Thursday, January 21, 2021

The Feast of the Espousals of Mary and Joseph

Pietro Vannucci, known as “il Perugino”, The Marriage of the Virgin, 1497.
Note: The following article appeared in the Christmas 2019 issue of The Latin Mass magazine on pages 52-56. Many thanks to the editors of TLM for allowing its publication here.

In 2015, Louis and Zélie Martin, the parents of St. Thérèse of Lisieux and four other nuns, became the first spouses in Church history to be canonized as a couple. Prior to that, in 2008, Pope Benedict XVI declared that July 12 would be the date of their joint feast on the liturgical calendar. It was their wedding anniversary.

Assigning a feast day on the basis of a wedding is unique in sacred liturgy, but it is not entirely unprecedented. Indeed, in the days when the Martins were practicing their faith and becoming saints, the Church was keeping a centuries-old feast honoring the union of another holy couple, the Feast of the Espousals of Mary and Joseph.
Jewish Background
What exactly are espousals? In the first century, a Jewish marriage was contracted in two distinct stages. In the first, the consent of the couple was obtained (usually implicitly), the marriage contract was signed, and the wedding ring given to the bride. Kiddushin, as it is called in Hebrew, is far more than an engagement or betrothal, which is a mere promise to marry. According to the Mosaic Law, a woman whose “betrothed” died was considered a widow, and an actual divorce (such as the one Saint Joseph was briefly contemplating after he discovered that Mary was with child) was required to sever the bond formed by kiddushin. Kiddushin essentially constitutes an act of marriage. 
After kiddushin, the couple continued to live apart so that they could prepare for their new life. Sometimes, the husband had to save enough money to pay the bride price; at other times, it offered an opportunity for the very young bride to mature more. This period of preparation could take up to a year, although the average time is believed to have been about three months. When all was ready, the husband would formally process to the wife’s home and then formally process her back to his house. 
Consummation typically took place soon after the procession, followed by a great celebration such as the Marriage Feast at Cana (John 2, 1-11). In the Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins (Matthew 25, 1-13), ten bridesmaids are waiting for the bridegroom to arrive at the bride’s home, at which point there is a lighted procession to his house. 
The Feast of the Espousals, therefore, celebrates the de facto wedding anniversary of Joseph and Mary because it celebrates their kiddushin. Catholic literature shows a historical preference for “espousal” and “spouses” rather than “wedding” or “husband/wife” because traditionally the former two terms indicate a valid marriage that is unconsummated. [1]  But given contemporary usage—and to stress the full nuptials of the Holy Couple—it is equally appropriate to use for them the terms “wedding” or “marriage,” as Raymond Leo Cardinal Burke did in a homily on the subject. [2]
Admittedly, this ancient Jewish practice is an odd arrangement; indeed, not even Judaism could keep it up. By the Middle Ages, the time gap between the two stages of marriage had been eliminated. Today, a Jewish wedding is a single event consisting of two consecutive ceremonies: kiddushin (still the signing of the marriage contract and the giving of the ring) is immediately followed by nissuin, which now consists of placing the bride and groom under the familiar canopy called the chuppah as a symbol of their new home rather than escorting them to their actual house. And in the Ashkenazi tradition, nissuin is followed by yichud, a span of ten minutes or so for the newly married couple to spend time with each other in complete privacy. Once the time for physical consummation, yichud is now used more for emotional consummation or an opportunity for the bride and groom to catch their breath. Following it is the wedding feast or reception.
Why did God in His almighty providence want the earlier, more unwieldy arrangement for the marriages of His Chosen People? Perhaps for no other reason than to prepare the world for understanding the stages of His Son’s marriage to the Church. As Brant Petri explains in his riveting Jesus the Bridegroom, [3]  the Old Covenant is God’s kiddushin with His people, Christ’s Palm Sunday entrance into Jerusalem is the procession, His crucifixion is His consummation of the marital covenant (His last words being consummatum est or “It is finished” [John 19, 30]), and the apocalyptic Wedding Feast of the Lamb is the glorious celebration. 
But surely another reason for God’s providential arrangement was to ensure the full legitimacy of His incarnate Son from the virginal womb of Mary. Joseph and Mary were fully married when she agreed to become the Mother of God; Jesus is therefore a legitimate member of the Holy Family and the House of David, with all the rights and privileges (and prophetic fulfillments) attached thereto. But because He was conceived before Joseph and Mary “had come together” (Matt. 1, 18) by living together under the same roof, [4]  the virginal conception prophesied in Isaiah 7, 14 (“A virgin shall conceive”) is also guaranteed.
