"Betrothed to a man named Joseph"
There’s an old story about Mary that nobody really tells anymore. A text called the Golden Legend from the Middle Ages described how, when Mary was ready for marriage, a whole host of suitors ― Joseph included ― lined up before her with branches from their homes. Whoever’s branch, when laid upon the Temple altar, produced a flower would be the one she married. It was said that a young man named Agabus was so crushed by Joseph winning Mary’s hand that he snapped his branch over his knee and fled weeping into the desert. He swore never to love another woman and lived the rest of his days as a celibate monk. You can find this legend painted in churches across Italy. In Raphael’s depiction ― a copy of which still hangs in Germany ― a youthful Joseph slides a ring onto a blushing Mary’s finger as Agabus annihilates his branch in front of the wedding party. It’s all very dramatic.
It reveals something about us that we don’t tell this story anymore. We don’t usually think of Mary getting caught up in these kinds of things, of her blushing over a boy. We don’t think of her as a heartbreaker. We’re not totally wrong here. In Mary’s time marriage had little to do with love. We didn’t marry for love until the nineteenth century. The odd thing is that the medievals who told this story didn’t marry for love either. Yet they translated this story into numerous languages ― they told it far and wide. Several dioceses even held feast days for it. The point is that ― and many historians have pointed this out ― just because the ancients and medievals didn’t marry for love doesn’t mean they never fell in love. How much of their art, music, and literature is about love?
In crafting this story about Joseph winning Mary’s hand ― even if it’s not historically true ― the medievals had grasped something profoundly true about the marriage of Mary and Joseph that we modern Catholics often forget, namely that they were in love with each other, even romantically. Even if the ancients didn’t usually marry for the purpose love, how could the Holy Family not have been a locus of real married love? Indeed, Mary and Joseph are the spiritual parents of Catholics. We should not be afraid to imagine that our parents loved each other.
Do not mishear me. Mary and Joseph’s marriage was a continent one. The medievals held this as dearly as we do. But they also knew love and intimacy cannot be reduced to sex. Why don’t we meditate on that more often? Did Mary not find Joseph handsome? His voice soothing? His arms safe? What keeps us from imagining a Mary who can’t stop smiling when she thinks of her Joseph coming home soon? He was very much her Joseph, her beloved. And what, on the other hand, prevents Joseph from thinking he’s the luckiest guy in the world? He was certainly luckier than poor Agabus! The way her hair falls upon her shoulder, the joke she tells that he doesn’t quite get but laughs at anyway, the odd way she dips her bread in their oil. It was all uniquely her. How many times did Joseph stop at his work just to think about her? She was his Mary, his beloved.
It was no mistake that God decided to become human within a marriage. He could have become incarnate to Mary alone, without the addition of Joseph. God could, when Joseph learned of the strange pregnancy, have let him “send her away quietly” (Mt 1:19). But God decided to enter the world in the context of married love. God wanted to be raised by two people whose hearts beat a little faster when they looked at each other, whose hearts were vowed to each other through thick and through thin. Whatever that phenomenon is ― we could call it romantic love ― God is part of it. Indeed, God decided to be born within it. That’s worth remembering.
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