The Virgin Father

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An Excerpt from Fulton Sheen's World First Love

That brings us to the second interesting question concerning Joseph. Was he old or young? Most of the statues and pictures which we see of Joseph today represent him as an old man with a gray beard, one who took Mary and her vow under his protection with somewhat the same detachment as a doctor would pick up a baby girl in a nursery.

We have, of course, no historical evidence whatever concerning the age of Joseph. Some apocryphal accounts picture him as an old man; Fathers of the Church, after the fourth century, followed this legend rather rigidly. The painter, Guido Reni, did so when he pictured Joseph as an old man with white hair. But when one searches for the reasons why Christian art should have pictured Joseph as aged, we discover that it was in order better to safeguard the virginity of Mary. Somehow, the assumption had crept in that senility was a better protector of virginity than adolescence.

Art thus, unconsciously, made Joseph a spouse, chaste and pure by age, rather than by virtue. But this is like assuming that the best way to show that a man would never steal is to picture him without hands; it also forgets that old men can have unlawful desires, as well as young men. It was the old men in the garden who tempted Susanna. But more than that, to make Joseph out as old portrays for us a man who had little vital energy left, rather than one who, having it, kept it in chains for God's sake and for His holy purposes. To make Joseph appear pure only because his flesh had aged is like glorifying a mountain stream that has dried.

The Church will not ordain a man to his priesthood who has not his vital powers. She wants men who have something to tame, rather than those who are tame because they  have no energy to be wild. It should be no different with God. Furthermore, it is reasonable to believe that Our Lord would prefer, for a foster father, someone who had made a sacrifice rather than someone who was forced to it. There is the added historical fact that the Jews frowned on a disproportionate marriage between what Shakespeare calls "crabbed age and youth"; the Talmud admits a disproportionate marriage only for widows or widowers.

Finally, it seems hardly possible that God would have attached a young mother, probably about sixteen or seventeen years of age, to an old man.

If He did not disdain to give His Mother to a young man, John, at the foot of the Cross, then why should He have given her an old man at the crib? A woman's love always determines the way a man loves: she is the silent educator of his virile powers. 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 in- spiring and virginizing the first youth whom she had prob- ably 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!

Joseph was probably a young man, strong, virile, athletic, handsome, chaste, and disciplined; the kind of man one sees sometimes shepherding sheep, or piloting a plane, or working at a carpenter's bench. Instead of being a man incapable of loving, he must have been on fire with love. Just as we would give very little credit to the Blessed Mother if she had taken her vow of virginity after having been an old maid for fifty years, so neither could we give much credit to a Joseph who became her spouse because he was advanced in years. Young girls in those days, like Mary, took vows to love God uniquely, and so did young men, of whom Joseph was one so pre- eminent as to be called the "just." Instead, then, of being dried fruit to be served on the table of the King, he was rather a blossom filled with promise and power.

He was not in the evening of life but in its morning, bubbling over with energy, strength, and controlled passion.

Mary and Joseph brought to their espousals not only their vows of virginity, but also two hearts with greater torrents of love than had ever before coursed through human breasts. No husband and wife ever loved one another so much as Joseph and Mary. Their marriage was not like that of others, because the right to the body was surrendered; in normal mar- riages, unity in the flesh is the symbol of its consummation, and the ecstasy which accompanies a consummation is only a foretaste of the joy that comes to the soul when it attains union with God through grace. If there is satiety and fed-up-ness in marriage, it is because it falls short of what it was meant to reveal, or because the inner Divine Mystery was not seen in the act. But in the case of Mary and Joseph, there was no need of the symbol of the unity of flesh, since they already pos- sessed the Divinity.

Why pursue the shadow when they had the substance? Mary and Joseph needed no consummation in the flesh for, in the beautiful language of Leo XIII: "The consummation of their love was in Jesus." Why bother with the flickering candles of the flesh, when the Light of the World is their love? Truly He is Jesu, voluptas cordium. When He is the sweet voluptuousness of hearts, there is not even a thought of the flesh. As husband and wife standing over the cradle of their newborn life forget, for the moment, the need of one another, so Mary and Joseph, in their possession of God  in their family, hardly knew that they had bodies. Love usually makes husband and wife one; in the case of Mary and Joseph, it was not their combined loves but Jesus Who made them one. No deeper love ever beat under the roof of the world since the beginning, nor will it ever beat, even unto the end. They did not go to God through love of one another; rather, because they went first to God, they had a deep and pure love one for another. To those who ridicule such holi- ness, Chesterton wrote: That Christ from this creative purity Came forth your sterile appetites to scorn. Lo! in her house Life without Lust was born So in your house Lust without Life shall die. In a flesh-marriage, the body first leads the soul, and then, later, comes a more reposed state, when the soul leads the body. At this point, both partners go to God. But in a spirit-marriage, it is God Who possesses both body and soul from the beginning. Neither has a right to the other's body, for that belongs to the Creator through the vow.

Mary and Joseph thus combined solitude and espousal through the spiritual magic of virginity along with togetherness. Joseph renounced paternity of the flesh, and yet found it in the spirit, as the foster father of Our Lord; Mary renounced maternity, and yet found it in her virginity, as the closed garden through which no one should pass except the Light of the World Who would break nothing in His coming any more than light breaks the window by coming into the room. How much more beautiful Mary and Joseph become when we see in their lives what might be called the first Divine Romance! No human heart is moved by the love of the old [94] for the young; but who is not moved by the love of the young for the young, when their bond is the Ancient of Days, Who is God? In both Mary and Joseph, there was youth, beauty, and promise.

God loves cascading cataracts and bellowing waterfalls, but He loves them better, not when they overflow and drown His flowers, but when they are harnessed and bridled to light a city and to slake the thirst of a child. In Joseph and Mary, we do not find one controlled waterfall and one dried-up lake, but rather two youths who, before they knew the beauty of the one and the handsome strength of the other, willed to surrender these things for Jesus. 

Leaning over the manger crib of the Infant Jesus, then, are not age and youth, but youth and youth, the consecration of beauty in a maid and the surrender of strong comeliness in a man.

If the Ancient of Days turned back eternity and became young again; if the condition of entering Heaven is to be reborn and to become young again, then, to all young married couples: here is your model, your prototype, your Divine Imaginal. From these two spouses, who loved as no couple on earth has ever loved, learn that it takes not two to love, but three: you and you and Jesus. Do you not speak of "our love" as something distinct from the love of each one of you? That love, outside of both of you, and which is more than the addition of your two loves, is the love of God.