It is very difficult for the unspiritual-minded to think of a golden mean between marriage and being alone. They think either that a person is tied up with someone in wedded life or else that he lives in solitude. The two are not exclusive, for there is such a thing as a combination of marriage and solitude, and that is absolute virginity with wedded life, in which there is a union of the soul of one with another and yet an absolute separateness of body. Only the joys of the spirit are shared, never the pleasures of the flesh.

Today the vow of virginity is taken only outside of human espousals or marriage, but among some Jews and among some great Christian saints, the vow of virginity was sometimes taken along with espousals. Marriage then became the frame into which the picture of virginity was placed. Marriage was like a sea on which the bark of carnal union never sailed, but one from which one fished the sustenance for life.

There are some marriages where there is no unity of the flesh, because the flesh has already been sated and dulled. Some partners abandon passion only because passion has abandoned them. But there are also marriages wherein, after a unity of the flesh, couples have mutually pledged to God a sacrifice of the thrill of unity in the flesh for the sake of the greater ecstasies of the spirit. Beyond both of these, there is a true marriage where the exercise of the right to another’s body is annulled—and even the desire of it; such is the marriage of two persons with the vow of virginity. It is one thing to give up the pleasures of married life because one is jaded with them, and quite another to give up the pleasures before they are ever experienced. Here the marriage is of the heart and not of the flesh; it is a marriage such as the stars have, whose light unites in the atmosphere although the stars themselves do not; a marriage like the flowers in the garden in springtime, which give forth perfume, although they themselves do not touch; a marriage like an orchestration, where a great melody is produced but where one instrument is without contact with the other. Such a marriage was actually the type of marriage that took place between the Blessed Mother and St. Joseph, one in which the right to another was surrendered for a higher purpose. The marriage bond does not necessarily imply carnal union. As St. Augustine says: “The basis of married love is the attachment of hearts.”

First, then, we will inquire why there should have been a marriage at all, since both Mary and Joseph had taken the vow of virginity; and secondly, we will seek to understand the character of Joseph himself. The first reason for the espousal was that it kept the Blessed Mother covered with honor until the time came for her to reveal the Virgin Birth. We do not know exactly when she revealed the fact, but it is likely that it was done shortly after the Resurrection. There was no point in talking about the Virgin Birth until Our Lord had given the final proof of His Divinity. In any case, there were only a few who really knew it: the Mother herself, St. Joseph, Elizabeth, her cousin, and, of course, Our Blessed Lord. So far as public appearances went, it was thought that Our Blessed Lord was the son of Joseph. Thus the reputation of the Blessed Mother was conserved; if Mary had become a Mother without a spouse, it would have exposed the mystery of Christ’s birth to ridicule and would have become a scandal to the weak.

A second reason for the marriage was that Joseph could bear witness to the purity of Mary. This involved, both for Mary and for Joseph, the greatest sorrow this side of Calvary. Every privilege of grace has to be paid for, and so Mary and Joseph had to pay for theirs. Mary did not tell Joseph that she was conceived by the Spirit of Love, because the angel did not bid her do so. The Blessed Mother once revealed to a saint: “Outside of Golgotha, I never suffered such intense agony as in those days when, despite myself, I brought worry to Joseph, who was so just.” The sorrow of Joseph came from the inexplicable. On the one hand, he knew that Mary had taken the vow of virginity as he had done. It seemed impossible to believe her guilty, because of her goodness. But, on the other hand, because of her condition, how could he believe otherwise? Joseph suffered then what the mystics have called “the dark night of the soul.” Mary had to pay for her honor, particularly at the end of her life, but Joseph had to pay for his at the beginning. Because Joseph had kept his vow, he was naturally surprised when he heard that Mary was with child. The surprise that Joseph felt was like that of Mary at the Annunciation: “How shall this be, seeing I know not man?” Mary wanted then to know how she could be both a virgin and a mother; Joseph wanted to know how he could be a virgin and a father. It took an angel to reassure them both that God had found a way. No human knowledge of science can explain such a thing. Only those who listen to angels’ voices can pierce that mystery. As Joseph had a mind to put Mary away secretly, the Gospel lifts the veil of the mystery to him: “But hardly had the thought come to his mind, when an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take thy wife Mary to thyself, for it is by the power of the Holy Spirit that she has conceived this child; and she will bear a son, whom thou shall call Jesus, for he is to save his people from their sins'” (Mt 1:20-21).

