The Life of Christ




THE consequences of what God had brought to pass in the chaste womb of Mary soon became apparent. Joseph, who was more interested than any one else in the condition of his betrothed, took note of it.

According to the Evangelist's expression,1 he discovered it as something unexpected; this is a proof that he knew nothing of the Angel's visit or of the pious conversations which Mary had with Elizabeth in Zachary's house. No doubt his religious, upright soul would have been no less submissive to the will of Heaven and no less believing than Mary's, had he been informed of what she had seen and heard. Being ignorant of it all, he was greatly troubled. He dared not to cast a doubt upon the virtue of his betrothed. The incomparable purity of her youthful life and the serenity of her glance undisturbed by any worry, distinctly told him that suspicion would be a crime. Yet with his own eyes he beholds this absorbing reality. Thus his mind encounters, at the same time, a physical fact, Mary's pregnancy, and a moral fact no less undeniable, her virtue perfectly secure. To seek an explanation would be painful; Joseph knows better than any other the wound he would thus inflict upon her whom he has so esteemed and whom he yet reveres. To accept the situation and close his eyes seems to him unreasonable. He decides to follow the dictates of his good and honest heart.2 Between the young girl's parents and himself there was merely a promise of marriage, simply a verbal bond. A word can yet undo what a word has done. Some would break the engagement with publicity; he, inspired by his benignity, a prominent feature of his character, will employ prudence and tact. The decision he proposes to make will be in accord with his dislike to believe her guilty. Secretly, without noise of scandal, he will give her permission to remain free. Thus the world shall see nothing in this affair. Joseph distrusts the justice of earthly magistrates, and, incapable himself of judging a case so difficult, he leaves it to the justice of heaven.

Mary naturally must have divined the anxiety of her betrothed, and, perhaps, feared the danger of a coming separation. So there began for her, together with her joy as a mother, a series of moral sufferings which were to torture her whole life. If Joseph refused to marry her, what a prospect! The purest of young virgins would become the most despised of the women of Nazareth, and the "fruit of her womb" would be born Himself under the weight of most awful dishonor. Must she then make known heaven's secret? Who will believe so strange a story? Ought she to keep silent beneath the blows of calumny? To be sure she is capable of immolating herself, but must not God's honor be kept intact, and what will be the future of this Messiah Whose cradle may be dishonored by a calumny which appearances would seem to justify? Indeed, it was this very thought, sad and bitter as it was, that was to sustain Mary's faith. Logically, she had only to trust in God, Whose wisdom could not hold aloof from a work so miraculously undertaken; and though she knew not precisely whence her salvation was to come, Mary in all her anxiety awaited it undiscouraged.

The trouble that weighed down Joseph's soul had a deeper foundation and was more violent, since he had nothing to enlighten him in his trial. God could no longer be silent. One night when the carpenter had retired, his heart given up to the most bitter anguish, the Angel of God appeared to him. Through Moses,3 Jehovah had said that He would sometimes speak to His prophets in dreams. Indeed, although in sleep, reason and judgment, the reflex faculties by whose aid the soul controls its impressions and discovers the imaginary from the real, generally lie dormant, the sensibility and the imagination are unusually active. We can understand, then, that, even in these circumstances, God or a superior being can enter into communication with our spirit. However, there will always be a criterion of truth by whose aid the soul of him who sleeps may judge of these impressions; the soul is affected by the manifestation or real influence of a superior being in a manner quite different from that in which it is moved by illusions or simple dreams. The clearness of the perception, the importance of the communication, the deep conviction of him who, after awaking, declares that he did not dream, but saw, are sufficient to establish a radical distinction between the world of chimeras and the world of realities.

"Joseph, son of David," said the Angel, "fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost. She shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call His name Jesus; for He shall save His people from their sins."

The light beams in upon him and consolation flows to him from the words of heaven's messenger as they fall upon his ear. All his uncertainty vanishes, all clouds are dispelled, and the just man feels himself no longer confronted by compromised virtue, but sees himself in the presence of the Spouse of the Holy Ghost. At once, before his eyes is clearly sketched out the providential and glorious part assigned to him by God. To guard Mary's honor and that of Jesus, by sheltering mother and child under an official marriage, to respect her as the temple of the Most High, to nourish and protect Him as His own son; these are his duties dictated to him by the messenger from Heaven. A true descendant of the faithful of Israel, Joseph does not hesitate to accept this holy mission of charity and chastity.

