and door to door; after repeated refusals, quite wearied out and exhausted from the fatigues of the long journey, Mary and Joseph, in calm, serene, and joyous resignation to God's Divine will, left the inhospitable city; and retired into a cave in a rock to seek shelter from the winter's blast, and to seek repose for their wearied limbs. In this cave or stable, which served to shelter the brute creation, the ass and the ox, the Eternal Son of God, the long-expected Messias, the Redeemer of the world was born!
In these trying circumstances, in these privations on whom did Mary lean for help? 0n St. Joseph. Who liberally supplied all her wants'? St. Joseph. Whose hands prepared the royal cradle of state, the rude manger, for the birth of the Redeemer? St. Joseph's. Who, first after Mary, with reverential love, looked into the Divine countenance of the Saviour of the world, and adored Him? St. Joseph. Here in the crib at Bethlehem, the glories and privileges of St. Joseph expand before the soul! Not only does the Mother of God look to him for every help and comfort, but the Son of God Himself, to Whom thousands of thousands minister, and to Whom ten thousand times a hundred thousand pay homage, needs and accepts the services of St. Joseph.