Orlando R. Barone

is a writer in Doylestown

My mother was a good Catholic, said the rosary, never missed Mass or other devotions of her day, so her question, asked many years ago, startled me.

"Did Joseph have sex with Mary?"

This was tricky ground. I decided the best approach was orthodoxy. "Well, she was a virgin when Jesus was born," I answered.

Mom shook her head: "I mean after that."

After that. I mused. Mary was supposed to be a perpetual virgin, but I didn't get it out before Mom added, "I think he did."

This was not the kind of conversation I found entirely comfortable having with my mother. But I was curious.

"You think Joseph and Mary. . . ."

"Yes."

"Why?"

She smiled. "Two young people. She's gorgeous. He loves her. They're married. Come on."

OK, if you put it like that. Trouble is, I had never put it like that. But then, I never meditated on it like Mom did during her daily rosary. Like good Catholics are supposed to do.

Joseph and Mary were two kids in love, weren't they? After a typical, uneventful Jewish betrothal, Joseph's whole life was upended one day when his then betrothed walked up to him and said, "I'm pregnant." He knew he was not the father, and his choices were limited.

He could do what many did: call her out publicly. This would result in the good men of the village joining him in throwing rocks at her until she was dead. Joseph was a just man, says scripture. But this was not considered unjust back then.

In any event, he never went for that option. The law permitted him to divorce her quietly, and he initially thought that would work. Of course, this was in some ways worse than stoning.

Mary would have then become the pariah of pariahs, an unwed mother who had betrayed her betrothed. Her son would be nameless, unable to claim membership in the Jewish community, cut off from the line of Abraham, Moses, and David. It was really another death sentence, only slower and more agonizing than stoning.

Joseph was tortured by this. After a night of horrendous, spirit-filled dreams, he awoke to the prospect of a third option. He could shut up about the whole baby thing and just marry her. He'd have to be, quite simply, crazy in love with her to do that.

He was. He did.

The rest, as we say, is the Christmas story. The child is born and presented as a son of Israel. Scripture scholars tell us that Joseph performed the rite of circumcision on Jesus - as people in his worker class always did.

I can see Mary looking on as her beloved completes the work of claiming Jesus as his son, legitimizing the man and his mission to fulfill the law and the prophets. I can see the father smiling back at his treasured one. For you, my love.

We know the kind of father Joseph was because we know the kind of boy he raised. He raised a son who would not let a woman be stoned for her sin unless the men proved they were without sin. A son who suggested that a shepherd leave 99 sheep to find the one that was lost. A son who said great love lays down its life for another.

Jesus was able to redefine love because he saw that new kind of love in his abba, his dad, Joseph. He saw it every day, every time Joseph looked into the eyes of the woman he loved too much to lose, no matter the cause.

Joseph's transcendent love tells me many things about the celebration of the Nativity, and the birth of the son of man.

One thing in particular is clear. My mom had a point.