He arose, says the Gospel, and did what the Angel had commanded; he took Mary for his wife.4

According to the most ancient and most unanimous Catholic belief, he lived with his spouse as if he were her brother, and Mary remained always a virgin. The Gospel, despite certain specious difficulties,5 most certainly strengthens this conviction; for in assigning to Jesus as brothers those who were only His cousins, the sacred historians logically prove that He had no real brothers. It was among the customs of the Jews to give the title of brother to the cousins german of the only son; while it was impossible to confer it, without a confusion of ideas, upon the cousins of one who already had own brothers. It is certain that those who are called in the Gospel the brothers of Jesus were only His cousins. They were James, Joseph, Simon, and Jude.6 James, whom St. Mark calls "the less," and Joseph were the sons of Mary,7 wife of Cleophas and sister or sisterinlaw of the Blessed Virgin.8 Therefore they were merely cousins of Jesus. St. Paul, in his Epistle to the Galatians,9 plainly calls James the Less the brother of Our Lord. Now among the Apostles there were only two who bore the name of James, one the son of Zebedee and the other the son of Clopas or Cleophas, or even Alpheus, according to the different rendering in Greek of the original Aramean.10 But in St. Paul there is question not of the former, who had already suffered martyrdom, but of the latter, who had an influential voice in the council of the Apostles, and who was the son of Alpheus, and by no means of Joseph. Yet he is called the brother of the Lord. But this James himself had a brother Jude; of this we are assured by the catalog11 of the Apostles and by the canonical Epistle of St. Jude. Here, then, is a third brother of Jesus, who, in reality, was only His cousin, since he was the son of Mary, wife of Cleophas. Simon therefore is the only one whose genealogy we cannot find explicitly given in the New Testament; but an author who is very nearly the contemporary of the Apostles, Hegesippus he wrote about the middle of the second century tells us that the second bishop of Jerusalem was Simon, the son of Cleophas and cousin of Our Lord, and that he suffered martyrdom under Trajan,12 at the age of one hundred and twenty years.

This proof seems conclusive.13 We must not wonder, then, that Jesus, in His last moments, should confide His mother to a disciple, to a friend: Mary really had no child other than He Who was dying on the cross. She would not have accepted the hospitality of an adopted son, if she had any of her own. And we cannot say that Mary retired to John's house because of the incredulity of the brothers of Jesus; we find these same brothers at her side in the Cenacle and they share her faith and her hopes.

The logical conclusion is that the Spouse of the Holy Spirit could not become the wife of a mere mortal. The firstborn had absorbed all the fecundity of the virginal womb that had conceived Him, as an exceptionally beautiful fruit or a particularly delicate flower absorbs all the vital force of the tree that gives it its bloom. Again, if man naturally respects the dwellingplace of Divinity how can we admit that Joseph the Just, the Pious, did not feel himself bound to the deepest veneration for the blessed temple where the shadow of the living God had rested? He was, then, the first of that illustrious race that guards the Sanctuary of the Lord, not only in justice, but in most courageous chastity. He became the model of those priestly heroes who in all ages have spent their lives in chaste contemplation of the mysteries with which they are in touch, without a thought of the rights of flesh and blood which their hearts have solemnly renounced.

Joseph espoused Mary as the Catholic priest espouses the Church, with the intention of sacrifice and immolation; he offered himself generously to serve her and to honor her. This sense of a lofty mission received from heaven and freely accepted is sufficient to explain whatever is astonishing in the chastity of the priest, as well as in the virginal relations of these two young spouses. They alone fail to understand this mystery of virginity who, in the depth of their soul, have never heard the voice of God.

It is quite natural for us to believe that Joseph and Mary kept to themselves alone the secret of this union, which in reality was so exceptional, but which exteriorly was like any other. What could they hope to gain by revealing it to a world incapable of understanding it? Thus we may account later for the attitude of the Nazarenes toward Jesus, and for the incredulity of His near relatives.


1 The expression used by St. Matthew, "she was found to be with child," enreqh, indicates that Joseph became aware of this by what he saw and not by what was told him.

2 Some interpreters express the opinion that Mary had informed her betrothed of the work God had accomplished in her, and that Joseph, being a just man, was unwilling to trust to her word alone in a matter of such delicacy As guarantee of this divine intervention in Mary and of the miraculous origin of the child about to be born, he must himself be convinced by incontestable evidence. Short of that he will have nothing to do with a matter of such great importance from the religious point of view. On the other hand he cannot doubt Mary's word; he has always known her to be so perfect and she yet appears to him to be so holy and so pure. In his hesitation he is equally afraid either to denounce his betrothed before the judges or to protect her by taking her in marriage. He will repudiate her secretly, that is, by giving her a bill of divorce in legal form, without naming the grievance that called forth this determination. Thus he proves himself a just man, leaving it to heaven to clear up a situation too dark for him to decide.

