Traditionally, some dioceses and religious orders have celebrated the beautiful feast of the Espousals of Joseph and Mary on January 23. Its placement in the calendar toward the end of Christmastide is appropriate as we have already celebrated Christmas, the Circumcision, the Holy Innocents (concomitant with the flight into Egypt), and the feast of the Holy Family. As Michael Foley writes, “When viewed as a part of the Christmas cycle, the feast of the Espousals functions as a flashback sequence near the final scenes of a beautiful movie.”1 In a time when many of us know more details about the married lives of certain celebrities than we do of Joseph and Mary’s, it is worthwhile to familiarize ourselves with some of the treasures the Church has to offer on the spousal life of the two greatest saints.
The Mystical City of God by Ven. Mary of Agreda is the preeminent of such treasures, both because of its vigorously tested reliability, and for its unbelievably sublime and sacred teachings. What follows are just a few brief summaries from Agreda’s masterpiece as relates to Joseph and Mary’s holy marriage.
When Mary completed her fourteenth year, the priests of the temple arranged for all the eligible descendants of David then living in Jerusalem to come to see who would be the most suitable for her. While all were praying, Joseph’s staff blossomed, and a resplendent dove descended upon his head. The priests immediately declared that Saint Joseph was willed by God to be Our Lady’s spouse.
To Mary’s great joy, Joseph told her that he had taken a vow of chastity at the age of twelve.
Mary’s Humility and Obedience
Soon after the incarnation of the Word, God explicitly revealed to Mary that He willed for her to visit her cousin, Elizabeth, in order to have Our Lord sanctify John in the womb. Mary’s humility and desire to obey her spouse was so great that, even after the divine will on the matter had been expressed to her, she still decided to ask Saint Joseph for permission to embark on the journey. And, in her humility, she omitted telling Joseph of the special revelation she had received.
In the domestic life of our two greatest saints, each vied to be the one to complete laborious chores so that the other could rest. Mary was perpetually grateful to Joseph for the humble earnings he was able to provide through his diligence in the carpenter’s trade. She consequently sought to perform all of the household tasks for his and her Son’s sakes. Joseph, out of love and reverence for Mary, insisted that he perform many of the duties himself. Ven. Mary of Agreda writes of their “courteous contentions,” by which she means the respectful disputes Mary and Joseph would have over which one should be allowed to serve the other more.
The distance from Nazareth to Zachary and Elizabeth’s home was a difficult journey of twenty-six leagues. Joseph was able to acquire a humble beast of burden for Mary to ride on the trip. Agreda writes, “Mary, the most humble and unpretentious of creatures, many times dismounted and asked her spouse saint Joseph to share with her this commodity to lighten the difficulties of the way by making use of the beast.” Saint Joseph’s virility prevented him from accepting Mary’s sweet and generous offer, but to accommodate her request in at least some way, he would occasionally allow her to walk side by side with him as much as prudence permitted.
Filling in for Bishop Sheen’s radio program one evening, Father Feeney said of Our Lady, “You are understanding, marvelously simple and unsuspicious, tender towards us poor sinners in our meanness and our mistakes.”2 Unsuspiciousness is a loving trait that both of our saints possessed in the highest of degrees. In God’s adorable designs, He willed for Mary to show the signs of her pregnancy outwardly for quite a while before allowing her to explain to Joseph the nature of what was occurring. At first, even though Joseph’s eyes were telling him that his spouse appeared pregnant, so unsuspicious and confident in Mary’s virtue was he, that Joseph would convince himself that his eyes were mistaken. Then, when Mary’s signs were such that Joseph could no longer deny what his eyes were observing, Joseph thought it possible that Mary had not violated her vow, but that a mysterious divine plan was at work.
Our Lady instructed Mary of Agreda about what we can learn from how slow Saint Joseph was to suspect evil: “Above all things I admonish thee never to judge evil of anyone, even if thou seest with thy own eyes the outward warrants of thy judgement; for perfect and sincere charity will teach thee to find a prudent evasion and excuse for all faults of thy neighbor. God has placed my spouse, Saint Joseph, as a shining example for such a course of action, since no one had more evident proofs of evil, and no one was more discreet in deferring his judgment. For in the law of discreet and holy charity it must be held as prudence, not temerity, to suspect higher causes, as yet unseen, rather than to judge and condemn our neighbors for faults in which his guilt is not clearly evident.”
Another instance in which both saints displayed a holy unsuspiciousness is when they lost the Child Jesus for three days. It was the tradition at the time for men and women to travel home from the temple in separate groups. Children could accompany either brigade, and at the start of the return journey, God in his mysterious designs had allowed both Mary and Joseph to think that the Child Jesus was with the other parent. When the two groups converged after a day of walking, the holy spouses realized that Jesus was with neither of them. Instead of getting angry at each other and accusing the other of fault, both were unsuspicious and merely acknowledged the tremendously sorrowful situation that they were in together. No time was wasted on bickering or blaming; instead, Mary and Joseph were able to start their search in unison in a rational manner, each being confident in the full support of the other all the way.
Poverty and Almsgiving
As soon as the Holy Family received the gift of gold from the Magi, they discussed how they should best distribute it. They gave a third as a donation to the temple, a third to the priests present at both the Circumcision and the Presentation, and a third to the poor.
Toward the end of his life, Saint Joseph’s body had become completely worn out from all the incessant labors he had undertaken on behalf of his spouse and Child. Mary managed to convince him to let her now work for the sustenance of the family, and so she labored hard in spinning and weaving linen and wool, fulfilling all that was written of her, the foremost valiant woman, by the Holy Ghost in Proverbs 31:10-31.
Even with their indefatigable labors, Joseph and Mary were always poor, for they allowed persons to pay as little as they wished for the fruits of their labor, and they gave away any profits they did not absolutely need to the aforementioned groups. Pope Saint Pius X — whose baptismal name was Giuseppe (Joseph) — certainly drew his inspiration from their example when he said, “I was born poor, I have lived in poverty, and I wish to die poor.”