Letter from Poland 18
December 14, 2011
My apologies for not writing earlier, but we are still mourning Jan’s death, and the Holy Spirit has sent me in the direction of reading quietly the infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke. Also, you shall not receive my annual meditation on a psalm this Christmas because the psalm I have in mind is more appropriate for Easter. Since I am not in the habit of sending Easter cards, this will motivate me to do so when we are back in Philadelphia. We fly back on January 4, just in time for tax season and Lent.
We wish you all a very joyous Christmas and New Year. May he who can do all things grant you every good wish in the name of Jesus.
If we place the infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke side by side, it is amazing how little they overlap. Thus, Matthew has his wise men and Luke his shepherds. Matthew has Herod and the slaughter of the innocents. Luke has the Magnificat, Benedictus and Nunc Dimittis, three hymns that are now linchpins of the Divine Office. Matthew favors Joseph and Luke favors Mary. Luke has two Annunciations and Matthew his dreams. Matthew has the couple living in Bethlehem, fleeing to Egypt and resettling in Nazareth. Luke has the couple living in Nazareth, going to Bethlehem for the census and returning to Nazareth. Etc., etc. Of course, the classic work on these and many, many more details is the late Raymond E. Brown’s, The Birth of the Messiah (Image Books, Doubleday, 1979), now in an expanded second edition. It is a refreshing read in spite of being 600 pages long. If you start reading it now, you might finish by Christmas of 2012.
Although I am not fit to unfasten Brown’s sandal straps, I have a little theory about Our Lady which comes from my purely amateurish readings of a few verses in Matthew and Luke. Proceed no further if you require a nihil obstat or an imprimatur.
Mary’s Second Act of Courage
We all know Our Lady’s first act of courage in her famous yes to Gabriel : “Behold the handmaid of the Lord. Be it done unto me according to thy word.” But what was her second ? Her speedy Visitation to Elizabeth in the hill country ? Her journey while pregnant from Nazareth to Bethlehem ? Her giving birth in a stable on a cold wintry night ? No, her second act of courage was in telling Joseph that she is pregnant prior to their living together as man and wife. They were betrothed but not yet sharing bed and board. She risked being accused of adultery and, since there were no witnesses to the adultery, she might have faced a trial by ordeal [this little bit I got from Brown, p. 128] had Joseph insisted. Let me explain.
Yes, Joseph has a dream in which an angel of the Lord tells him not to be afraid because it is by the Holy Spirit that Mary has conceived a child. Mt 1:20. But this is a statement of the cause, not the fact, of her pregnancy. The fact is revealed earlier in v. 18 and then we have v. 19 : “Being a man of principle, and at the same time wanting to save her from exposure, Joseph desired to have the marriage contract set aside quietly.” Thus, the sequence is : 1) the fact of Mary’s pregnancy before marriage, 2) Joseph’s consequent intention to divorce her quietly, and 3) the angel’s intervention to persuade Joseph otherwise. Independent of the angel, the intriguing question is : who told Joseph that Mary is pregnant ? Since Matthew is absolutely silent on timing details, one possibility is that Joseph or others simply observed Mary’s midsection getting bigger and bigger. She could have kept her pregnancy secret for quite a long time—maybe even several months—but eventually her condition would have become obvious. But is it likely that Our Lady, who was born without original sin, would keep such an important secret hidden from her already betrothed and future husband ? Another possibility is that Joseph, who wanted to obey Jewish custom and protect his investment in a virginal wife, had her inspected every month by someone for the regularity of her periods. Would a missed period be proof positive of pregnancy ? What were the methods of determining pregnancy at the time ? Would Saint Joseph be so suspicious of his future wife ? Maybe that’s why he is a saint but Mary is Immaculate.
The New English Bible (Oxford and Cambridge, 1961), by now one of the “older” modern translations, has a rather intriguing version for Mt 1:18 : “Mary his mother was betrothed to Joseph ; before their marriage she found that she was with child by the Holy Spirit.” “She found,” not as Brown and many others say, “it was found that she was with child.” I suggest that it is entirely natural that Mary knew first and then, courageously, told Joseph. My hunch is not based upon anything explicit in the text—no text says that Mary told Joseph—but by juxtaposing the NEB translation with the facts of timing found in Luke.
In Luke Gabriel tells Mary during the Annunciation that Elizabeth is already six months pregnant. Lk 1:36. Mary then hastily goes to visit her. Lk 1:39. Mary stays about three months. Lk 1:56. Many artists have painted Mary as assisting in the birth of John the Baptist. Thus, working backwards from Christmas as reflected in the Roman calendar, we have :
Dec. 25 Birth of Christ
June 24 Birth of John the Baptist
May 31 Visitation of Mary to Elizabeth
Mar. 25 Annunciation to Mary, Conception of Jesus
I assume that, within nanoseconds of Mary’s yes to Gabriel, she conceived Jesus by the Holy Spirit. Many artists have painted a dove riding down a beam of light toward Mary’s womb during the Annunciation. Sometime between March 25 and May 31 (a mere two months and seven days, although going “hastily” sounds to me like her journey should have been only a few days after the Annunciation), Joseph learned of her pregnancy. If he joined her to protect her along the way (no biblical authority for this), he would have heard Elizabeth’s exclamation, now part of the Hail Mary : “Blessed art thou amongst women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, [Jesus].” Lk 1:42. He would have heard Mary’s Magnificat (Lk 1:46) right away and possibly Zechariah’s Benedictus (Lk 1:68) three months later. If Mary had kept her pregnancy hidden from him for these two months (she liked to store up things in her heart), she would open herself up to the accusation of premeditated deception. Also, Joseph, whether he accompanied her on the trip or not, would have heard the news from someone in Zechariah’s family. He would have felt more betrayed by Mary than if he had learned of her pregnancy earlier. Would Mary have exposed Joseph to such embarrassment ?
Thus, we are back to square one with Joseph learning of the pregnancy closer in time to the Annunciation. I doubt if he, Mary or others could have verified with certainty her pregnancy in her first two months. Neither Bethlehem nor Nazareth had ultra-sound equipment. Matthew’s claim that Mary “found that she was with child by the Holy Spirit” fits with her yes to Gabriel in Luke only if we accept that her faith in God was so strong that she believed she was pregnant from the moment she said yes and without any physical evidence except the news of Elizabeth’s pregnancy. Because “all things are possible for God” and Mary is All Wisdom, All Truth, All Lowliness, Mother of God, Queen of Heaven, Mother of Mercy and all the other titles heaped upon her in the Church’s litanies to her, she went immediately after the Annunciation that very day to Joseph to share her good news with the future saint. No shrinking violet she.
Ron and Maria
Ronald E. Day
Maria I. Smolka-Day