She was young and radiant like the wildflowers blooming in the bright green grass that surrounded her on the Nazarean countryside. It was not so much the comeliness of her features hidden beneath her modest dress nor the richness of her personality so often overlooked for her unassuming manner, as a quiet joy, a sort of peaceful calm that emanated from her. Her name was Mary and she was beloved.
To those who truly knew her, Mary was a treasure. She still lived in her father’s house but was already betrothed to a good and righteous man. He was descended from the line of kings, able to trace his lineage back to David himself. However, the royal dignity manifested itself now only in honest work as a carpenter and, like his great ancestor, a heart like God’s own. Joseph was a man of few words and modest means, but he would gladly have given Mary a kingdom; although as simple and poor as himself, in his eyes, she was a queen. He offered her all he could: to provide for her a stable home, to protect her, to cherish her. She had accepted with genuine gratitude promising in return to be his helpmate through life.
Yet Mary’s heart belonged to God alone. With such lightness her spirit was filled as she raised her heart to the Lord singing psalms and songs of praise! In everything, she saw the loving hand of her Creator. All that she did was for God and by his grace. All that she loved, she loved in God.
Joseph, himself a pious man, knew this. He was not jealous or hurt that his young bride was so entirely dedicated to her God. Rather, he rejoiced in the great gift that a God-fearing woman is to her husband. She inspired him to live more fully the great commandment enshrined in the heart of all true Israelites to love God above all things with all one’s heart, one’s soul and one’s strength.
All the same, the vow had been a surprise.
As a young man in Bethlehem, Joseph had always felt a certain reticence about getting married. Kindly and strong, from a respectable family, there had been no shortage of eligible maidens. Yet Joseph’s heart and mind were elsewhere, usually in the quiet toil of his work or caught up in worship of the Almighty. As it was, Joseph simply did not give much thought to marriage, but as he matured, more and more his friends and neighbors did, especially those with daughters. After the death of their father, Joseph’s elder brother Eliud, now the head of the household began likewise to pressure him to start a family of his own. Joseph could not fully explain why, much to his embarrassment, it was never right. He genuinely wanted to comply, but despite the growing shame, he could not bring himself to commit to taking a bride. Eventually he left Bethlehem. A variety of jobs led him farther and farther from home, yet wandering did not suit him. He was nearly thirty when it came time for his youngest sister’s wedding feast. It was that happy event which brought Joseph north to Nazareth in Galilee.
The town was not highly regarded in the district, but there was something about it that Joseph liked. Maybe it was having family nearby or that there was honest work to be had in the region. Perhaps it was simply the beautiful Galilean countryside in the autumn with its quiet hills and many trees. He came for the wedding celebrations and never left.
Eventually, Joseph acquired a small house with a workshop near the other carpenters in town. Old Simon, his sister’s father-in-law, had invited him to stay on at the vineyard seeing as he was kin and that there was often need of a good tradesman. At first, he had gladly accepted, but the well-frequented estate, ideally suited to his sister’s tastes, proved overwhelming to Joseph’s quieter habits.
Joseph first met Joachim and Anna at the wedding feast, but had only briefly been introduced to their daughter Mary in the hustle and bustle of the party. He had thought her pretty, but his attention had not lingered on it. Joachim’s pasturelands—he raised sheep—lay just beyond Simon’s vineyard. So it was not long after establishing himself in Nazareth that Joseph again encountered Mary. She did not giggle when he came around like the other girls her age, but always had a gentle smile. And her eyes, when their steady gaze chanced upon him were vibrant as a sunny day and deep as the sea. She never drew attention to herself and consequently Joseph found he could hardly take his eyes off her.
Despite Mary’s youth and relative poverty, Joseph had the distinct impression that this girl would prove to be the ideal wife described in the Scriptures or another Judith, the fairest honor of her race. It had made him smile to imagine gentle Mary beheading a wicked enemy general in order to save her people. She had the beauty certainly and, he suspected, also the courage. The longer Joseph knew Mary and her family, the more the conviction grew within him that he had been waiting for her all along. At last everything seemed to be coming together and pointing to a union. He only wondered if he could be worthy of her.
When Joseph finally resolved to approach Joachim to ask for Mary’s hand in marriage, his request was neither unexpected nor unwelcome. As they spoke, he more than half expected Joachim to repeat to him what Raguel had said to Tobiah in the Book of Tobit: Your marriage to her has been decided in heaven! for so it appeared to Joseph. Instead her father had become grave and echoed a different verse: But I will explain the situation to you very frankly. There was some difficulty, certainly not a demon such as plagued Raguel’s daughter in the story, no, no, but something about a vow.
“I am getting older and would see my daughter well married and know that she will be taken care of when I am gone... She has made a rash pledge. Unheard of really, but at the time, it did not seem right to tell her no. She was such an innocent young child and I suppose it appealed to me as a father. Likely, I should have put an end to it when I had the chance. How many times since that day have I told myself she will grow out of it, assuring myself it can be undone easily enough when she marries. Alas…”
“Sir, you have not told me what vow Mary has made.”
