Why Mary Did not Tell Joseph

Anthony Zimmerman
January 20, 2004
Reproduced with Permission

Let us backtrack to probe the reason why Mary had not herself told Joseph about the miraculous pregnancy. Are we puzzled that Mary didn't simply tell Joseph that the Holy Spirit had miraculously conceived the child within her, instead of waiting for an angel to bring him the news? Surely Mary was in agony, and so was Joseph. Here we can learn finely spun theology from Mary's example. Her spiritual insights told her that it would not be right for her to attempt to convince Joseph about the Mystery of the Incarnation. Human testimony was not equal to task of announcing a divine revelation. Her word alone, she knew, cannot generate in Joseph faith in the Mystery of the Incarnation. Only God can reveal this mystery and make it credible to Joseph. She reasoned that if Joseph is to believe, his faith must be based on the solid foundation of divine revelation. She waited.

Immediately after the Angel Gabriel had announced to Mary that she was to give birth to the Messiah, she received one cue from the Angel about what to do next. The Angel had mentioned her cousin Elizabeth. That was light for her next step. One step at a time. In the meantime she kept Joseph in the dark about the Mystery. But when she returned from her stay at Elizabeth, the truth of her pregnancy eventually became apparent to Joseph.

Will she tell him now? She did not, according to Matthew's narration. She was silent. Her silence prompted Joseph to act. 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."

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. The actual marriage between herself and Joseph had already taken place by what Matthew calls the betrothal, but it was customary to wait with the consummation of the marriage until the husband took the wife into his home, To the villagers she would seem to have violated this customary period of waiting. And to Joseph it would appear that she have broken her fidelity to him by an act of adultery.

Mary looked to God to make the next move. She allowed God to manage her life, to guide her step by step. God waited until the time was right before He came to the rescue.

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?" As Saint Chrysostom put it, Joseph would scarcely be able to believe Mary: "much more would he have doubted; and especially when hearing it from the woman who was under suspicion" (Homily 4,8). Mary, accustomed to pondering things deeply 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 because it was rash and presumptive. She would thereby presume to force God's hand. It would be a sin of presumption, of putting God to the test. For it would be necessary for Joseph, if he were to believe Mary, to believe also in the Mystery of the Incarnation. Mary, being familiar with the things of God, knew that only God could give to Joseph this belief in the supernatural mystery.

Mary was indeed mother to the Son who would likewise not presume to force God's hand by rash action. When the Devil tempted Jesus to cast himself down from the temple parapet and to trust that angels would save His life, He responded without hesitation: "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.

When Mary and Joseph had undergone their test successfully, had done what was proper for them to do, and had refrained from acting out of turn, an angel came to resolve their tension. There are two happy persons now, after patient waiting. Mary is ever 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. Joseph now loved and esteemed his bride with new depths of wonder.

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, the two had 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 for Him to come to the rescue may be the correct solution.

We have space to repeat here more from Homily 4 of the Gospel of Matthew from which we have been quoting. Chrysostom (347-407) had been a monk before becoming a priest, and preaching these sermons in the great church of Antioch. This Homily 4 is one of a series of 90 on the Gospel according to Matthew; he also preached 88 on John, 32 on Romans and many others.

In this Homily 4 he had been speaking about the gentleness and beautiful Christian life of Mary and Joseph, but now in the middle of the sermon he turns on his audience and blames them for living as though they had never been baptized. Surely he was not seeking popularity but conversion. Let us read and weep for our sins as his audience must have wept for theirs under the lashing tongue of the Golden Mouthed preacher:

15. ... I see thee spending thy day in horse races, and theaters, and scenes of lawlessness, in the wicked assemblies in the market places, and in companies of depraved men; or by the fashion of thy countenance, I see thee continually laughing to excess, and dissolute as a grinning [5] and abandoned harlot; or by thy clothes, I see thee in no better trim than the people on the stage; or by thy followers, thou art leading about parasites and flatterers; or by thy words, I hear thee say nothing wholesome, nothing necessary, nothing of moment to our life; or by thy table, yet heavier from thence will the charge against thee appear.

By what then, tell me, am I to recognize the believer [6] in thee, while all the things I have mentioned give the contrary sentence? And why do I say, the believer? since I can not clearly make out whether thou art a man. For when thou art like an ass, kicking, and like a bull, wantoning, and like a horse neighing after women; when thou dost play the glutton like the bear, and pamper thy flesh as the mule, and bear malice like the camel; [7] when thou dost raven as a wolf, art wrathful as a serpent, stingest like a scorpion, and art crafty as a fox, treasurest the poison of wickedness like an asp or a viper, and warrest against thy brethren like that evil demon; - how shall I be able to number thee with men, not seeing in thee the marks of man's nature.

Why, whilst I am seeking the difference of catechumen and believer, I come near not to find even the difference between a man and a will beast. For what shall I call thee? A wild beast? Nay, the wild beasts are possessed by some one of these defects, but thou heapest all together, and far surpassest their brutishness. Shall I then call thee a devil? [1] Nay, a devil is not a slave to the dominion of the belly, neither doth he set his love on riches. When therefore thou hast more faults than either wild beasts or devils, how, I pray thee, shall we call thee a man? And if thou art not to be styled a man, how shall we address thee as a believer?

More of the same for the next fifteen minutes, but in the end he expects them to be helped by the blood of Christ in Holy Communion to live as Christians ought to live. As we know from history, the pagan world did not become Christian except with the help of truly great preachers. The conversion of pagan Rome to Christianity did not happen overnight. Great preachers like Chrysostom helped to bring about the change:

17. How then are we to be freed from this pest? If we can drink a potion that is able to kill the worms within us and the serpents. "And of what nature," it will be asked, "may this potion be, that hath such power?" The precious Blood of Christ, if it be received with full assurance, [1] (for this will have power to extinguish every disease); and together with this the divine Scriptures carefully heard, and almsgiving added to our hearing; for by means of all these things we shall be enabled to mortify the affections that mar our soul.

He concludes the sermon with words of encouragement and hope:

And thou therefore, if thou despise the things of the world, shalt become more honorable than all the world; like those holy men, "of whom the world was not worthy."[6] In order then to become worthy of the things in Heaven, I bid thee laugh to scorn things present. For in this way thou shalt both be more glorious here, and enjoy the good things to come, by the grace and love towards man of our Lord Jesus Christ; to whom be glory and might for ever and ever. Amen.