A creative exegetical commentary by an anonymous early Church father can help us this Christmas with a true spirit of admiration. When we read that Joseph did not “know” Mary until she gave birth, it is commonly taken as a statement about Mary’s virginity. It is true that the word used for physical intimacy in the Old Testament is frequently the verb “to know.” Intimacy is most often met with the loss of innocence – just as eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge was disobedience and cause of shame, self-consciousness, awareness of nakedness, disordered flames of passion and death. The mystery of Christmas restores the fruit and the joy of intimacy while preserving the veil of innocence. At the birth of Jesus, Joseph truly comes to know his wife Mary – who she is for God, who she is for him, who she is for the human race. Jesus, the fruit of Mary’s intimacy with the Holy Spirit, is also an intimate fruit reserved for Joseph’s fatherhood – from the angel’s message we know that no other man can claim fatherhood of Mary’s son, no other man knew or will know intimacy with Mary his wife.
Knowledge of the woman is redeemed in Saint Joseph by the Blessed Virgin Mary. The Woman is no longer one who destroys innocence through intimacy (“knowing”), but rather the one who restores admiration and wonder – purity of heart – by the fruit of her faith – her Son. St. Joseph truly knows Mary after she gives birth, because he then knows her Son. Joseph’s heart opens to Him, a perfect human reflection of his beloved wife Mary. Mary opens Joseph’s heart to intimacy with God: this is how Joseph knew her after she gave birth to a son. He named Him Jesus, which means “God saves.”
Do you not see here a man of exceptional self-restraint, freed from that most tyrannical passion, jealousy? What an explosive thing jealousy is, of which it was rightly spoken: “For the soul of her husband is full of jealousy. He will not spare in the day of vengeance.” And “jealousy is cruel as the grave.” And we too know of many that have chosen to give up their lives rather than fall under the suspicion of jealousy. But in this case it was not a matter of simple suspicion, as the burden of Mary’s own womb entirely convicted her. Nevertheless Joseph was so free from the passion of jealousy as to be unwilling to cause distress to the Virgin, even in the slightest way. To keep Mary in his house appeared to be a transgression of the law, but to expose and bring her to trial would cause him to deliver her to die. He would do nothing of the sort. So Joseph determined to conduct himself now by a higher rule than the law.1
Perhaps Joseph thought within himself: If I should conceal her sin, I would be acting against God’s law, and if I should publicize it to the sons of Israel, they would stone her. I fear that what is in her womb is of divine intervention. Didn’t Sarah conceive when she was ninety years of age and bring forth a child? If God caused that woman who was like dry wood to flower, what if the Godhead wanted to cause Mary to bear a child without the aid of a man?
Does the conception of a woman depend on a man? If the conception of a woman depends always on a man, doubtless when a man so desires, the woman will conceive. But in this case it is not when the man so desires that the woman conceives but when God so desires. Therefore, if a woman’s conception does not depend on a man but on God, what is so incredible if God should wish to give her offspring without a man?
What shall I do then? I will put her away secretly, because it is better in an uncertain matter that a known prostitute should get off free than that an innocent person should die. It is indeed more just that an unjust person should escape justly than that a just person should die unjustly. If a guilty person should escape once, he can die another time. But if an innocent person should die once, he cannot be brought back.2
While St. Joseph, yet uninformed of so great a mystery, wanted to put away Mary quietly, he was advised in a dream by an angel who said to him, “Do not be afraid, Joseph, son of David, to take to you Mary your wife, for that which is begotten in her is of the Holy Spirit.” St. Joseph is made aware of the heavenly mystery, lest he think otherwise about Mary’s virginity. He is also made aware of this that he might exclude the evil of suspicion and receive the good of the mystery. The following words were said to him: “Do not be afraid, Joseph, son of David, to take to you Mary your wife, for that which is begotten in her is of the Holy Spirit,” so he might acknowledge the integrity of his fiancée and the virgin birth. It was not appropriate for so great a mystery to be revealed to anyone other than Joseph, who was known to be Mary’s fiancé, and no reproach of sin was attached to his name. In fact, Joseph translated from Hebrew into Latin means “beyond reproach.” Notice here too the order of a mystery: The devil first spoke to Eve the virgin long ago, and then to a man, that he might administer to them the word of death. In the latter case, a holy angel first spoke to Mary and then to Joseph, that he might reveal to them the word of life. In the former case, a woman was chosen unto sin; in the latter case, she was chosen unto salvation. In the former case, the man fell through the woman; in the latter case, he rose through the virgin. The angel therefore said to Joseph, “Do not be afraid, Joseph, son of David, to take to you Mary your wife, for that which is begotten in her is of the Holy Spirit.”
