Stories from the Early Church on the Birth of Mary

September 8th. is the day we celebrate the birth of Mary, the Mother of Jesus Christ. The readings and the gospel for that day speak appropriately of the Messiah however they also speak of what preceded Jesus’ birth and how God is truly the Lord of History.

Mary by herself is only another human, as is her husband Joseph. But Mary and Joseph are forever joined to Jesus. To study Joseph you must study Mary, and to study Mary you must speak of Jesus. They are the Holy Family. It is because of their close relationship to Jesus that we speak of Joseph and Mary and Mary always says, “Do whatever He (Jesus) tells you to do.” Joseph, though silent of words, always stands ready to serve God the Father by giving his all to Jesus and Mary.

It is dogma that Joseph and Mary always lived a chaste life as husband and wife. Some believe that Joseph was previously married and that his first wife died. They point to the scripture passage where the brothers and sisters of Jesus are mentioned as proof. But other theologians of high regard from the Early Church adamantly insisted that Joseph only ever had one wife and that was Mary.

Jacob was the father of Joseph. Joachim and Anne were the parents of Mary. Joseph’s mother’s name is lost in time. We do know that Jacob was related to Anne, and thus Joseph and Mary are related, both of them descending from the House of David.

Tradition, with a small ‘”t”, relates how Joseph decided to take a vow of celibacy while he was young man so he could totally serve God in any capacity he was called to. This vow he kept a secret from all.

Joachim and Anne, Mary’s parents, lived twenty years together as husband and wife without the gift of a child. Tradition, again small “t”, tells how on a visit to the Temple they each vowed to God that if He favored them with a child, they would dedicate the child to God.

Being childless was considered a curse by the culture of the day. One story speaks how Jacob was chastised by a Temple Priest for even presenting himself in the Temple when he was so obviously a sinner and under God’s wrath. Despite the pronouncement of the Priest, God heard the fervent prayers of Joachim and Anne and she became pregnant with Mary.

Some believe that Joseph used his skills as a Tekton, often translated as Carpenter, in the expansion and adornment of the Temple that Herod ordered. Herod undertook this project as a political move to gain the approval of the Jews. If Joseph did indeed work on the Temple, he would have lived in Jerusalem. If that is so, then Joachim and Anne would certainly have visited him when they traveled to Jerusalem for the various feasts. Joseph would have been aware of the sadness the holy couple felt at the barrenness of their marriage. As such, he also would have joined in their delight when Anne finally conceived.

The first reading for September 8 says,

Whose origin is from of old, from ancient times. Therefore the Lord will give them up, until the time when she who is to give birth has borne…

While the second reading states,

We know that all things work for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. For those he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son …

It is estimated by some of the Early Church Fathers that Joseph was in his twenties to thirties when he married Mary, she being fourteen years old at the time. This is in conflict with many of the images depicting Joseph as a man of advanced years, but it makes sense when you consider how arduous the work was that Joseph did to support Jesus and Mary, not to mention their trek to Egypt to escape Herod’s plot to kill Jesus.

If this is correct, then we see God at work in calling Joseph to remain celibate and also the delay in the conception of Mary.

Joachim and Anne fulfilled their promise to God by sending Mary to live in the Temple at the age of three. Small “t” tradition states that while she lived in the Temple, Mary felt called to make a vow of celibacy herself, a decision contrary to her culture. By the time she was fourteen, her father had died and she was now in need of a guardian as was her mother. According to Jewish law, it fell to a relative to marry her. Enter Joseph, an unmarried male relative with the skills of a craftsman to earn a living.

To select an appropriate husband, the small “t” tradition says, Joseph was summoned to the Temple along with other eligible bachelors. They were instructed to leave their staffs with the Priest. The next day it was discovered that a lily had sprouted from Joseph’s staff indicating that he was God’s choice.

So we can now put the chain of events together. Mary’s birth is momentous. The Angels in heaven must have rejoiced as they knew this was part of the Plan of Salvation. But it is tied to Joseph’s earlier decision to remain celibate and also to the period of childlessness of Joachim and Anne. With his selection by the Sign of the Flowering Staff, Joseph’s can keep his vow as the chaste husband of Mary and Mary is also permitted to remain celibate with Joseph as her husband.

God’s timing and methods are always perfect although for us they may be difficult to understand.

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