1:19. Now Joseph her husband, being a just man and not wishing to disgrace her, decided to divorce her secretly.

Israel was a society in which marital chastity was highly valued, understood as it was in the light of God’s own love for his people, whom he had chosen, cherished, and cared for as a bridegroom his bride. Whenever they, as a people, had turned from the face of God and sinned, he spoke of this sin as marital infidelity, as adultery: “You grew exceedingly beautiful, and came to regal estate. And your renown went forth among the nations because of your beauty, for it was perfect through the splendor which I had bestowed upon you, says the Lord GOD. But you trusted in your beauty, and played the harlot because of your renown, and lavished your harlotries on any passer-by” (Ez 16:13-15). Indeed, even the painful years of their purification were understood in this light, as the casting away of an unfaithful bride who is then, in the loving fidelity of her Husband, welcomed back anew with forgiveness and mercy:

Fear not, for you will not be ashamed; be not confounded, for you will not be put to shame; for you will forget the shame of your youth, and the reproach of your widowhood you will remember no more. For your Maker is your husband, the LORD of hosts is his name; and the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer, the God of the whole earth he is called. For the LORD has called you like a wife forsaken and grieved in spirit, like a wife of youth when she is cast off, says your God. For a brief moment I forsook you, but with great compassion I will gather you. In overflowing wrath for a moment I hid my face from you, but with everlasting love I will have compassion on you, says the LORD, your Redeemer. (Is 54:4-8)

Now Joseph, as a chaste man, as a “just man” devoted to the law of God and his righteousness, is faced with a similar situation. His betrothed has been found with child apart from him, before their coming-together in wedded union. And he is conflicted. The law of the Old Covenant says that one is to condemn and stone a woman who is found to have committed adultery against her husband. Is Joseph then to condemn Mary in fidelity to the law? After all, for the Jews righteousness lay precisely in obedience to the law. How could Joseph go against it? But really, what does the law call for in such a case, what does God, for whom the law speaks, ask for in such a situation? For Joseph stands before a mystery that defies expectation and does not fit into the ordinary categories: he stands before a unique situation that requires a unique response.

It is hard to imagine that Joseph would truly suspect Mary of adultery, considering the fact that they were wed, entrusted to one another by God himself and bound by the vows of the covenant. How would he not know of her immaculate purity, indeed, of her personal commitment to maintain her virginity throughout her life in devotion to God? For even in the old law provision was made for a woman to vow her virginity to God, and for her husband to respect and affirm it. He must therefore have known of Mary’s intentions, and have had every intention himself to respect this gift. After all, he was prepared beforehand by God to be precisely the chaste custodian of Mary’s virginal mystery, just as Mary had been prepared to be the virginal mother of God.

But neither of them would have expected what actually happened: the conception of a child through the overshadowing of the Holy Spirit. Their devotion to God, their self-offering to him in chastity and virginity—a disposition formed in both of them such that their marital belonging was the context, for each, of a deeper belonging to God—was but the space for God to work his immeasurable miracles of redeeming grace. As John Paul II writes, the union of Mary and Joseph was both fully virginal and fully marital, a kind of super-fulfillment of marriage in the realm of virginity, of total belonging to God that surpasses the temporal ways of sexual union and procreation and yet precisely so opens the way to an intimacy and a fruitfulness that far surpass it: “The marriage of Mary with Joseph…conceals within itself, at the same time, the mystery of the perfect communion of persons, of Man and Woman in the conjugal covenant and at the same time the mystery of this singular ‘continence for the kingdom of heaven’: a continence that served the most perfect ‘fruitfulness of the Holy Spirit’ in the history of salvation. Indeed…it was in some way the absolute fullness of that spiritual fruitfulness, because precisely in…Mary and Joseph’s covenant in marriage and continence, the gift of the Incarnation of the Eternal Word was realized” (TOB 75:3).

Imagine yourself in Joseph’s situation and facing his dilemma. He has vowed himself to this woman, Mary, whom he loves in chastity as a sister placed within his care and into the orbit of his love, and also enfolds and intends to protect in a love that is spousal, though lifted up into virginity. And she, too, has entrusted herself to his care, and placed the protection of her virginity into his embrace, that he might keep her safe and hidden in God in the sacredness of her devotion. And then he learns that she is with child. What is he to think? He knows of her purity; he knows of her intentions (how could he not?); and yet here she is, pregnant. Did he think her guilty of adultery, or perhaps the victim of rape? It seems that Mary would have told him otherwise, considering that so many of the struggles in marriage and relationship spring precisely from a failure in communication, a failure to speak in trust and to listen in authentic receptivity. Yes, it is difficult to think of the chaste communion of Mary and Joseph as anything other than a living-space of complete mutual transparency and trust. How could she expect him to protect her if she refused him this most vulnerable and intimate fact of her encounter with the angel and the nature of her conception? The dilemma, therefore, lies elsewhere than in suspicion of infidelity. But where?

Assuming then that Mary spoke to Joseph of her encounter with the angel—as recounted in Luke—and of the conception by the power of the Holy Spirit, why is he overcome with fear that leads him to intend to divorce her quietly? Here we come to the real test of Joseph’s justice, his righteousness. What does it mean for Joseph to be faithful to God in such a situation? Is a mere adherence to the letter of the law adequate? But what if the situation, in its unique contours, does not fit into the letter of the law, but calls for a singular response? He could take Mary as his wife and raise the child as his own; but this would expose Mary to shame since it would be obvious that the child was conceived before they came to live together, and thus was (as supposed) a fruit of infidelity either with Joseph himself or with another man. Divorcing her openly, on the other hand, would expose her to even deeper shame. So divorcing her quietly, secretly, seems the best way of protecting her, while also stepping back from involvement in what has happened to her. But it seems that Joseph is facing a fear still deeper. For he is facing a reality more profound than just shame born of misunderstanding; he is facing a reality that calls for, and requires, his total and intimate involvement.

As a text from 2 Samuel recounts of the ark of the covenant being brought up by king David to Jerusalem, “Who am I that the ark of the Lord should come to me?” (cf. 2 Sam 6:9). David, overcome by the immeasurable holiness of the ark that bears God’s presence among his people, declines to receive it into his house, and instead diverts it into the house of another (the house of Obed-edom). But after seeing that God abundantly blessed Obed-edom, whose home shelters and accommodates him, David changes his mind and indeed receives the ark of the Lord fully. The parallel seems obvious. Is Joseph going to divert Mary away, before whose holiness he stands in awe, in a false sense of humility, in a fear of his unworthiness? Indeed, overcome by the unexpected activity of God, with his inexplicable and yet obvious work in Mary, Joseph intends to do so: to divorce her secretly.

Here his own fidelity to the law is stretched beyond its limits, invited into the super-abundant fulfillment possible only by grace, by openness to the “surpassing” that is so characteristic of the fullness of the Gospel: “Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you shall never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 5:20). Joseph stands on the cusp of this transition, from the Old Covenant to the New Covenant, from the heart of Israel’s expectation of her Messiah to the conscious acceptance of him into one’s heart and home. And he balks in fear and uncertainty. Shall the righteousness of a man of the covenant, a man faithful to the law entrusted to Israel, remain enclosed in its own sphere, or shall it open itself to the newness that fulfills the law while also surpassing it, the newness that is none other than the abundant revelation of the Trinity’s love incarnate in Jesus Christ, son of Mary, son of Joseph, Son of God?