Something had definitely come over Mary. It was not a bad change, but Anna had rarely known her steady daughter to show such elation as she showed on this morning after returning late from the well. Three times already, Mary had exclaimed: “Oh, Mother, if you only knew the goodness of the Lord!”
What had happened at the well? Mary had apologized for being late and causing concern, but had offered no further explanation. Yes, she had seen Joseph and was pleased that he had been invited to dine that night. Then she had gone about her chores softly singing one of the psalms, and pausing periodically to look up toward heaven with an expression of sheer joy or reverently down at her middle, laying her hand upon it and catching her breath.
“I would say a young wife who has just realized she is with child, if I did not know better,” Anna commented to herself as she watched her daughter out of the corner of her eye. Was Mary in love with Joseph after all? Had the girl discovered her woman’s heart in seeing her fiancé again after an absence of so many months? The year of betrothal was more than half past; in no time Mary would be going to live with Joseph. But Anna knew all to well that the young couple were irrevocably bound by a senseless vow, and however in love she may be with Joseph, Mary would not make the least act against it. The child was far too pious for that.
How many times over the years had Anna trembled at the thought of her daughter’s unparalleled holiness? Anna’s whole life seemed to point to some great future for this singular girl. “My Anna” her father used to tell her, “you too will bear your Samuel, greater than Samuel; perhaps that is why we wait so long. It is your destiny. It will come to pass.”
Mary certainly was a gift from God, and never had a child manifested such piety. It sufficed merely to see her face whenever she heard someone speak of God or recited her prayers; one could not help but be moved to greater fervor. When Mary was three years old, after having been weaned, they brought her to the Temple to fulfill their promise to offer her back to God in thanksgiving. (Oh, what a sweet infant she had been, and precocious!) The small family were still making their way through the bustling Court of the Gentiles when the girl stopped, tenderly kissed each of her parents goodbye, then, without further warning, intrepidly turned and ran up the steps to the Court of the Women not once looking back. Mary had been so determined to dwell in the House of the Lord.
Anna loved her daughter dearly; she sorely felt those long years of separation that followed that day in the Temple. She lived for the blessed moments each year when she would be reunited with her daughter at festival or while visiting their relations in Judea. Nonetheless, whenever they were together, Anna dreaded doing or saying anything that might diminish the girl’s innocence and devotion. Mary was everything one could want in a daughter. She was docile and affectionate to her mother, but that only increased the feelings of inadequacy that plagued Anna. Her little lady was sacred.
At twelve and a half, Mary had returned to Nazareth in order that her father might arrange a marriage for her. Anna hardly knew what to do with so pure a creature living under her roof, and Mary’s unthinkable vow left Anna at a complete loss. A vow of perpetual virginity seemed to impose a future full of shame in which there could be no marriage, no children, no security, and no Messiah. Yet, beyond hope or explanation, Mary’s future had been secured. Despite that foolish vow, she was now betrothed to a good man. There was nothing more for Anna to do, but finally accept that the vow, like her daughter, was a mystery. What, then, was the cause of Mary’s surprising behavior this morning? What was the source of this overflowing delight? It completely occupied Mary and appeared to make her sublimely happy.
When Mary came down from her midday prayers on the roof and opened one of the chests to inspect the traveling bags within, her bewildered mother finally burst out, “What is it child! Where are you going?”
“Oh Mother!” Mary began.
“Yes, girl, God is very good, but tell me what has come over you today. Why were you so late this morning? You can hardly stop singing. What are the bags for?”
“I am sorry to cause you trouble, my mother. Indeed, something has happened this morning. I am wanted in Judea. Oh Mother, it is beyond imagining! I was only waiting to speak of it until my papa and Joseph are here tonight.”
“Tell me now, child.”
At the news that an angel had appeared to her daughter and announced that she would give birth to the Savior of Israel, Anna rejoiced exceedingly. Her first impulse had been to proclaim the good news to the whole neighborhood, but her own good sense and her awareness of Mary’s humble nature halted her. Instead, with her whole heart, she joined her own strong voice to Mary’s in singing the praises of the Almighty. Anna had always suspected that her daughter was destined for greatness. She would have dared to anticipate this very future if it had not been for that incomprehensible vow. Her only child, so long awaited, would be the mother of the King of Israel! Was that not the very reason her name, Mary, meant lady: all of Israel and Judah’s queen mothers from the time of Solomon were addressed as Great Lady. And why else would angels take the trouble of announcing the birth of this girl, beloved of God! Had not Mary always exhibited the most profound holiness and wisdom beyond the explanation of her years! Even Anna’s own birth had been prophesied in two dreams prompting her marriage to a son of David. Mary, the mother of the Messiah! The queen mother! Great Lady! Yes, it was their destiny. How good God is!
