Mary's Silence to Joseph

Anthony Zimmerman
7 January 1995
Reproduced with Permission

That Mary and Joseph spoke with each other earnestly at the time of betrothal we may be sure. First of all, they would check bloodlines. We know that Joseph was "of the house and lineage of David" (Lk 2:5); authors tend to assume that Mary was of the same line, although neither Matthew nor Luke found it necessary to mention this. Both will relate how Joseph was not the biological father of Jesus, but they do not hesitate to trace Christ's lineage through Joseph, following genealogical convention.

But ancestral lineage was likely not all they discussed. Mary had apparently made a previous commitment to remain a virgin. We read between the lines of Luke's Gospel that Mary had made this promise to God, and knew that God had ratified it. St. Luke implies all this, for Gabriel came from heaven with full instructions about how to answer her anticipated question.

And so when Mary and Joseph had discussed marriage before the Annunciation occurred, she likely told him that she cannot be available for conjugal acts.

Joseph, before agreeing, had to think about his own life too. Did Mary use persuasion to have him agree? I think not. She more likely looked to God to do the persuading. Consecrated virginity, which was completely counter-cultural for Jews at the time, was probably not at all on the mind of Joseph before Mary spoke about it. The Gospel allows us to assume that Joseph gave the nod to Mary for a brother and sister relationship in their marriage, and that all this took place before the Annunciation.

At the Annunciation, then, Mary heard that God was inviting her to become a mother after all. How can it be, she asked. Gabriel was ready with the response: "The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; hence the holy offspring to be born will be called the Son of God" (Lk 1:35).

She understood. And she believed. Her simple reply would alter forever the history of mankind: "Behold the handmaid of the Lord. Be it done unto me according to your word." Thereupon the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. As the Liturgy exults:

When peaceful silence lay over all, and the night had run half of her swift course, your all-powerful word, O Lord, leaped down from heaven from the royal throne (Entrance Antiphon, second Sunday after Christmas).

Should she run to tell Joseph the good news? Was it proper to do so? Did he not have a right to know? The angel had not given instructions about that. Perhaps she prayed as Newman once did: "Lead kindly light ... one step enough for me." The Angel had mentioned her cousin Elizabeth. That was light for her next step. "Thereupon Mary set out, proceeding in haste into the hill country to a town of Judah, where she entered Zechariah's house and greeted Elizabeth" (Lk 1:39).

God visited Elizabeth together with Mary. Her cousin was filled with astonishment and exaltation: "Blest are you among women and blest is the fruit of your womb. But who am I that the mother of my Lord should come to me?" (Lk 1:42-43). Mary's faith and love now burst into flame with the hymn of the Magnificat.

For some months she could put worries about meeting Joseph on the back burner. But the time of accounting came when she returned to Nazareth, and her condition became plain to Joseph. Will she tell him now? Some commentators imagine that she did. They must be dead wrong. The Gospel doesn't tell it that way. Rather, the inspired writing invites us to search for hidden meanings in the narration; to dig for mysteries with the eagerness of children trying to resolve Nintendo video games.

Mary, according to the Gospel, said nothing. Such silence condemned her all the more. What could Joseph think? He loved her, but would not marry her to assume responsibility for another man's child:

"Joseph her husband ... decided to divorce her quietly. Such was his intention" (Mt 1:20).

Mary waited for the blow to fall. Brave woman. Tortured woman. Joseph may have avoided eye contact. She did nothing in a human manner to avoid this disgrace. She must have prayed earnestly. God tested Mary and Joseph severely. Divorce, especially under disgrace, cuts like a knife.

Mary, a woman of deep faith, knew why she couldn't tell Joseph. Only God can reveal to Joseph what is a supernatural mystery. She allowed God to take over, to guide her step by step. And God came to the rescue:

Such was his (Joseph's) intention when suddenly the angel of the Lord appeared in dream and said to him: Joseph, son of David, have no fear about taking Mary as your wife. It is by the Holy spirit that she has conceived this child... When Joseph awoke he did as the angel of the Lord had directed him and received her into his home as his wife (Mt 1:20-21;24).

Matthew thus implies that Mary had behaved correctly by not telling Joseph about the Incarnation. This was a mystery of faith. She could not give Joseph faith in this mystery. Only God can do that. Her human word would only leave Joseph in doubt, making matters even worse.

We may think that Mary should have been more bold; could she not have told Joseph: "You see, so and so happened. Please believe me." But what would have happened then? Joseph, relying on common sense, and being street wise as a carpenter and business man, might have turned away saying, "So, what else is new?" Mary, accustomed to pondering things well in her heart, knew that this wouldn't work.

Perhaps another thought crossed her mind: should she tell Joseph the mystery and then rely on God to give him faith? If she thought of this, she rejected the idea, which smacked of presumption. She would thereby presume to force God's hand.

Her Son would likewise not force God's hand by a foolhardy act. When the Devil tempted Jesus to jump off the temple parapet to see whether angels would save His life, he refused: "You shall not put the Lord your God to the test" (Mt 4:5;7). The Son acted as His mother had done before, not testing God. Afterwards the angels came to wait on Jesus. And when the test of Mary and Joseph had gone on long enough, an angel came to resolve their tension. There are two happy endings after patient waiting.

Mary is the Immaculate One, the pristine boast of our race. She waited for God to take the lead, and disdained every choice less noble than that. In turn, God who is mighty, did great things for her.

We admire Mary for her magnificent example; and Joseph for his common sense and faith. God united them in marriage by catching them up into a great mystery. Joseph was now ready to take charge of the new family, and to practice perfect chastity with his virgin bride. Mary had confidence in him, whom God had given to her.

When human powers alone could not solve their family problem, Mary and Joseph turned to God who rewarded their patience and faith. Families today have this example to follow. When human powers fail utterly, turning to God and waiting may be the correct solution.