Keeping the Holy Family Holy
To say that Mary was an unwed mother is no harmless fiction
In a tweet earlier this month, Minnesota State University Professor Eric Sprankle criticized the biblical account of the Annunciation saying that Mary did not give her consent. When the verses containing her fiat were pointed out to him, he walked it back saying that because of the power chasm existing between the Virgin and the Deity true consent was not possible anyway. It was Mary’s #MeToo moment. Fortunately, Sprankle’s critique fell mostly flat because it was plagued by absurdity. This is not the only example of modern categories being read into the account of the Incarnation. In fact, another has gained a great deal of traction within Catholic circles, finding its way into many homilies and commentaries especially this time of year. It is the fiction that Mary was an unwed mother at the time of the Incarnation.
In an age marked by increasing numbers of children born out of wedlock, the narrative can be quite comforting and even nonjudgmental. Many, who would like to normalize single motherhood, consider it no problem at all. If Christ Himself chose to be conceived in the womb of an unwed mother, then who am I to judge? The problem, of course, is that neither the biblical account, Sacred Tradition, nor common sense actually support this interpretation of the account.
St. Matthew tells us that St. Joseph, upon hearing of Our Lady’s pregnancy, had decided to divorce her (Mt 1:20). Why, if they were not married, would he need to divorce her? Clearly then they were already married. The misunderstanding comes in the use of the English word that describes Mary as “betrothed” (some bad translations even say “engaged”) to Joseph (Lk 1:27). This “betrothal” was a period of time after the couple was married — that is, they had validly exchanged consent — but before the man brought the woman into their home. This is why the angel tells Joseph not to be afraid to “take Mary your wife into your home” (Mt 1:20, emphasis added).
In addition, the Church has never understood Mary to be an unwed mother. The Church Fathers referred to Joseph as the “Virginal father of Christ” because God could not deny his paternal rights to the fruit of his wife’s womb. They preferred this term as opposed to “foster father” or “adoptive father” because although he was not the biological father of Christ, he was a true father in every other sense of the word, including being a visible image of God the Father within the Holy Family. St. Joseph was no stumbling block to Jesus’ hearers when He spoke of His Father.
And this leads to the common-sense explanation. God as the author of marriage has ordained that marriage is the ordinary place in which a child is to be conceived and raised. The conception of Christ may have been supernatural, but God always builds upon the nature He has created. Children are to be given as a fruit of marriage. And the Christ child was no different in this regard. That is why properly speaking we should always see Christ not as just given to Mary, but given to the marriage of Joseph and Mary. Although Mary is God’s most perfect creature because she was pre-ordained and pre-equipped to be the Mother of God, St. Joseph is no ordinary Joe. He is, by all accounts, the second highest saint in heaven precisely because of the grace of his office as “Guardian of the Redeemer.”
Herein lies the reason why there must be precision in the way we speak of the relationship of the Holy Family, especially at the Annunciation. With marriage flailing in our culture we must resist the temptation to lower the ideal to our level. Instead we must strive to leave the Holy Family on their proper pedestal. To say that Mary was an unwed mother and imply that Our Lord was illegitimate is no harmless fiction but instead a sacrilege that lowers us all.
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