“Nor will I. I think it is better if Mary tells you herself. I called it a rash pledge a moment ago, but it is more than that, though I don’t pretend to understand it. Anna!” he interrupted himself to address his wife kneading bread nearby, “Fetch the girl.”
They watched in silence as Anna went out. Then Joachim resumed, “I’m quite willing, as I have already told you, and even pleased to entrust my daughter to you as your wife. But it’s this vow. According to the law a husband has the ability to annul a vow or rash pledge his wife has made while still in her father’s house on the day he learns of it. It seemed a simple question of keeping silent about the whole business until the marriage is concluded after which a quick word of disapproval settles the whole affair. But now that it comes to it, I think, and Mary insists, it is best that you know beforehand. I’ve talked it over, hypothetically of course, with Anna’s relations—they are priests you know—as well as with the rabbi here. The general consensus is that once betrothed you are as good as married and can make the decision, but it still has to be the same day you learn of it. The order of affairs does not really matter so long as all is concluded before the day’s end. The day is young and I’m sure we can work everything out before sunset. Only I warn you, I cannot imagine that you can accept my daughter with her vow, but I fear that she will not accept your offer without it. As much as I wish to see her settled, I will not force her hand.”
They sat in silence, each deep in his reflections. At length, Anna reentered. Mary was with her; they were speaking quietly together. Mary’s soft voice just reached Joseph’s ear as she reassured her mother: “It will all turn out well. Joseph and my father are good men. They will do what is right before God, and I will submit to what is decided for me.” With that she kissed her mother’s cheek with filial affection then approached the men in whose hands God had placed her future.
Both rose as Mary drew near. Joachim briefly explained that Joseph had made a proposal, which he was inclined to accept. First, however, Mary must tell him of her vow, unless she wished to renounce it, in which case it would be better to wait until the formalities were completed. As Mary showed no sign of this, her father excused himself and withdrew to where Anna was waiting on the other side of the room.
Joseph and Mary were left alone, standing a few feet apart. How beautiful she looked in her faded blue tunic, old and worn as it was. He had noticed she had a partiality for the color blue. Neither spoke; neither made any movement to be seated. Joseph had the impression Mary was watching him from beneath her lowered lashes, waiting for him. Finally he began.
“Mary, if you have made a vow, I cannot believe it to be either foolishly or lightly made. Please speak of it now, freely and without fear; I will listen. May the Lord guide our steps.”
Despite her docile demeanor, there was no mistaking the determination with which Mary spoke. Her voice, hardly more than a whisper, was strong with conviction.
As he listened, Joseph reflected in his heart. Mary was to be his Sara, a sister with whom he wished to grow old; his Rebekah, beautiful, clever and generous. She was his Rachel for whom he would gladly serve twice seven years, his Hannah dearly loved and his Ruth loyal and trusting. All these women, great matriarchs, had suffered great shame at not being able to bring forth children. With all their hearts, they had called upon the Lord who heard their pleas and intervened to make them fruitful. They had rejoiced to give their husbands sons, noble sons: Isaac, Jacob, Samuel. Now as all Israel looked for the birth of the Messiah, this healthy, devout daughter of Judah, was standing before Joseph announcing that by her free choice she would remain barren. Mary had vowed her virginity to the Lord.
Silence followed, not an uncomfortable silence, but it was deep. Something had stirred within Joseph while Mary spoke of God’s great love and mercy for his chosen people and the necessity she knew in her heart, even from her earliest years, to make this whole-hearted return of love. And yet, to become man and wife without becoming one flesh was unheard of, seemingly impossible. Mary watched him patiently as if she knew exactly what was happening within his mind and heart.
“I must pray,” was all he said when at last he spoke.
“I understand.” Mary’s usual gentle smile showed that she did. Joseph took his leave and was gone.
“So that’s the end of it,” declared Anna despairingly as her daughter rejoined them, absorbed in thought. Mary looked up reassuringly.
“It will all turn out well, my mother. I will pray.”
“What will become of you, my daughter, without a husband? Please renounce this foolishness. Honor God by bearing sons to your husband as is prescribed for wives. It is not too late to call him back. Joseph is a good, God-fearing man. Please do not send the grey head of your father to the netherworld with the grief of an unwed daughter alone in the world.” Anna began to cry holding her daughter tightly against her chest as she spoke.
“Let us trust in God, and pray” was Mary’s calm response as she pulled herself free from her mother’s embrace and slipped off quietly to offer prayers before returning to her chores.
It was midmorning when Joseph left the house of Joachim. He walked for some time lost in thought without any care about his destination; so much was stirring within him. Surprisingly, he was neither angry nor scandalized by Mary’s vow, nor had she refused his hand. She knew it was her father’s wish that she accept, and she herself acknowledged the necessity of a union. She told him she thought very highly of him and was honored by his request. She did not doubt that there would be love between them, but that she, and he, must love God above all. She had left it at this. There was no ultimatum about the vow. Again Joseph heard her soft voice echo now loudly in his ears, “They will do what is right before God, and I will submit.” But what was it, what was the right thing before God? What do you want from me, Lord?
