A four-year old boy has heard many references to our Blessed Mother as the Virgin Mary and on their way from Mass he asks his mom, “Mom, what is a virgin?” Stunned by the question the mother struggles to find an appropriate answer for her boy: “A virgin is, a virgin is, eeehm….” The six year old daughter cuts in, “I know the answer, I know the answer… A virgin is a lady who eats all her vegetables” (Robinson). Yes, there’s a sense in which Mary is not just the Virgin Mary, but also the Vegan Mary. Mary’s form of veganism is that of one who refrains from exploiting her animal nature, while focusing on personal purity. In that sense, one can say that virginity is also environmentally friendly.
John Wu, a Chinese author, has a passage in his book Beyond East and West which tells a true story of a type of relationship: “My wife and I had never seen each other before our wedding. Both of us...were brought up in the old Chinese way. It was our parents who engaged us to each other, when we were barely six years of age. In my early teens, I came to know where her house was. I had an intense desire to have a glimpse of her. In coming back from school, I sometimes took a roundabout way so as to pass by the door of her house…. But I never had the good fortune to see her.” Wu’s account sounds ridiculous to Western minds. Doesn’t it? But Wu says he could understand why his Western friends found the system that incredible, but asks them whether they chose their parents, brothers and sisters. And he says, “Don’t you love them just the same?”
Some newcomers to Western countries experience a certain kind of culture shock with regard to the way Westerners handle courtship and other forms of relationship. An African priest friend studying in Germany was invited for dinner and introduced to the family. The mother first introduced her girls, 22 year old Brigitte and 17 year old Annette, then proceeded to introduce two boys seated next to each of the girls. One was Brigitte’s fiancé and the other was Annette’s boyfriend. My friend was scandalized at that and thought that he had found the reason why, in his thinking, many Westerners are boldly promiscuous, and why marriages do not last among Westerners.
The passage from John Wu can help us understand the relationship between Joseph and Mary as read in today’s Gospel. Jewish marriage customs have three stages—Engagement, Betrothal, and Marriage. The couple’s parents or a matchmaker would set the engagement in motion. In fact, the young couple often didn’t know each other prior to engagement. The movie Fiddler on the Roof depicted this arrangement, celebrated in the song “Matchmaker.” The second step was betrothal, in which the couple will get the chance to know each other for a period of about one year. The betrothal stage seals the marriage bond. At this stage, it would be proper to call the couple man and wife, though they wouldn’t as yet live together. Separation after betrothal can only be effected through divorce. The third step was marriage proper, after which the couple move in together and marriage is consummated.
You can guess that Mary and Joseph were still at the second stage of the Jewish marriage customs when Mary was discovered to be pregnant. Jewish law condemns her to death by stoning. If you were Joseph, what would you do? Step out of the relationship, call a press conference and deliver her up to the law? You don’t want to cover up such indiscretion or, would you?
But here is the difference between Joseph and us: He knew that while the truth must be told, not all truth would do the best good. At this juncture, Joseph had his own Annunciation. He understood God’s plan to have our Blessed Lord adopted into the human family through him, so that He, in turn, could adopt humanity to His Father’s family. Fulton Sheen explains further that by Joseph’s cooperation, the reputation of the Blessed Mother and Her Child was preserved; for, if Mary had become a mother without a spouse, it would have exposed the mystery of Christ’s birth to ridicule, and would become a scandal to the weak.
Fr. Jo Chukwudi Okonkwo