The earliest annual feast of Saint Joseph is celebrated on the twenty-third day of the first month of the year. In the calendar it is called indeed the Espousals of the Blessed Virgin Mary; but it is his rather than hers, it is the beginning of his greatness. As in the Gospel her glory is summed up in being called " the Mother of Jesus," so his is summed up in being called "the husband of Mary." All his life long God was preparing him, though he knew it not, for his great wedding-day; thenceforth all his graces would come to him, and he knew it, because of that day's grace. It was precisely because of his conjugal relationship to her that, to her eyes, he became, in a few months time and from the moment of the Incarnation, the visible proxy of her invisible Spouse, the Holy Ghost, and the shadow of the Eternal Father; and that, to the eyes of men, a little later, he would pass for the father of her only Son, who was also the only-begotten Son of God.
It was, says Suarez, soon after the opening of her fourteenth year, which was the marriageable age among her people, that the Blessed Virgin's Espousals took place. There can be but little doubt that at the time Saint Joseph was still in the prime of life, say between thirty and forty years of age, the limit which the majority of great minds in modern times would put to his years. The opinion of Mary of Agreda, a holy nun who had the gift of saying most beautiful things about Our Lady and all her concerns, which numbers his years as thirty-three, seems to have much to recommend it. At all events, we may take it for certain that Saint Joseph was not the old man whom, in the olden times, painters and theologians alike were so fond of depicting, and we may safely conclude that he was not more than fifty years of age.
Mary was probably an orphan at this period; and her marriage, as was customary in such cases, was arranged for her by her guardians among the priests of the Temple, in which, for about eleven years, as tradition assures us, she had been brought up. Some authors think it was by a special inspiration of Divine Providence that Joseph the carpenter was chosen for so high an office; but, be this as it may, we know from the event that he was the chosen of God, and that that marriage at least was made in heaven. The old legend, which tells how the many suitors for the maiden's hand were weeded out until the one perfect flower of purity was left, represents the choice as being made pretty much as Aaron was elected to the priesthood in the grey ages long before; the dried wands of the aspirants having been left in the Temple overnight, it was found in the morning that Joseph's almond-branch had budded into flower. A letter attributed to Saint Jerome lends countenance to the story; and, whatever may be thought of its historical character, it is true at least with the "true truth" of things.
Being an only child, and so an heiress, though doubtless her earthly heritage was not much more than her father's house at Nazareth - the Holy House that was to be - and its immediate surroundings, she is bound to marry, since marry she must, a man of her own tribe and family. That she was of the tribe of Judah and of the royal house of David is evident, from what is said of her Divine Son in prophecy and Gospel alike; while, on the other hand, the Gospel genealogies show clearly that Joseph was of the same illustrious pedigree. Heiress she was of the blood royal, which, in her case only and in His who was to be born of her, was unsullied at its source with the least stain of sin; and her blood was to end right royally in the Precious Blood of that Son of David, whom long ago David had called his Lord.
But Mary's true dowry was other than this. A few months after her Espousals she is saluted by the Angel of the Annunciation as "full of grace;" and even now, we may be sure, she is as full of grace as can be, though her capacity was always growing, especially from that day forth, until the end. She is the heiress too, the sole heiress of the hopes of Israel, which, still unfledged, are stirring in her heart like young doves in the nest.
Ah! she was indeed a fit spouse for Joseph; she who, as a little time would show, was a fit spouse for God. For, as old "Anthony Stafford, Gent." (a Protestant) says in his book, The Femall Glory: "The bonds of her matrimony were already askt in Heaven, and no impediment was found why she might not wedde God Himself." And Joseph was a not unfitting husband for such a wife, chosen as he was, for the father that was dead, by her Father who was in heaven. What he was already we can judge - though, of course, his holiness would grow and grow from his daily intercourse with Mary - from the fact that, with regard to the Divine event that was soon to follow, the Evangelist says emphatically that he was " a just man." Now love is a leveller, as we know, especially the love of God; and thus naturally, and supernaturally, Joseph, we may be sure, would have been Mary's own choice, if choice she had had, or had wished to make. Abbot Rupert, in his commentary on Saint Matthew, says that the Holy Ghost, who dwelt both in Mary and in her virginal spouse, was the conjugal love that united them.
Pious fancy seems to behold the maiden as she moves to that high bridal; and memory recalls, as doubly true of her, what was written of the first, and as yet unfallen, Eve -
"Grace was in all her steps, Heaven in her eye,
In every gesture dignity and love."
And even these were but the outward signs of the inward grace of which her pure soul was full.
The reasons for this marriage are evident. As the martyr-poet of Shakespeare's time, Father Robert Southwell, S.J., rather naively put it
"In marriage knots to Joseph she was tied,
Unwonted works with wonted veils to hide."
"God lent His Paradise to Joseph's care,
Wherein He was to plant the Tree of Life."
Already, indeed, had the coming event cast its graces before. As Mont Blanc, at dawn, takes the sunlight on his brow, while yet the neighbouring mountains are subjects of the night, so are the pure heights of the Espousals already lighted up from the clouded east of the Sacred Infancy, and there, hand in hand, Mary and Joseph are standing, clad in the white splendours of the unrisen Son of Justice.
But how can Mary enter into a true marriage-contract, and it is certain from the Gospel that she did so, being bound, as is generally believed, by a vow of perpetual virginity? That, at the time of the Annunciation, she was so bound, is plain, as Saint Augustine remarks, from her own words to the Angel. The Abbd Orsini, following Descoutures, thinks that her vow may be assigned to the early days of her orphanhood. The common opinion goes much further, and says that she consecrated herself irrevocably to God from her earliest years, probably at the time of her Presentation in the Temple. But Saint Thomas Aquinas says, in the Summa, that though Our Blessed Lady had made a vow of chastity before her marriage, it was only on condition that such would be pleasing to God, and that it was only after her Espousals that she made, together with Saint Joseph, an absolute vow of perpetual virginity.
It was fitting that she who was destined to be the Mother of God, should be the model of all His children; so, by her marriage, she was made the patroness of wives as well as of maidens. Her marriage was in some sort a sacrament before sacraments were known. To Mary herself it must have seemed more like the heavenly sacrament of the everlasting growth of glory, rather than the earthly, though Divine, sacrament of a special grace. For she had long been dear to the Holy Spirit of God, and rich in all the favours of His grace; and this was their betrothal. The Divine Espousals were soon to follow on this wedding-day, in her quiet home at Nazareth; and the day was not far distant when the Eternal Word of God, become her little Babe, would preach, by the mute assurance of His presence, from the tiny pulpit of the Crib, what one day He would proclaim by word of mouth to the whole wide world, and even unto us: "Where there are two or three gathered together in My name, there am I in the midst of them."