Anna had already heard strange rumors of Zechariah being struck dumb after a mysterious vision in the Sanctuary of the Temple; so the news of Elizabeth’s miraculous pregnancy did not seem far-fetched. On the contrary, it, too, pleased her tremendously. Immediately, Anna resolved that she would accompany Mary to Judea. How long she and Elizabeth had suffered together under the weight of so heavy a shame as childlessness! Elizabeth had not hesitated in the least to rejoice with Anna when Mary was born and had done so much for them since. Now at long last, when all hope seemed lost for Elizabeth who had been barren for over thirty years, it was only right that Anna should go to congratulate and help her virtuous kinswoman.
“But we must not stay long: just enough time for Joseph to complete the work on the house and the wedding feast to be arranged. You must not delay the fulfillment of the Lord’s command. You must go to your husband as soon as possible,” Anna declared. She came over and took her daughter into her motherly embrace and looked lovingly down at her before continuing with maternal solicitude, “You must not be afraid anymore, my dear little lady. For you see now that it is the will of the Almighty that a woman be given to her husband to bear him sons. You must let go of this child’s fear, which you have mistaken for holy zeal.”
“I am not afraid, mother,” Mary protested gently but firmly, “and I am not mistaken. I will not break the vow I have made to the Lord. Neither could I ask it of Joseph who has joined his own offering to mine.”
Scandalized, Anna pushed her daughter back to behold her face to face: “Listen to what you are saying! How do you expect to conceive a son as the angel Gabriel foretold? Will you reject the command of the Lord for a pious whim?”
“It is not a pious whim. Indeed, my mother, the Lord has found favor with our offerings. I have already conceived,” Mary placed her mother’s hand on her stomach and smiled down at the holy child that faith told her was being formed within and added in an awed whisper, “by the power of the Most High.”
Anna pulled back her hand and stared at her daughter in painful disbelief. It was clear that something had happened to Mary that morning on her way to the well, all alone and in the dark. Dark doubts clouded Anna’s thoughts, which had been so jubilant a moment before. Had Mary lost her mind? Who was this handsome young man who called himself “Gabriel”? Was he some messenger sent by Elizabeth? How did he know that they were related? Had he happened upon her beautiful daughter as she stood praying under the morning stars and conceived this plan to take advantage of Mary’s innocence and piety? Anna did not doubt Mary’s sincerity; her daughter never lied. Mary was honest, but not the rest of the world. Poor naïve girl, what terrible infamy has befallen her?
Anna questioned Mary again and again with increasing severity. She wanted every detail, every clue. Mary patiently repeated her responses, but her heart grieved at her mother’s skepticism. Mary was not naïve; she realized that there would be some who would not be able to understand or accept the awe-inspiring truth that the Messiah was not only the Son of David, but also the very Son of the Most High. Doubtless there would be even fewer who could believe that the Messiah would be born of so lowly a handmaiden as she. All the same, Mary had not foreseen this sharp reaction from her own mother, a God-fearing, holy woman whose love and trust had always been a sure support. True, her mother had always been open about the fact that she did not understand or entirely approve of the vow of virginity, but was not all of this the fruit of Anna’s own vow by which she had dedicated Mary to the Lord? Why could her mother not trust in the loving omnipotence of the Most High for whom nothing is impossible? God of our Fathers, help her disbelief.
Anna’s motherly concern quickly reached its peak. Her imagination was running rampant. The distressed mother took hold of her daughter’s hand and dragged her to where her husband was tending his sheep outside town. After Anna’s fearful interpretations of the situation were vividly exposed, Mary was instructed to repeat the complete account for her father. Joachim listened quietly, but with increasing gravity. When Mary had finished, he shook his head and said hesitantly, “If it were coming from anyone else, I would call it blasphemy.” He paused a long while staring off in the direction of Jerusalem. “Could it have been a dream, my Mariam?” he asked suddenly. She shook her head in the negative, a few tears slipping from her downcast eyes.
“A dream…” Anna mulled over this possibility and latched onto it with all her force. A dream! That was all it was: “Of course it was, dear child. A dream!” Anna nearly laughed with relief. “Oh Heli, forgive me getting all worked up over a silly dream. Come, Mary, we must leave your father to his work and get back home to ours. Let’s have no more talk of angels or miraculous pregnancies.
“All the same,” she added, sounding suspicious once again, “I do not want you going up that little hill anymore, hidden from the road where anything can happen. Pray at home and wait to go out until first light like sensible people do. You will go to the fountain at the most common hour, straight there and straight back, or we will go together. Come now.”
