How often do you think of the marriage of Mary and Joseph?
While it was never universally celebrated, for a long time parts of the church celebrated the “Betrothal of Mary” or the “Espousals of Mary and Joseph.” Most often marked on Jan. 23, this feast was removed completely from the church calendar in 1961, but has enjoyed renewed interest recently. (Certain religious orders with ties to Mary and Joseph were still permitted to celebrate the feast.)
At the Council of Constance in 1416, John Charlier de Gerson, a theologian from the University of Paris, proposed that priests honor the betrothal of Mary during Advent. The practice spread. By the 18th century, it was fairly common. Pope Benedict XIII put the feast on the calendar for the Papal States in 1725, on Jan. 23. The feast of the Espousals came to the United States in 1840.
What’s a ‘betrothal?’
From Matthew and Luke, we know that Mary and Joseph were betrothed. “Betrothal” is not that familiar in our times. If we think about the term at all, we think of it as meaning “engaged.”
But in ancient Jewish culture, betrothal was more than being engaged. In a sense, Mary and Joseph were married by the time Joseph learned Mary was pregnant. This is why Matthew calls Joseph “her husband” and said that Joseph “decided to divorce her quietly” (1:19).
Marriage in Jewish tradition consisted of several steps: the two main ones were “betrothal,” called kiddushin in Hebrew, and “the home-taking,” called nisuin. The two usually took place months apart. In the case of a virgin, they occurred a year apart — to allow time to show that she was not, as Mary turned out to be, pregnant.
A marriage was arranged by either the groom or, more commonly, by his family. They approached the bride’s family and made arrangements. These included a bride price (reimbursement for taking her from her family), proof of the groom’s ability to support a wife, a marriage contract and the bride’s dowry.
Once everything was agreed, a formal contract, called a ketubah, was presented to the bride. If she accepted it, the couple met for the first time — though never alone. Both the groom and bride needed to consent to the marriage. Only then could they promise themselves to each other.
Kiddushin, the betrothal, means “to be set apart” or sanctified. This is what the couple became — set apart for the other. During the ceremony, the groom gave his bride a token of their promise — most often a ring — which then belonged to her. This is why artwork of this biblical event often shows Joseph giving Mary a ring.
At this point, the couple were considered “husband and wife” — with marital rights to property, to inheritance if one died and even to divorce. They did not, however, live together. The bride remained in her parents’ house, while the groom returned to prepare his home for her.
Once the agreed upon time had passed, the groom traveled to his in-laws’ house, usually at night, to bring his bride home. He arrived with a large bridal party for the nisuin ceremony.
This “home-coming” was joyous, filled with song, food and wine. It could go on for days. During that time, seven blessings were read over the couple. With the final blessing, the marriage ceremony was complete.
However, some marriages ended in divorce. In fact, both Jewish and Roman law (Palestine at that time was ruled by Rome) required couples to divorce if either one committed adultery.
Since Mary had not moved into Joseph’s home, it was natural for him to assume she had been unfaithful. As a devout and law-abiding Jew, Joseph was actually required to divorce Mary. If he did not, he would break the law. He would also be open to public humiliation. People would either assume that he had forced Mary into relations before the nisuin, or that Mary had been unfaithful.
Joseph would save his own honor by divorcing Mary. As the wronged partner, he could also reclaim his bride price and keep Mary’s dowry.
But Joseph did none of this. At the word of God’s angel, he took Mary home — he completed their betrothal with the nisuin. This meant that Joseph took responsibility for Mary and acknowledged her child in the eyes of the law.
So, by Jewish law, Mary and Joseph were legally married. Catholic tradition, however, does not as often refer to their union as “marriage,” but usually as “espousal” or “betrothal.” This technicality serves to remind us that Mary remained a virgin all her life and that Joseph was “her most chaste spouse.” This doctrine of Mary’s perpetual virginity can be found in various liturgical texts today, including the preface for certain Masses of the Blessed Virgin, where we hear of Mary as “united to Joseph, the just man, by a bond of marital and virginal love.”
“Covenant of God’
St. John Paul II, writing about St. Joseph in 1989, explained that this union of Mary and Joseph was an example for the church itself: “Virginity or celibacy for the sake of the Kingdom of God not only does not contradict the dignity of marriage but presupposes and confirms it. Marriage and virginity are two ways of expressing and living the one mystery of the Covenant of God with his people.”
Like all spouses, Mary and Joseph made a covenant that made each of them the most important person in the other’s daily life. They did all they could to help each other, love and support each other, and create a home in which all those in it and around it could grow in love and wisdom. This was the house of the holy spouses, Mary and Joseph. And their union as husband and wife was, as St. Thomas Aquinas described the sacrament of marriage: “a certain inseparable union of souls, by which husband and wife are pledged by a bond of mutual affection that cannot be sundered.”
It was in this covenant union of love that Jesus grew up.
Sources: Summa Theologica; Redemptoris Custos at vatican.va; osjusa.org; the Catholic Encyclopedia; stigmatines.com; The Collegeville Bible Commentary; Judaism 101 at jewfaq.org; religionfacts.com; IVP New Testament Commentaries at biblegateway.com; and “Homilietics and Pastoral Review” at catholic.net