I also wonder—and this is purely a matter of personal conjecture—if the events surrounding the Annunciation threw Joseph and Mary’s associates off the scent about their Divine Secret by ironically placing them under the suspicion of unchastity. As Pope St. John Paul II notes, “whereas Adam and Eve were the source of evil which was unleashed on the world, Joseph and Mary are the summit from which holiness spreads all over the earth.” [5]  Yet did the world see a summit of holiness, or did they see two people who jumped the gun before the final formal stage of marriage? Joseph and Mary may have had to endure the smirks and winks of their neighbors as they lived their hidden life of incredible purity. If so, they were humiliated in this way for the sake of Christ, a suffering that only added to their sanctification. And perhaps when they saw others smirking at them, they looked at each other and exchanged a sly smile of their own, a smile that radiated from the great mystery kept mutually in their hearts.
Courtship of the Holy Couple 
We know little for certain about the hidden life of the Holy Family at Nazareth, nor do the Sacred Scriptures reveal anything about how Joseph and Mary were ever paired. There is an ancient tradition, liturgically commemorated on November 21 and corroborated by private revelation, that the Blessed Virgin Mary was presented in the Holy Temple when she was three years old and that she lived there until she was fourteen. During this time, it is believed that Mary made a vow of virginity, a rare act for a Hebrew maiden, especially at a time when childlessness was considered a curse. But her response to the angel Gabriel implicitly corroborates the existence of this vow. When the angel tells her (after her espousal with Joseph) that she will be the Mother of God, she replies, “How shall this be done, because I know not man?” (Luke 1, 18). Mary would not have been confused if she had been planning to lead a standard marital life with her husband; her statement “I know not man” most likely indicates not simply the present moment but a permanent state. [6]
Before leaving the Temple, Mary was engaged to Joseph. According to a mystical vision by Venerable Mary of Agreda, Mary had a large number of suitors who threw their hats—or rather, staffs—into the ring for her hand. Each was given a stick by Simeon the high priest, and as they all prayed, Joseph’s miraculously blossomed.[7]  Whatever the details, consent was necessary for a valid marriage then as now, and so however Joseph and Mary met, he chose her and she chose him.
And at some point, it was necessary for Mary to tell Joseph about her vow. According to Mary of Agreda, Mary did not tell him until after they were espoused in Jerusalem and had moved to Nazareth. [8] Fr. Marie-Dominique Philippe, on the other hand, contends that Mary would have forewarned him “from the very moment Joseph chose Mary and loved her.” [9]  Either way, Joseph must have loved her a great deal to consent to this special partnership even if, as Mary of Agreda asserts, Joseph had also made a vow of celibacy from his youth and both were relieved to learn of each other’s consecrated virginity.
As these reflections would suggest, the Espousals of Joseph and Mary is an event replete with meaning. In a recent homily on the subject, Cardinal Burke identified two reasons why a feast in its honor is important. First, the feast points to an “accurate understanding of the marital status of Saint Joseph and the Blessed Virgin Mary,” which is crucial “for our fuller knowledge and love of the Mystery of Faith.” [10]  Without it, we cannot understand the mystery of the Incarnation or God’s eternal plan for our salvation that hinged on a maiden’s “Yes” and the cooperation of her faithful spouse.
Second, “we see in the marriage of Mary and Joseph, in a most remarkable way, the beauty of marriage, established by God at the Creation and restored to its original perfection by God the Son Incarnate at the Redemption.” And the splendor of the sacrament of matrimony shines through in this marriage even though it did not involve the conjugal embrace. As Fulton J. Sheen explains, the act of uniting the flesh is a symbol of spiritual consummation, and spiritual consummation is a foretaste of union with the Divine. “If there is satiety and fed-up-ness in marriage,” he observes, “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 any carnal ratification of unity, since they already possessed God: 
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. [11]
Based on this “possession of the substance,” Sheen also concludes that “no husband and wife ever loved one another so much as Joseph and Mary.” The great “torrents of love” that coursed through their hearts bring us to a third lesson that we may draw from the Feast of the Espousals: the tremendous faith that the Holy Couple had not only in almighty God but in each other.  