Anna kissed her husband goodbye, chuckling once more at her over-reaction to a silly dream. Joachim looked closely at his daughter when she in turn came to take leave. Neither spoke, but their eyes said much. He kissed her forehead and blessed her, “Be at peace, my Mariam.” Her father watched deep in thoughtful prayer as Mary followed her mother back towards the town. Joachim did not like to doubt his daughter, and yet, how could such a thing be accepted?
The sky was ablaze with the last rays of the setting sun as Joseph arrived to spend the evening of the Sabbath with his betrothed. He had been away some months working on a construction project for a wealthy young centurion in Capernaum. While Joseph did not care to work for Gentiles in general, this one was God-fearing, and the money was good. He needed it to properly prepare his house to receive his future bride and to acquire for her the customary gifts. In addition to some general repairs and improvements, Joseph had promised to build Mary a little room of her own in which to sleep and pray. Tonight, he would announce to her that he was finally able to begin the work, but he planned to keep secret the bed he intended to fashion for her as a wedding gift. Mary’s surprised smile at seeing the gift beamed across Joseph’s imagination just as he crossed the threshold of her house.
Without warning, his internal sunshine was blotted out by a dark storm. As his eyes adjusted to the dim lamplight, Joseph perceived the family sitting apart from each other. Joachim was preoccupied, visibly uncomfortable. Anna’s eyes were red, her voice hoarse, and her manner agitated. Mary, at her loom, stood calm in the storm, but the radiance of the morning while not gone, was greatly subdued, or rather hidden. She smiled in greeting, but with a reserve Joseph had not known since before their betrothal. What could have happened?
Mary had followed Anna home docilely. Neither spoke anymore that afternoon about the events of the morning. Anna clung to the explanation that Mary had fallen asleep during her prayers and dreamt the whole affair. Yet, although she tried to carry on as normal, she could not shake her fears. She kept a continuous watch on Mary who was obediently carrying on as normally as possible, but whose quiet pondering appeared cold and distant to Anna’s troubled eyes.
At her core, Mary still felt the same inner peace and deep joy, but her parents’ lack of faith pierced her heart. She did not know how to convince them: they believed she was sincere; it was God they doubted. Her mother had been so glad upon learning that the son of David was to be born into the world at last, but now that she knew that the child was of God and not man, she could not accept it. Her father had all but called the angel’s message blasphemy. God prophesied through Isaiah that a virgin would be with child. They had not expected this Messianic prophecy to be fulfilled so literally, and yet they all believed that God was Creator of the Heavens and Earth who made everyone and everything. Could they doubt that the Almighty could work such a marvelous miracle in fulfillment of his promise? She would have understood if the difficulty had been with her as the chosen vessel. She could hardly fathom it herself:
Lord, you have probed me, you know me:
you know when I sit and stand;
you understand my thoughts from afar.
Behind and before you encircle me
and rest your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me,
far too lofty for me to reach.
Mary prayed for her mother and father. Her heart was grieved for them, but it was not dark. She was not alone; there was a light within her and the peace it brought remained unshaken. She was in the Lord’s hands:
He will shelter you with his pinions,
and under his wings you may take refuge;
his faithfulness is a protecting shield.
They were all in his hands. His will be done. The world was still full of hope and her heart rejoiced in it.
That afternoon as Mary silently contemplated the mystery, recalling each of the angel’s words, she became increasingly aware of how much would be demanded of her in the coming months. Instinctively, she had said nothing to the other Mary and those she had encountered at the well, now she began to question whether God wished her to keep the angel’s message secret. She could not hide it from Joseph. In a few months time she would begin to grow round, and he would know it was not his child. What a betrayal that would seem! And what a very real danger to her and the holy child if he suspected adultery! She owed Joseph the truth whether or not he accepted it. Besides, in choosing her, had not God also chosen her betrothed? Would Joseph have faith? Mary begged God that for Joseph’s own sake he would assume this sacred charge the Lord was offering him through her. At the same time, the conviction was growing within her that she must go to Elizabeth, and in haste. When her father came in late that afternoon, Mary spoke of her desire thus shattering the apparent calm of the household.
“You will risk your life telling Joseph that you have conceived a child apart from him. He could have you stoned, child! And for what? For a dream!” Anna was practically yelling at this point.
“Anna, Joseph is sensible. If it was only a dream, there will be no child, no reason to throw stones.” Joachim replied trying to calm her.
“Why does he need to wait for a child to serve as proof, when your daughter is as good as admitting to adultery. Tell her not to speak another word about it and least of all to Joseph. You are her father, are you not? In this, at least, I hope you can tell her no.”
“Mary, would it be possible to tell Joseph of your desire to see your cousin without mentioning your dream?” Joachim asked.