It was midday when his feet carried him back to his own house. He went in and ate distractedly. Having little appetite, Joseph went into the shop and began to work, but he found no peace in it. He was torn. He could not shake the conviction, so cautiously formed, that he and Mary were meant to raise a family together. But the vow, his heart had been light the whole time she spoke of it. Even now as he thought of it, his very soul seemed to rise in response. Was this joy stirring in him? It made no sense, and yet the thing was clearly inspired. How could he dare to disapprove? How could the two things be reconciled? Again and again Joseph besought the Lord for clarity. Oh Lord, Creator of mankind, give light to my steps! Be a lamp in my darkness, my God! Give me wisdom.
A tumult of conflicting thoughts and confused emotions appeared to be the only response. A dozen times that afternoon, Joseph laid down his tools resolved to go back and give his answer. Now he must withdraw his request, he could not interfere with something so evidently sacred. Another time, it was armed with the words of Genesis that a man and woman were ordained to become one flesh; surely Mary was mistaken about what would please God. So it went, and whether to respect the vow or take her as his wife, Joseph never got farther than the door, pleading to God in his heart for an answer as he slowly walked back and took his tools up again.
The afternoon wore on. About the ninth hour, Joseph quit his work with the intention of going to the synagogue to pray and seek counsel. Once outside, he walked instead toward the hills with no clear destination in mind and no resolution. The shadows grew longer as he wandered until he paused in an isolated spot to watch as the sun disappeared behind the horizon. That was it; the day was over. The law required that a woman’s husband express his disapproval of a vow on the day he learned of it. That day was ended and he was not yet her husband. The vow must be kept; Mary would preserve her virginity for God. With that thought, profound peace inundated Joseph’s soul. At last came the clarity that he had been beseeching all day from above. Joseph knew the answer, even though he still did not fully understand it. There on the lonely hillside in the fading twilight, Joseph, son of Jacob, fell to his knees. Raising his eyes toward heaven, he offered his own vow.
It was late when a firm knock sounded on the door of the house of Joachim and Anna. The family had not yet retired, but all the same it was quite an unexpected hour for visitors. The full moon was already high in the sky giving off a gentle radiance. The old couple looked at one another quizzically for a moment before Joachim rose to answer. His spirits were low and he was in no mood to be disturbed. As the day wore on, his hopes for his daughter’s future had waned, finally fading out altogether with the setting of the sun. It had already been hours since he had joined his wife in her feelings of despair, and the house was heavy with it.
Mary was sixteen now. For over two years, she had declined to even consider any of the matches they had suggested to her. She had never explicitly refused marriage, and Joachim knew his daughter would obey a direct order, but he did not want to force her. She clung to this bewildering vow that he regretted not having annulled when he had first learned of it. When his daughter had let it be known, several months back, that she was open to the possibility of a marriage to Joseph, the carpenter from Bethlehem, Joachim had wasted no time in making inquiries and looking for opportunities to get to know the man. He had been encouraged at every step. Joseph was not as well to do as he had hoped, but that was in part because he was generous and not at all due to laziness. He had a good name, a good family of Joachim’s own tribe of Judah, descended from David. Mary had chosen well. “Could she be in love?” Joachim had asked himself. Was his difficulty so easily ended?
Not so. It had seemed Joseph would never ask, and Joachim did not dare to make the first approach because of Mary’s vow. Then, when he had just about given up, Joseph had come. And left. All their hopes were ended. If only Mary would renounce and ask Joseph to free her! It was too late for that now. Would there ever be another? Did it matter? They would all go away just as this one had. Joachim reproached himself bitterly for his weakness, but he could not force his daughter to marry against her will. Besides, he gave up his right to interfere with her vow long ago. Deep in his heart, Joachim knew it could not have been otherwise. God was in it.
Anna had stood up behind her husband, “Heli, who could it be at this hour?” She was anxious, already imagining her and her daughter alone and defenseless in the world if anything should happen to Joachim.
Joachim himself moved cautiously, but spoke lightly: “Probably one of the neighbors, or one of the shepherds. No need to worry.”
Mary, sitting in a corner of the room, had not looked up from her loom, but as her parents moved toward the door, a confident smile stole across her countenance. Her hands paused for a second as her eyes lifted, not to the door, but to heaven with gratitude for an answered prayer.
Joachim slowly cracked open the door and looked out. “Who’s there?”
It was Joseph. “I’m sorry for returning at so late an hour, but I would like to talk to Mary,” he spoke with his habitual control, but a new fire shone in his eyes, “and to renew my request for your daughter’s hand in marriage.”
Perfectly speechless, Joachim responded by opening wide the door. Joseph entered the house.