Joseph’s worries were overcome by a revelation of the dignity of Christ’s Virgin Birth and of the nature of His mission—namely, to save us from our sins. The very words of the angel: “Do not be afraid to take thy wife Mary to thyself,” seem to support the view that Joseph already believed that a miracle had taken place in Mary and that that was why he “feared” to bring her into his own house. It is unlikely that any man told of a Virgin Birth would ever have credited it if there had not already been in his heart a belief in the Messiah, Christ, Who was to come. Joseph knew that the Messiah would be born of the family of David, and he himself was of that family. He also knew of the prophecies concerning the Child, even the one of Isaiah that He would be born of a Virgin. If Joseph had not already been described as a just man, the message of the angel and the honor that was to come to Mary would have been enough to have inspired great purity in him. For if a modern father were told that one day his son would be President of the United States, it would inspire a changed attitude toward his wife, the mother of the child. In like manner, all anxiety and anguish now leave Joseph, as his soul is filled with reverence and awe for the love of Mary’s secret.

That brings us to the second interesting question concerning Joseph. Was he old or young? Most of the statues and pictures we see of Joseph today represent him as an old man with a gray beard, one who took Mary and her vow under his protection with somewhat the same detachment as a doctor would pick up a baby girl in a nursery. We have, of course, no historical evidence whatever concerning the age of Joseph. Some apocryphal accounts picture him as an old man; Fathers of the Church, after the fourth century, followed this legend rather rigidly. The painter Guido Reni did so when he pictured Joseph as an old man with white hair.

But when one searches for the reasons why Christian art should have pictured Joseph as aged, we discover that it was in order better to safeguard the virginity of Mary. Somehow, the assumption had crept in that senility was a better protector of virginity than adolescence. Art thus unconsciously made Joseph a spouse chaste and pure by age rather than by virtue. But this is like assuming that the best way to show that a man would never steal is to picture him without hands; it also forgets that old men can have unlawful desires, as well as young men. It was the old men in the garden who tempted Susanna. But more than that, to make Joseph out as old portrays for us a man who had little vital energy left, rather than one who, having it, kept it in chains for God’s sake and for His holy purposes. To make Joseph appear pure only because his flesh had aged is like glorifying a mountain stream that has dried. The Church will not ordain a man to his priesthood who has not his vital powers. She wants men who have something to tame, rather than those who are tame because they have no energy to be wild. It should be no different with God.

Furthermore, it is reasonable to believe that Our Lord would prefer, for a foster father, someone who had made a sacrifice rather than someone who was forced to it. There is the added historical fact that the Jews frowned on a disproportionate marriage between what Shakespeare calls “crabbed age and youth”; the Talmud admits a disproportionate marriage only for widows or widowers. Finally, it seems hardly possible that God would have attached a young mother, probably about sixteen or seventeen years of age, to an old man. If He did not disdain to give His Mother to a young man, John, at the foot of the Cross, then why should He have given her an old man at the crib? A woman’s love always determines the way a man loves: she is the silent educator of his virile powers. Since Mary is what might be called a “virginizer” of young men as well as women, and the greatest inspiration of Christian purity, should she not logically have begun by inspiring and virginizing the first youth whom she had probably ever met—Joseph, the Just? It was not by diminishing his power to love but by elevating it that she would have her first conquest, and in her own spouse, the man who was a man, and not a mere senile watchman!

Joseph was probably a young man, strong, virile, athletic, handsome, chaste, and disciplined; the kind of man one sees sometimes shepherding sheep, or piloting a plane, or working at a carpenter’s bench. Instead of being a man incapable of loving, he must have been on fire with love. Just as we would give very little credit to the Blessed Mother if she had taken her vow of virginity after having been an old maid for fifty years, so neither could we give much credit to a Joseph who became her spouse because he was advanced in years. Young girls in those days, like Mary, took vows to love God uniquely, and so did young men, of whom Joseph was one so preeminent as to be called the “just.” Instead, then, of being dried fruit to be served on the table of the king, he was rather a blossom filled with promise and power. He was not in the evening of life, but in its morning, bubbling over with energy, strength, and controlled passion.