And he added, “She shall bring forth a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he shall save his people from their sins.” But this name of Lord which was given to Jesus from the virgin’s womb is not new to him but old. For Jesus translated from Hebrew into Latin means “Savior.” This name is agreeable to God because he says through the prophet: “Just God and a Savior; there is none beside me.” Lastly, when the Lord himself would speak through Isaiah about the bodily origin of his nativity, he says, “The Lord called me from the womb, from the body of my mother he named my name.” His name is certainly not strange, for Jesus was called according to the flesh (i.e., Savior, who was a Savior according to divinity). For Jesus, as we said, is rendered as “Savior.” This is what he said through the prophet: “From the body of my mother he named my name.” And that he might more fully show us the sacrament of his incarnation, he went on to say, “He made my mouth like a sharp sword … he made me a polished arrow, in his quiver he hid me away.” By the arrow he signified his divinity; by the quiver he assumed a body from the Virgin in which his divinity was covered with a garment of flesh.3
How then did the angel assure Joseph? Hear and marvel at the wisdom of these words: “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary your wife.” The angel instantly puts him in mind of David, from whose seed the Anointed One would spring. He did not allow him to be confused by the exalted title of his forefather or remind him that the promise was made to the whole race. Rather, he addresses him personally as “Joseph, Son of David.” … By saying “fear not,” he indicates that Joseph had been afraid, lest he might give offense to God by retaining an adulteress under the law. If it had not been for this, he would not have even thought of casting her out. The angel came from God to bring forward and set before him clearly what he thought to do and what he felt in his mind.
The angel did not only mention her by name but also simply called her “your wife.” He would not have called her so if she had been unfaithful. Even as espoused, he speaks of her as “your wife,” just as Scripture commonly calls betrothed husbands sons-in-law even before marriage.
But what is meant by “[Do not fear] to take Mary your wife”? It means to retain her in his house. For he was intending to put her away. It is as if the angelic voice prompted: “Retain her just as if she has been committed to you by God, not by her parents alone. God is committing her not for marriage but to dwell with you. By my voice he is committing her to you.” Just as Christ would later commit Mary to his disciple, so now he commits her to Joseph.4
Therefore the angel appeared to him for three reasons. First, lest an ignorant but just man should do an unjust thing for a just cause. Next, for the sake of her mother’s honor, for if Mary had been put away—not among believers but among unbelievers—the woman could not be above foul suspicion. Third, realizing it was a holy conception, Joseph would in the future keep himself more diligently under control in her regard.…5
ANONYMOUS: “She will bring forth a son, and you shall call his name Jesus.” He did not say, “She will bear you a son,” as he said to Zacharias: “Behold, your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son.” The woman who conceived from a man bore her husband a son. Mary’s case is greater than Elizabeth’s. The woman who had not conceived from a man did not bear him a son but bore only herself a son.6
It was as if the angel were saying to Joseph, “Do not imagine that, because he is conceived of the Holy Spirit, that you have no part in the ministry of this new dispensation. In the conception you had no part. You never touched the virgin. Nevertheless I am giving you what pertains to a father. I give you the honor of giving a name to the One who is to be born. For you, Joseph, shall name him. For though the offspring is not your own, yet you are called to exhibit a father’s care toward him. So on this occasion, at this moment of giving him a name, you stand in significant relation with the one who is born.” Then lest on the other hand anyone should, out of all this, suspect him to be the father, hear what follows and with what exact care the angel states it: “She shall bring forth a Son.” He does not say “bring forth to you” but merely “she shall bring forth,” putting it indefinitely, since it was not merely to him that she brought forth, but to the whole world.7