“She is not going to Ein Kerem!” Anna interrupted, not allowing Mary the chance to reply. “You can see your cousin at the next festival in Jerusalem. It is hardly a month away. That is soon enough; if we even let you go up. Now enough of this madness!”
Mary quietly insisted, “Papa, it cannot be for nothing that the angel included these tidings in his message. Should I not leave as soon as possible to go to Elizabeth? Joseph will not object.”
Mary’s persistence was too much for Anna; she threw up her hands in exasperation exclaiming, “You will be the end of me, child!” and collapsed onto a chest sobbing. She would accept no comfort and thus things had remained until Joseph’s unsuspecting entrance.
He had hardly taken two steps into the house when the storm broke upon him.
“Oh, Joseph,” wailed Anna, “You must straighten her out. She has had a dream, only a dream, but she insists its real. And her father says nothing.” Anna glared at her husband.
Joseph, perplexed and genuinely concerned, heard the account from Mary, not without frequent interruptions from her mother. Joachim, however, listened silently; his expression was grave.
Joseph had seen Mary that morning; she had been like one transformed. He had not thought it possible for her to be any more beautiful or alive; she had been aglow with life. He had attributed the impression to seeing her again after a long absence, but even now as she softly spoke, that glow shone out anew. Joseph did not doubt Mary's sincerity and could plainly hear her conviction, but what she recounted troubled him greatly. He sat silently for some time after she concluded.
Finally, Anna broke in seeing that neither of the men made any sign of speaking.
“You see! It must have been a dream. You are a sensible man, Joseph, and my daughter respects you, which is the very reason she insists on telling you all of this. Please tell her it was just a dream. She will listen to you. Then we can forget this nightmare and enjoy the Sabbath.”
Joseph looked to his future father-in-law who seemed content to remain silent. Next, he turned and looked thoughtfully at his betrothed, before gently acknowledging, “It might have been a dream, Mary.”
Mary, in turn, looked at Joseph before responding significantly, “Joseph, has not the Almighty spoken through dreams before?” Joseph did not answer immediately. Her words and her look had penetrated to his core. She went on quietly “I don’t think I was asleep, but even if I were, must we not listen all the same?”
“But what does it mean, Mary?” he asked earnestly, “How can it be possible?”
“Nothing is impossible for God,” she answered.
Joseph watched Mary. She had lowered her head and closed her eyes. She was praying, waiting. A tear slipped past her lowered lashes and lingered on her cheek. Joseph realized all of a sudden that it was not dejection or discouragement he was witnessing, but rather disappointment at not being able to share a great joy with those she loved most.
“Go to Ein Kerem, Mary, you have my permission,” he declared definitively. Then completely forgetting that he had come to dine, Joseph rose and left the house.
At the synagogue the following day, Joseph, somewhat embarrassed, approached Joachim to apologize for walking out the night before.
“Think nothing of it,” his father-in-law responded with almost equal embarrassment, “I can hardly blame you. It is a lot to take in, for sure, and I don’t know what to make of the whole business myself. Well, it’s all been decided now; Mary and her mother will leave the day after tomorrow for Judea. Old Simon is going up early to Jerusalem with his family and has agreed to take them in the caravan. Your sister’s husband, Alphaeus, has kindly offered to escort them the rest of the way to Ein Kerem. In addition, I am sending along one of my shepherds for added protection on the journey.” Joseph looked dubious at the choice of a shepherd as escort. Catching his sentiment, Joachim cautioned good-humoredly, “Watch your prejudices, Joseph. Remember your father-in-law is a shepherd.”
“Excuse me, sir, I meant no disrespect.”
“Not to worry, not to worry, son” Joachim interrupted, his jovial nature rising to the surface, “Joab’s a reliable man if ever there was one, I assure you. Why Mary and her mother would be in no better hands than if the angel Raphael himself were to be their guide.” At the mention of the archangel, Joachim paused lost in thought. After a moment, Joachim shook his head and continued more somberly, “All the same, I would prefer to take them myself, but as it is, with so little notice and the sheep to be led out for the spring, I will have to join them after Passover to see what there is to see. If Elizabeth is with child, the women will most likely stay until after the birth, but if not I will bring them home and there will be no more talk of angels.”
Joseph agreed that it was a fair plan and regretted that he could not offer his services as escort. Unconsciously, he sensed a sort of urgency in all this to complete the work on the house before Mary’s return from Judea.
“Please,” Joachim added, “if I could ask you to keep this whole matter between us, at least until we know more.”
“You can be assured of my discretion.” Joseph replied.
Thanks for reading the first chapters of my novel about the Holy Family.