Mary and Joseph brought to their espousals not only their vows of virginity but also two hearts with greater torrents of love than had ever before coursed through human breasts. No husband and wife ever loved one another so much as Joseph and Mary. Their marriage was not like that of others, because the right to the body was surrendered; in normal marriages, unity in the flesh is the symbol of its consummation, and the ecstasy that accompanies a consummation is only a foretaste of the joy that comes to the soul when it attains union with God through grace. If there are satiety and fed-up-ness in marriage, it is because it falls short of what it was meant to reveal, or because the inner Divine Mystery was not seen in the act. But in the case of Mary and Joseph, there was no need of the symbol of the unity of flesh, since they already possessed the Divinity. Why pursue the shadow when they had the substance? Mary and Joseph needed no consummation in the flesh, for, in the beautiful language of Leo XIII: “The consummation of their love was in Jesus.” Why bother with the flickering candles of the flesh, when the Light of the World is their love? Truly He is Jesu, voluptas cordium. When He is the sweet voluptuousness of hearts, there is not even a thought of the flesh. As husband and wife standing over the cradle of their newborn life forget, for the moment, the need of one another, so Mary and Joseph, in their possession of God in their family, hardly knew that they had bodies. Love usually makes husband and wife one; in the case of Mary and Joseph, it was not their combined loves but Jesus Who made them one. No deeper love ever beat under the roof of the world since the beginning, nor will it ever beat, even unto the end. They did not go to God through love of one another; rather, because they went first to God, they had a deep and pure love, one for another. To those who ridicule such holiness, Chesterton wrote:

That Christ from this creative purity
Came forth your sterile appetites to scorn.
Lo! in her house Life without Lust was born
So in your house Lust without Life shall die.

In a flesh-marriage, the body first leads the soul; and then, later, comes a more reposed state, when the soul leads the body. At this point, both partners go to God. But in a spirit-marriage, it is God Who possesses both body and soul from the beginning. Neither has a right to the other’s body, for that belongs to the Creator through the vow. Mary and Joseph thus combined solitude and espousal through the spiritual magic of virginity along with togetherness. Joseph renounced paternity of the flesh and yet found it in the spirit, as the foster father of Our Lord; Mary renounced maternity and yet found it in her virginity, as the closed garden through which no one should pass except the Light of the World, Who would break nothing in His coming—any more than light breaks the window by coming into the room.

How much more beautiful Mary and Joseph become when we see in their lives what might be called the first Divine Romance! No human heart is moved by the love of the old for the young; but who is not moved by the love of the young for the young, when their bond is the Ancient of Days, Who is God? In both Mary and Joseph, there were youth, beauty, and promise. God loves cascading cataracts and bellowing waterfalls, but He loves them better, not when they overflow and drown His flowers, but when they are harnessed and bridled to light a city and to slake the thirst of a child. In Joseph and Mary, we do not find one controlled waterfall and one dried-up lake but rather two youths who, before they knew the beauty of the one and the handsome strength of the other, willed to surrender these things for Jesus.

Leaning over the manger crib of the Infant Jesus, then, are not age and youth but youth and youth, the consecration of beauty in a maid and the surrender of strong comeliness in a man. If the Ancient of Days turned back eternity and became young again—if the condition of entering Heaven is to be reborn and to become young again, then, to all young married couples: here is your model, your prototype, your Divine Imaginal. From these two spouses, who loved as no couple on earth has ever loved, learn that it takes not two to love, but three: you and you and Jesus. Do you not speak of “our love” as something distinct from the love of each one of you? That love, outside of both of you, and which is more than the addition of your two loves, is the love of God.

Married couples ought to say the Rosary together each night, for their common prayer is more than the separate prayers of each. When the child comes, they should say it before the crib, as Joseph and Mary prayed there. In this earthly trinity of Child, mother, and foster father, there were not two hearts with but a single thought but one great Heart into which the other two poured themselves out as confluent streams. As trustees of carnal wealth, husband and wife will see that the flames of love have been given to them not to scorch the flesh but to solder life. And children will ask: If He Who is the Son of God made Himself subject to His parents in reparation for the sins of pride, then how shall they escape the sweet necessity of obeying their parents who stand in the place of God? Democracy put man on a pedestal; feminism put woman on a pedestal. But neither democracy nor feminism could live a generation out unless a Child was put onto a pedestal. This is the significance of the marrying of Joseph and Mary.

This article was excerpted from The World’s First Love: Mary Mother of God, Ignatius, 1996.