Joseph is generally believed to have been either thirty-three or thirty-six when he was wedded to Mary. It would be easy for a man his age to dismiss Mary’s report of a vow of virginity as the ravings of a religious nut or the skittish rationalizations of a neurotic teenaged girl. But he did not: he believed her. Even when Joseph later discovered that Mary was with child, he did not assume infidelity on her part but reasoned that because she was a faithful virgin, whatever had happened was by the hand of God and it was therefore best that he step aside. If he had believed infidelity to be the cause of her pregnancy, the just thing to do—and Joseph was a just man (Matt. 1, 19)—would have been to expose her as an adulteress.
As for Mary, it took courage to entrust herself to and confide in an older, stronger man whom she barely knew, especially in light of the vow she had made. 
Betrothal of the Virgin, Pfullendorf Altar, Stuttgart
Feast of the Espousals
Despite its many riches, a liturgical feast in honor of the marriage of Our Lord’s mother and foster father has taken a long time to develop, and in some respects its development is still incomplete. It was not until the early 1400s that Father Jean Gerson, a pioneering promoter of Josephite piety, composed an Office of the Espousals of Joseph. Despite the exclusivity of the name, Gerson’s goal was to have a special votive feast honoring both Joseph and Mary on the Thursday of Ember week in Advent, but whether or when the feast was ever celebrated remains uncertain.
The first definite feast honoring the Espousals was celebrated on October 22, 1517 by Saint Jane of Valois’ Nuns of the Annunciation; however, it honored the Blessed Virgin exclusively and thus did not conform to Gerson’s ideal. The same goes for a Feast of the Espousals of Mary that the Franciscans celebrated on March 7 after they received permission to do so in 1537 and that the Servites began celebrating around the same time on March 8. [12]
In 1556, the diocese of Arras instituted the Espousals of Mary on January 23, but thanks to the Dominican liturgical composer Pierre Doré, its celebration followed Gerson’s idea of honoring both the bride and the groom. The idea and the date caught on although other dates, such as July 18 in Moravia, were also used. The post-Tridentine revisions, however, made the feast once again a feast of Mary only; beginning in the eighteenth century, St. Joseph could only be commemorated in Mass, Vespers, and Lauds by a special privilege. Happily, with the reform of St Pius X, a commemoration of Saint Joseph (taken from his feast on March 19) is a required part of the Mass, and its official title finally reincorporates Saint Joseph. [13]
The Holy See was initially reluctant to approve the spread of the (Marian) Feast of the Espousals, denying it, for example, to Spain in 1655. Rome, however, gradually loosened up, granting it to Austria (1678), Spain and the German Empire (1680), the Holy Land (1689), the Cistercians (1702), Tuscany (1720), the Papal States (1725), the United States (1840), and so on. Essentially, the Holy See began to grant the feast to any diocese or religious community that asked for it. January 23 was the most common date, although France and Canada observed the feast on January 22 and Spanish-speaking countries kept it on November 26 so as not to conflict with the feasts of Saint Ildephonsus and Raymond of Peñafort. Although the feast has never been on the general or universal calendar of the Roman Rite, it was fairly common prior to Vatican II. 
The Holy See’s relatively open policy continued until 1961 when, as a harbinger of things to come, the Congregation of Sacred Rites removed the feast from particular calendars unless the local community could demonstrate some special connection to it. This law remains in force. For example, in 1989 the Oblates of St. Joseph obtained permission to celebrate “The Holy Spouses Mary and Joseph” on January 23 but only because of their well-established Josephite spirituality. As a result of this policy, the vast majority of Catholics today have never heard of the Feast of the Espousals. 
January 23
In Mary of Agreda’s account, the miracle of Joseph’s staff took place on Mary’s fourteenth birthday (liturgically celebrated on September 8), but no one knows exactly when the Holy Couple were wed. The Spanish tradition of celebrating the feast in late November has the advantage of contemplating the Espousals a week before the Church’s contemplation of the early life of the Holy Family during the season of Advent. But late January is also a fitting time to commemorate the nuptial union of Mary and Joseph, both as a beginning and as an end. 
As a beginning, the Espousals initiate a yearlong meditation on the early life of the Holy Family. January 23 occurs almost two months before the Annunciation (March 24): had the kiddushin taken place then—and assuming a three-month interim between the two stages of marriage—Mary would have conceived of the Holy Spirit about one month before the bridal procession to Joseph’s home. The Annunciation interrupted these plans; according to Luke 1, 39 and 1, 56, Mary went with haste to the hill country of Judea to help her aged cousin St. Elizabeth and would not return until after the birth of St. John the Baptist (and presumably his circumcision). When Joseph saw her again in early July (assuming that John was born on June 24), she was showing the signs of expectancy. Joseph’s subsequent confusion was resolved thanks to an angel (Matt. 1:20-25), whereupon he immediately “took unto him his wife” (Matt. 1, 24), that is, processed Mary to his home—or perhaps, he moved into her home. The child Jesus was then born (at least according to this liturgically useful timeline) on December 25. 
