In a letter to the Italian Cardinal Carlo Caffara, the Fatima visionary Sr. Lucia prophesied that “the final battle between the Lord and the reign of Satan will be about marriage and the family. With marriage and the family under attack from so many fronts, her words are truly prophetic. But it is her commentary on the prophecy that is worthy of consideration. She added, “Don’t be afraid because anyone who works for the sanctity of marriage and the family will always be fought and opposed in every way, because this is the decisive issue…however, Our Lady has already crushed its head.” What she was implying is that it is Mary, specifically in her marriage with Joseph, that crushed the Devil’s head. To put it more succinctly, it was Christ Who redeemed marriage and the marriage of His parents shared the first-fruits.
In order to see their marriage as the prototype of a redeemed marriage, it is necessary to clear up some misconceptions regarding the Holy Family, most of which have arisen more recently. The most common misconception is that Mary was an unwed mother, her child somehow being conceived outside of wedlock.
Mary and Joseph were already married at the time of the Incarnation. Our Lady was not an unwed mother. For proof of this, we need only look at the words of the angel to Joseph when he tells him not to fear to take his wife into his home (Mt 1:20). A divorce does not break off an engagement. Joseph’s consideration of divorce is because they are already married.
If Joseph and Mary share what would be the prototype of marriage, then why would Joseph consider divorcing her in the first place? When Joseph considers divorcing Mary, the angel appears to him and tells him that the child has been divinely conceived and that he should not fear to take her as his wife. Some have taken Joseph’s decision to divorce her as a sign that he thought her to have been guilty of adultery, but that he did not want to expose her to the shame publicly. However, this does not really fit with Joseph being a “righteous man.” A righteous man would have followed every precept of the law of Moses including the requirement that if a wife was found in the act of infidelity by her husband then he was forced to divorce her and make her crimes known. Anyone who hid the crime was also guilty (see Lev 5:1). Therefore, if Joseph did not denounce her then it is because he did not suspect her.
Instead the more compelling explanation is the one that is offered by Aquinas. He contends that Mary told Joseph what had happened and out of a sense of religious awe he thought himself unworthy to serve as the earthly father of the Son of God and husband of Mary. Aquinas says “Holy Joseph pondered in his humility not to continue to dwell with so much sanctity.” This explains the angel’s response to Joseph that he should not “fear to take Mary his wife into his home.” It is the angel who affirms Joseph’s vocation as head of the Holy Family.
Establishing that they were married at the time of the Annunciation is also important for another reason. Properly understood we should say that Jesus was given not just to Mary but within the marriage of Joseph and Mary. God always respects the nature He has created and children are to be given as a fruit of marriage. Therefore St. Joseph and Our Lady had a true and valid marriage. There was never any suggestion that Our Lord was illegitimate, despite what some contemporary theologians may say. The Incarnation was to be brought about through the Holy Family and not just through Mary. It has been the constant tradition of the Church that prior to their marriage that both Joseph and Mary had taken a vow of perpetual virginity, but in their humility chose to keep it hidden.
This leads one to ask how if the marriage was never consummated that they could have a valid marriage. Pope St. John Paul II addressed this question in a General Audience in 1996 (21 July) when he said:
“Precisely in view of their contribution to the mystery of the Incarnation of the Word, Joseph and Mary received the grace of living both the charism of virginity and the gift of marriage. Mary and Joseph’s communion of virginal love, although a special case linked with the concrete realization of the mystery of the Incarnation, was nevertheless a true marriage.”
For a marriage to be valid, consummation is not necessary. All that is necessary in matrimony is mutual consent and fidelity—both of which is found in their marriage.
This non-consummation presents a further obstacle in that it makes it seem like the marriage was a mere façade. After all some might say, if they were lacking a sex-life, then it was missing something that is a fundamental part of all healthy marriages. It is this pattern of thought that reveals exactly why our perception of marriage has gone awry.
Sexual love is not the same thing as genital contact. Sexual love may include that, but it does not exhaust it. As proof of how narrow our thinking about this has become, Professor David O’Connor points out in his book Plato’s Bedroom that a modern reader would be scandalized to read a 19th century novel in which a man and woman are “making love” in a room full of other people. The term “making love” would have referred to the couple creating intimacy through conversation and planting the seeds of enduring love. Modernity however have taken this much broader meaning and reduced it to nothing but a physical act.
To be clear, this is not meant to imply that the marital embrace is just like conversation and all the other ways in which married couples “make love.” It is most assuredly a part, but it is a foundational part. That is why, even if it is not strictly necessary, consummation is an important part of marriage. But, and this is a big but, it is important not in itself but because of its inner meaning.
The marital embrace is a sacrament—a sign of the couple’s total gift of self to each other. Because we are fallen, we are unable to make a total gift of ourselves to each other in marriage. All of our efforts at “making love” will always be tainted, even if in diminishing amounts, with self-love. The marital embrace is an expression of the desire to make this gift by making a complete and total gift of ourselves physically to our spouses. This is why contraception is so damaging to marriage—it obscures this sign.
Mary and Joseph on the other hand were capable of making this total gift of self. In other words, they didn’t need the sign because they were already capable of the thing signified. Certainly they could have expressed their total gift to each other through a marital embrace, but they didn’t need to like the rest of us do. As if to offer proof of this, they share the fruit of a consummated marriage, a child. This child comes about without the act itself. In other words, their unity of hearts which is shown by the sign of consummation in all other marriages is actually given in the sign of Our Lord. Summarizing, Mary and Joseph share the fruit of consummated marriage without the act itself.
While the sacrament of marriage had yet to be instituted, the marriage of Our Lady and St. Joseph remains a perfect sign or type of the union of Christ with the Church because it is the Church as a virginal bride wedded to the Virginal Christ. This is why some Church Fathers have referred to Joseph as the “Virginal Father of Christ.” This is an especially apt title given that God could not deny Joseph the paternal right to the fruit of his wife’s womb. Joseph was no mere figurehead, but a husband and father in the truest sense, even if not biologically so.
Looking around society today it seems Sr. Lucia is right—Satan has set his sights on marriage and the family. This is what makes the Feast of the Holy Family such an important celebration within the Church and serves as an opportunity for us to consecrate our family life to the Holy Family.
Mary and St. Joseph, pray for us!