Question: How was Joseph and Mary’s Marriage valid?

Just in time for Advent, here’s a post about the Holy Family.

Nicole asks: “How was Joseph and Mary’s marriage valid since it was virginal?”

A lot of people have dealt with this exact question.  In fact, it may be the most dealt with question I’ve answered on this blog so far.  I could fill up the rest of this post with links to other Catholic blogs and websites, video and audio sites, all answering the question, all saying the same thing.

Simple answer: yes.  Of course.  Validity in sacraments deals with whether or not the sacrament really happened.  A valid marriage basically means that, yes, the couple is really married.  Such was the case with Mary and Joseph.

The more elaborate answer (because, let’s face it, who really wants a simple answer) is one which can be found in the writings of that giant of the faith, St. Thomas Aquinas.  In his Summa Theologica, St. Thomas deals with this question directly (Part III, Question 29, article 2, or III, Q. 29, art. 2) in a relatively short discussion.  His “I answer that,” wherein he normally gives the full answer to the question posed, is worth quoting in its entirety:

Marriage or wedlock is said to be true by reason of its attaining its perfection.  Now perfection of anything is twofold; first, and second. The first perfection of a thing consists in its very form, from which it receives its species; while the second perfection of a thing consists in its operation, by which in some way a thing attains its end. Now the form of matrimony consists in a certain inseparable union of souls, by which husband and wife are pledged by a bond of mutual affection that cannot be sundered. And the end of matrimony is the begetting and upbringing of children: the first of which is attained by conjugal intercourse; the second by the other duties of husband and wife, by which they help one another in rearing their offspring.

Thus we may say, as to the first perfection, that the marriage of the Virgin Mother of God and Joseph was absolutely true: because both consented to the nuptial bond, but not expressly to the bond of the flesh, save on the condition that it was pleasing to God. For this reason the angel calls Mary the wife of Joseph, saying to him (Mat. 1:20): “Fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife”: on which words Augustine says (De Nup. et Concup. i): “She is called his wife from the first promise of her espousals, whom he had not known nor ever was to know by carnal intercourse.”

But as to the second perfection which is attained by the marriage act, if this be referred to carnal intercourse, by which children are begotten; thus this marriage was not consummated. Wherefore Ambrose says on Lk. 1:26,27: “Be not surprised that Scripture calls Mary a wife. The fact of her marriage is declared, not to insinuate the loss of virginity, but to witness to the reality of the union.”  Nevertheless, this marriage had the second perfection, as to upbringing of the child. Thus Augustine says (De Nup. et Concup. i): “All the nuptial blessings are fulfilled in the marriage of Christ’s parents, offspring, faith and sacrament. The offspring we know to have been the Lord Jesus; faith, for there was no adultery: sacrament, since there was no divorce. Carnal intercourse alone there was none.”

Make sense?  There are two parts to marriage: the giving of oneself to the other by way of the marital vows and the raising of children.  The exchange of vows makes the marriage valid, not the sexual union of the spouses.  In that sense, Aquinas says, the marriage of Mary and Joseph was valid.  But even though there was no sexual union between them (in the immediately prior question, Aquinas presents a defense of the perpetual virginity of Mary), the Holy Couple still performed the second part of marriage.  They raised Jesus, albeit not Joseph’s biological son, but still his legal son, as Jesus was born to Joseph’s legal wife (this last part is important, for it made Jesus a legal “Son of David” and therefore heir to the Davidic throne).  Mary and Joseph’s marriage was a real marriage.  In fact, their marriage was better than many marriages not only during our own time, but even at the time of Jesus.  As St. Augustine notes (Aquinas quotes him at the end), the only thing missing from their marriage was sexual intercourse, and since intercourse is not necessary for a real marriage, one can comfortably say that Joseph and Mary had a valid marriage.

Besides, we should remember that God is not bound by the rules concerning the sacraments.  He can work outside them, if He so chooses.  He can bring souls to Heaven outside of Baptism, for example.  Likewise, we can be sure that the marriage into which God was born was a true, valid one, and example to all who seek a pure, holy union.

Reflecting on the marriage of Joseph and Mary leads to much fruit.  I recommend it.  How Joseph must have felt, married to sinless Mary and foster father to the Son of God!  What father could brag of such a burden?  Likewise, when Christ speaks of true marriage, in His mind He must have turned to the holy example of Mary and Joseph.

We too should turn to their example.

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2 thoughts on “Question: How was Joseph and Mary’s Marriage valid?

  1. Mrs D Bliss says:

    Wonderful post. As an ex RE teacher I love to hear others explaining the faith and squirrel away whatever nuggets I can for apologetics in the future.

  2. YAY! Glad to help. The purpose of this blog is to provide such nuggets. 😀

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