As an end, the Espousals fittingly appear near the close of the Christmas cycle, regardless of whether that close is viewed as the Feast of the Purification on February 2 or the Saturday before Septuagesima Sunday. Having liturgically lived through the expectation of the Messiah (Advent), His birth (Christmas) and circumcision (Octave of Christmas), the flight into Egypt and slaughter of the Innocents (Childermas), the visit of the Magi (Epiphany), and the hidden life of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph in Nazareth (Feast of the Holy Family), it is appropriate to have one final glance at the young mother and foster father but as bride and groom. When viewed as a part of the Christmas cycle, the Espousals function as a flashback sequence near the final scenes of a beautiful movie. 
It is high time to jettison the 1961 policy that thwarts the celebration of this feast; moreover, the Espousals should at long last be put on the universal calendars of both the ordinary and extraordinary forms of the Roman rite. (This promotion would be especially easy to do with the 1962 Missal, many editions of which already have the propers for the feast.) A universal celebration of this feast would bring many blessings and lessons to a world increasingly confused about the nature and practice of marriage. And as a small bonus, it would also mean that the wedding anniversary of Saints Louis and Zélie Martin will no longer feel alone on the Church calendar. 
After the publication of this article, a reader helpfully noted: “It seems there has been opposition to extending this feast to the universal calendar because it could unduly promote ‘Josephite marriages’. On the historical ‘oscillation’ between promoting strict imitation of Sts. Mary & Joseph's marriage vs. promoting a reverence but not imitation of it, see the fascinating history, Dyan H Elliott, Spiritual Marriage: Sexual Abstinence in Medieval Wedlock (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1993).” 
Fair enough, but: 1) I doubt the Catholic Church today stands in danger of a plague of Josephite marriages; and 2) the feast can be celebrated intelligently without promoting sexual scrupulosity or a Gnostic disdain for conjugal intimacy. In fact, it can be used to affirm the goodness of this intimacy, for Mary and Joseph’s sacrifice would be no big deal unless what it was they were sacrificing were good in and of itself.

[1] Frederick Holweck, “Espousals of the Blessed Virgin Mary,” The Catholic Encyclopedia, vol. 5 (Robert Appleton Company, 1909)
[3] Jesus the Bridegroom: The Greatest Love Story Ever Told (Image, 2018)
[4] And, of course, the Greek word for “before,” together with biblical usage of the word, does not imply that they eventually consummated their marriage physically. 
[5] Redemptoris Custos 7. 
[6] See St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae III.28.4. 
[7] Mystical City of God: Divine History of the Virgin, Mother of God, trans. Rev. Geo. J. Blatter (W.B. Conkey Co., 1914), I.XXII.755-764. 
[8] Mary of Agreda states that the conversation took place in their new home after a wedding celebration, but it seems more likely that the Blessed Virgin was still living alone, for Joseph would not take her to wife (process her home and live under the same roof with her) until well after the Annunciation (Matt. 1, 24). 
[9] The Mystery of Joseph (Zaccheus Press, 2010), 8. 
[10] Burke, “On the Marriage of the Virgin Mary with Saint Joseph.” 
[11] The World’s First Love (McGraw-Hill Book Co., 1952), 92. 
[12] Most information in this section is taken from Frederick Holweck, “Espousals of the Blessed Virgin Mary,” The Catholic Encyclopedia, vol. 5 (Robert Appleton Company, 1909) 
[13] Desponsatio Beatae Mariae Virginis cum Sancto Joseph
[14] Mary of Agreda writes that after the Espousals, Mary and Joseph journeyed to Nazareth “in the company of attendants who were some of the more distinguished laymen in the service of the Temple” (no. 578). But whether this constituted the bridal procession is uncertain, for it was not followed by the Holy Couple living under the same roof (see Matt. 1, 18). 
[15] According to Mary of Agreda, the house where Mary was born and where the angel saluted her is also the house where the Holy Family lived, for the Blessed Virgin inherited it from her parents Joachim and Anne when they passed away during her time in the Temple.

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