From what are the people being saved? Not from visible warfare or barbarians but something far greater: from their own sins, a work that had never been possible to anyone before.8
Why then do they not call him Emmanuel instead of Jesus Christ? Because the text says not “you shall call” but “his name shall be called.” This means that the multitude and the outcome of the events themselves will cause him to be called Emmanuel. For here he puts the event as a name. This is customary in Scripture, to substitute names for the actual events. Therefore to say “they shall call him ‘Emmanuel’ ” means nothing else than that they shall see God among us. Admittedly God has always been among us, but never before so openly.9
But concerning what the Evangelist said, “And he did not know her till she had borne her firstborn son,” not a few careless people insist on asking whether after the Lord’s birth the holy mother Mary had relations with Joseph. But this is not admissible on the grounds of either faith or truth. Far be it indeed that after the sacrament of so great a mystery and after the birth of the sublime Lord, one should believe that the Virgin Mary was intimate with a man. Remember that Miriam the prophetess of the Old Testament (the sister of Moses and Aaron) remained a virgin unsullied by man, having beheld the light of heavenly signs after the plagues of Egypt and the parting of the Red Sea and the Lord’s glory going in advance and seen in a pillar of fire and clouds. It is not plausible therefore that the Mary of the Gospel, a virgin bearing God, who beheld God’s glory not in a cloud but was worthy of carrying him in her virginal womb, had relations with a man. Noah, who was made worthy to converse with God, declared that he would abstain from the conjugal need. Moses, after hearing God calling him from the bush, abstained from conjugal relations. Now are we to believe that Joseph, the man who always did what was right, had relations with holy Mary after the birth of the Lord?10
The One whom the world was neither able to contain or worthy to receive, Mary alone was able to hold as it were in the little chamber of her womb. Joseph saw that she would remain a virgin after childbirth. He saw the mystery of the star as it shone above the child’s head, and it pointed out the child to the magi who had arrived. Standing aside, he gave testimony, for he was speechless. Further, he saw the magi in adoration, presenting their hallowed gifts. He heard them speaking about how they had come from the east to Jerusalem, following the star, which did not disdain to pay tribute to men that it might reveal God’s glory. Therefore, the incomparable nativity, beyond the measure of all human nativities, manifested the divinity of the newborn child and demonstrated to Joseph the dignity of Mary who had given birth. The Evangelist thus said, “And he did not know her till she had brought forth her firstborn child.” That is, he knew who she was after she had given birth.11
- THE GOSPEL OF MATTHEW, HOMILY 4.4. Simonetti, M. (Ed.). (2001). Matthew 1–13 (p. 14). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
- INCOMPLETE WORK ON MATTHEW, HOMILY 1. Simonetti, M. (Ed.). (2001). Matthew 1–13 (p. 15). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
- TRACTATE ON MATTHEW 2.3–4. Simonetti, M. (Ed.). (2001). Matthew 1–13 (pp. 15–16). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
- THE GOSPEL OF MATTHEW, HOMILY 4.6. Simonetti, M. (Ed.). (2001). Matthew 1–13 (p. 16). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
- INCOMPLETE WORK ON MATTHEW, HOMILY 1. Simonetti, M. (Ed.). (2001). Matthew 1–13 (p. 16). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
- INCOMPLETE WORK ON MATTHEW, HOMILY 1. Simonetti, M. (Ed.). (2001). Matthew 1–13 (p. 17). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
- THE GOSPEL OF MATTHEW, HOMILY 4.6. Simonetti, M. (Ed.). (2001). Matthew 1–13 (p. 17). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
- THE GOSPEL OF MATTHEW, HOMILY 4.7. Simonetti, M. (Ed.). (2001). Matthew 1–13 (p. 18). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
- THE GOSPEL OF MATTHEW, HOMILY 5.2–3. Simonetti, M. (Ed.). (2001). Matthew 1–13 (pp. 18–19). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
- TRACTATE ON MATTHEW 3.1. Simonetti, M. (Ed.). (2001). Matthew 1–13 (p. 19). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
- INCOMPLETE WORK ON MATTHEW, HOMILY 1. Simonetti, M. (Ed.). (2001). Matthew 1–13 (p. 20). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.