3 Numbers xii, 6. It is, perhaps, in conformity with this passage that, according to St. Matthew, the Angel of the Lord always speaks to Joseph or to the Magi in their sleep (St. Matt. i, 20; ii, 13, cf. ii, 12, 22), while in St. Luke he appears to Zachary, to Mary, and to the shepherds during their waking hours (St. Luke i 11, 26; ii, 9, etc.).

4 This proves that they were only betrothed, for if they had been already really married, there would have been nothing for Joseph to do. There would have been something not to do, that is, not to procure the bill of divorce. On the contrary, if, as we have proved, they were only affianced, Joseph had to act in taking Mary finally for his wife. Besides, the Angel, in these words, "fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife," clearly indicates that the marriage had not yet been celebrated; for besides the fact that we cannot fear to do what is already done, but only what is to be done, the word "to take" (accipere) proves that the young maiden's family had not yet given up the betrothed to become a wife. If we do not admit this explanation, like Strauss in his Leben Jesu, vol. i, p. 173, etc., we become entangled in an intricate maze of difficulties.

5 St. Matthew notes that Joseph respected his wife until she had brought forth her firstborn son. This ews ou, they say, affirms or denies a thing only for the length of time indicated, and supposes the contrary after that limit is passed. So that when the Evangelist says that Joseph respected Mary until after the birth of Jesus, he means to tell us that this respect did not continue the same thereafter. But, as St. Jerome remarks, the adverb "until" explains what is doubtful and passes over that which is certain. Thus in saying that "Helvidius will not be converted until he dies," one does not pretend to say that after his death he will do penance. St. Matthew, then, declares that Mary remained a virgin until the birth of Jesus; and with regard to what took place after that, he says nothing, because the reader is supposed to know it from the remainder of the Gospel, which mentions no other children as being born of Mary. It is true that the phrase he employs seems somewhat strange; but we must bear in mind the genius of the Hebrew language, which has many such expressions (Gen. viii, 7): the raven "did not return till the waters were dried up upon the earth," not meaning that it returned afterward The term "firstborn," prwtokos, which is wanting in several manuscripts, as applied to Jesus, drew the following remark from Lucian (Doemonax 29): "If he is the first, he is not the only one; if he is the only one, he is not first." But it is probable that the Evangelists employed this word by way of allusion to the law term, and to give to Jesus a title which flattered every true Israelite, since the firstborn was offered to God, and became for a moment the man of God. The firstborn mentioned by the law (Ex. xiii, 2) was often an only son and remained first even though alone. These different arguments prove nothing, if it is clear from other sources that Jesus had no brothers.

6 St. Matt. xiii. 55.

7 St. Matt. xxvii, 56 St. Mark xv, 40.

8 St. John xix 25. Cf. with St. Matt. xxvii, 56, and St. Mark xv, 40.

9 Gal. i, 19.

10 The Hebrew cheth, which is the first letter of this name, has been transcribed in Greek or in Latin, sometimes by a strong aspiration (hard h), and sometimes by the still rougher consonant c or k

11 St. Luke vi, 14, 16.

12 Eusebius, H. E., has preserved for us the testimony of this author. Thus in Book III, xi, 4, he says that: "Simeon, second bishop of Jerusalem, was cousin, aneyios, to the Lord, Clopas being, according to Hegesippus brother of Joseph." Farther on, ch. xxxii, 5, and Book IV, ch. XXII, 16 he says on the word of the same historian that Simeon was the son of the uncle of the Lord, o ek qeiou tou Kurion.

13 A difficulty has been raised with regard to John vii, 5, where it is said that six months before the Passion the brothers of Jesus did not believe in Him, which is hardly in accordance with the fact that three of them were already His Apostles. Shall we answer that this meant a relative incredulity? The text classes them among the unbelievers in Galilee: "Neither did His brethren believe in Him," and Jesus severely says to them: "The world cannot hate you," because they are still of the world and outside of the Kingdom of God. Nothing of this kind can be understood of the members of the Apostolic College (compare St. John xv, 19); it remains for us only to cast upon Joseph, son of Cleophas, and the husbands of the daughters of Cleophas called the sisters of Jesus, the accusation of unbelief which is here raised as an objection.

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