We are told in Matthew 1:18 that Joseph was betrothed to Mary. Betrothal is a confusing concept especially for those in Western cultures. In biblical times, it was a serious legal contract, somewhere between our modern concept of engagement and marriage. A broken betrothal required a divorce and repayment of the bride’s dowry. While a couple was not supposed to have sexual relations during the betrothal period, which could last up to a year, they were considered married. Human nature being what it is, couples having sexual relations during betrothal was not unheard of. The Gospels are clear, however, that Joseph and Mary had never “come together.”
Learning of Mary’s pregnancy presented a difficulty for Joseph. He knew they hadn’t had intercourse. It was logical, therefore, for him to presume she’d had relations with another man. Doing so was considered adultery, which was punishable by stoning to death.
His solution was to divorce her quietly. The neighbors would assume that he was the father of Mary’s baby since he hadn’t exposed her as an adulteress. While becoming pregnant during betrothal was scandalous, it didn’t carry a death sentence. Joseph would be the cad who took advantage of Mary, but Mary would escape with her life.
In essence, out of love for Mary, Joseph was willing to ruin his own reputation. If that isn’t the sign of great love, then nothing is.
“He was both the true and chaste spouse of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and the foster-father of the Word Incarnate. For these two reasons, Saint Joseph shines among all mankind and approaches nearer than any other saint to the holiness of the Mother of God.” –Pope Leo XIII
Dear Saint Joseph, when I feel the need to defend myself and my reputation at the expense of others, help me to remember your example and act out of love rather than self-interest. Amen.
Image credit: The Marriage of the Virgin, by Jose Sanchez, c. 1690. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, New York, United States, public domain.