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Father Nicholas Nelson: St. Joseph: Was he old? Why did he want to divorce Mary?

We are coming to the end of the Year of St. Joseph. It will end on Dec. 8, the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception. I thought it would be fitting to consider St. Joseph in this last column before the year of St. Joseph ends. It is also relevant now that we are in the holy season of Advent and the time of the year we hear about Joseph in many of our Masses leading up to Christmas.

Father Nick Nelson
Handing on the Faith

How old was Joseph when we first meet him in the Gospels?

There is no official teaching on this. More commonly, people have thought of Joseph as an older man. One reason is that the Gospels don’t speak of Joseph after the finding of Jesus in the Temple. It is commonly believed that he died before Jesus began his public ministry. Another reason is the story told in non-canonical, non-official writings, most especially in the Protoevangelium of James. This apocryphal writing speaks of a search of older widowers who could be betrothed to Mary in order to protect her virginity. However, the Protoevangelium of James wasn’t written until the second century, much later than the canonical Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. So, the Protoevangelium of James may not be accurate.

There are others who promote the idea of Joseph being a younger man. St. Josemaria Escriva puts it this way: “I don’t agree with the traditional picture of St. Joseph as an old man, even though it may have been prompted by a desire to emphasize the perpetual virginity of Mary. I see him as a strong, young man, perhaps a few years older than Our Lady, but in the prime of his life and work.”

You don’t have to be old to be chaste. Chastity is a powerful, magnanimous, energizing, life-giving virtue. Fulton J. Sheen said, “Since Mary is what might be called a ‘virginizer’; of young men as well as women, and the greatest inspiration of Christian purity, should she not logically have begun by inspiring and virginizing the first youth whom she had probably ever met — Joseph, the Just? It was not by diminishing his power to love but by elevating it that she would have her first conquest, and in her own spouse, the man who was a man, and not a mere senile watchman!”

Besides, St. Joseph was responsible for providing and protecting Mary and Jesus. He was responsible for helping Jesus become a man and developing the human virtues. Consider the titles we have for St. Joseph, such as “Terror of Demons”; “Chaste Guardian of the Virgin”; “Model of Workmen.” Consider all the traveling he had to do, first to Bethlehem from Nazareth with a pregnant wife and then from Bethlehem to Egypt with a wife and infant. The great Mother Angelica put it succinctly: “Old men don’t walk to Egypt!”

And then, why did Joseph intend to ‘divorce’ Mary, even if he intended to do it quietly so that she wouldn’t be ‘exposed to shame’?

One possibility is that Joseph believed that Mary had willingly committed adultery and therefore it was required of him to divorce her. I find this hard to believe. Joseph knew Mary, maybe not as well as married or engaged couples know each other these days, but he would have known that Mary is far from the type of woman who would commit adultery. I find it hard to believe that he would not have believed Mary and therefore, would have suspected her of adultery.

Another possibility is that Joseph believed that Mary had been sexually assaulted and therefore decided to divorce her. I also find it hard to believe that Joseph would leave Mary alone as a single mother being that she was the victim of rape.

So, is there an additional possibility as to why Joseph decided to divorce Mary, even “quietly”? Yes, there is. People have called this the reverence theory. Joseph believed Mary’s story. He believed that she was with child by the Holy Spirit, and therefore God was obviously doing something amazing, and therefore, he was no longer to be a part of Mary’s life because of this newly revealed plan of God for her. So out of reverence for God and out of reverence for Mary’s unique and exalted role as the Mother of God’s Son he decides to divorce her quietly. It’s out of humility and belief that this plan doesn’t concern him that he decided to divorce her.

But then in a dream, the angel Gabriel comes to him and tells him not to fear taking Mary for his wife. Gabriel tells him that he, Joseph, is to name him, the baby, Jesus. In other words, “Joseph, you are a part of this plan, a big part — you will be Jesus’ father. You will be Mary’s husband, and the head of this family. I need you in order for this plan to succeed.”

The great St. Thomas Aquinas sums it up: “Joseph did not wish to send Mary away so that he could take another wife, or on account of any suspicion, but because he feared to cohabit with such holiness out of reverence; which is why it was said to him, ‘Do not fear to take Mary as your wife.’”

Father Nick Nelson is pastor of Queen of Peace and Holy Family parishes in Cloquet. He studied at The Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family in Rome. Reach him at [email protected].