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Blessing of the Advent Wreath
Today’s Gospel is read on a Sunday, on the average, only once in every seven years, when the Vigil of Christmas falls on the fourth Sunday of Advent. That should make the Gospel significant, especially for those of you who do not frequent daily Mass. For all of us it is significant, for it tells the story of the Annunciation from Saint Joseph’s point of view.
We know from the Gospel that Mary and Joseph were “betrothed.” We don’t really have it in American society, but we might think of “betrothal” as something more than even a contractual engagement, but not yet quite the same thing as marriage. In the Jewish society of our Lord’s day, a couple might make a contract of betrothal a few months to a year before coming together to live as man and wife. They were already vowed to one another, and the wedding day was essentially the day on which the husband “took possession of the bride from her father.” (If that phrase, “took possession” sounds like buying a piece of property, it should be remembered that in the world before Christ, women were often viewed precisely as “property.”)
The Gospel finds Joseph in something of a quandary. He was “a just man,” accustomed to following the Commandments and the Law of Moses. He was firmly convinced that Mary was a likewise virtuous and obedient woman; convinced that she loved him, and would have no other; expecting that, shortly, he would go to the house of Joachim and bring home his young bride to “live happily ever after” as the wife of the carpenter in Nazareth.
But strange things had taken place. In March Mary had a vision of the Angel Gabriel, and was quickly called away to the house of her kinswoman Elizabeth, who found herself pregnant unexpectedly in her later years. Elizabeth was married to the priest, Zachary, so surely she had been in good surroundings in their home near the holy city of Jerusalem. But, shortly after her return, Mary began to show signs of being with child.
Joseph was beside himself. He loved Mary deeply, but she seemed, somehow, for the moment, to have betrayed his trust. And no matter how forgiving he might be—no matter how much he was personally willing to overlook—the law of Moses was clear on the matter. A wife—even one merely betrothed—who cheated on her husband, became “ritually unclean” or “defiled” with respect to that husband. She had to be “put away,” possibly even stoned to death as an adulteress. What exactly could he do to protect her from all this danger and embarrassment? Could he somehow fulfill the Law in private rather than in public?
In the midst of Joseph’s anguish, God sent His angel to intervene. God, the searcher of all minds and hearts, knew that Joseph was “a just man,” and that Mary was perfectly chaste and humble and obedient. If we can say that God is “obligated” to do anything, we might say that He was obligated to reassure Saint Joseph, and prepare Him for being the earthly protector of the Infant God and His Virgin Mother. Mary and Joseph were to be key agents in His plan for the Redemption of mankind. Mary had been “overshadowed by the Holy Ghost,” “Fear not Joseph ... for that which is begotten in her is of the Holy Ghost.” “Fear not Joseph to take Mary as your wife.”
He gave Mary and Joseph another thing—a “password” we might say in our idiom. He gave them a means by which both knew their experiences with the angel to be true. Both Mary and Joseph, and they alone, had been told by the Angel that she “would bring forth a Son, and you shall call His name Jesus.” They knew the name of the Holy Infant revealed by the angel—they alone, at least for the moment.
So, Joseph, the “just man,” soon took Mary to his home in Nazareth, so that there might not be any scandal over her condition. Saint Jerome suggests an additional reason or two. He says:
But life was hard in the land of Israel; many conquerors had walked across the land; most recently the powerful armies of Rome. A census was commanded so that the Romans might gauge the amount of taxation they could safely squeeze our of their subjects in Palestine. Not many days after Joseph had “taken possession” of his young wife, the two would find themselves on the road to Jerusalem at what would normally be the most difficult time in a young woman’s life—the time of her first baby. But that story is more appropriate for tomorrow, and we will read it in the Gospel of the midnight Mass.
There is one thing else to learn from this “once in seven years” Gospel, for it is the key to understanding how we know that Mary remained perpetually a virgin—even after “coming together” in Joseph’s home—even for all times. This has long been a defined doctrine of the Christian Faith, at least as long ago as the Lateran Council of 649. But the Church doesn’t just pull ideas “out of the sky” to define them as articles of the Faith. Given due respect in asking, it is always a legitimate question to ask “how do we know this to be true?” How did Pope Saint Martin I and the fathers of the Lateran Council know of Mary’s perfect continence? How did they know?
One can appeal to tradition, but that just drives the question further back into the past: How did the first person to know, know? Probably not by asking the question of Mary herself—even in our entirely libertine age, most of us have scruples about making such intimate inquiries. One can appeal to the fact that, due to being conceived in the state of original grace, Mary was not subject to inordinate desires. And, one can appeal to the idea of “fitness.” It is altogether “fit” that the womb which bore the Son of God was not shared with mere human siblings. And, certainly, there is no reason to believe that the “brethren” of our Lord were anything more than the usual extended family of Jewish tribal custom. If Jesus had brothers or sisters, even if they were merely the children of Joseph, they certainly would have stood with Mary at the foot of the Cross—there would have been no need at all for Jesus to entrust His Mother to the care of Saint John.
But in today’s Gospel we have a strong piece of evidence. Mary and Joseph were bound to the observance of the Mosaic Law. It was not something they could or would set aside by personal expedience or mutual agreement. Although it permitted divorce, the Law of Moses clearly indicated that woman who gave herself to a second spouse could have no relationship at all with the first. As we read in Deuteronomy: “The former husband cannot take her again to wife: because she is defiled, and is become abominable before the Lord.”
It is absolutely inconceivable that the Mary we meet in Saint Luke’s Gospel, or the Joseph whom we meet in today’s account by Saint Matthew would do anything that would defile Mary to anyone, let alone make her “abominable before the Lord”—inconceivable that Mary the Mother of God and Spouse of the Holy Ghost would do anything that might defile that relationship—inconceivable that Joseph, “the just man,” would do anything to help her. I is clear that Mary remained the unspotted bride of the Holy Ghost all the days of her life.
 Preface of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
 http://carmelnet.org/christmas/SilentNight/Gallery/Joseph/joseph.jpg at http://carmelnet.org/christmas/SilentNight/Gallery/Joseph/joseph.htm
 Gospel: Matthew i: 18-21.
 ibid. v. 18.
 Deuteronomy xxiv: 1-4.
 Deuteronomy xxii: 22.
 Cf Luke i: 26-38 and Matthew i: 18-21.
 Saint Jerome, Book 1 of the Commentary on Matthew, ch 1.
 Lateran I, canon 3 (Denzinger 256).
 Cf. John xix: 25-27.
 Deuteronomy xxiv: 4.