And I passed by thee, and saw thee:
and behold thy time was the time of lovers:
and I spread my garment over thee,
and covered thy ignominy. And I swore to thee,
and I entered into a covenant with thee,
saith the Lord God: and thou becamest mine.
Ezekiel 16, 8
And in the sixth month, the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city in Galilee, called Nazareth, to a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Mary. And the angel being come in, said unto her: Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou amongst women… And the angel said to her: Fear not, Mary, for thou hast found grace with God. Behold thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and shalt bring forth a son; and thou shalt call his name Jesus. He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest; and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of David his father; and he shall reign in the house of Jacob for ever. And of his kingdom there shall be no end. And Mary said to the angel: How shall this be done, because I know not man? And the angel answering, said to her: The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Most High shall overshadow thee. And therefore also the Holy which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God.
Luke 1, 26-35
The intimate union between the Holy Spirit and the Blessed Virgin Mary is redolent of a marriage in a spiritual and mystical sense, no less than the relationship between YHWH and Israel is. Though God calls Israel his servant (Isa 41:8), the relationship between YHWH and His chosen people is far more intimate than one between a lord and his servant, no less than the relationship between God and his handmaid is. In the Old Testament, we find that the relationship between YHWH and Israel was essentially a covenantal one indicative of the moral union between a husband and a wife, which foreshadows the espousal between Mary and the Holy Spirit and, of course, Christ the Divine Bridegroom and his virgin bride, the Church.
A type of wedding vow was made between YHWH and the Hebrews at the time Moses received the Divine laws on Mount Sinai for the people of Israel (Ex 19:5-8). At this moment in the history of the Hebrews, Israel became God’s virgin bride. Being her husband’s chaste spouse, she was committed to remain faithful to him. First and foremost, she was not to have other gods before YHWH (Ex 20:1-3). Israel’s occasional infidelity toward her husband was in principle a violation of their wedding vow, and her worshipping of false gods was tantamount to acts of adultery in the eyes of God.
God had to send many judges and prophets to declare His word to Israel and remind her of the covenant relationship He established with His bride. Jeremiah was called to admonish the Israelites for having ignored and persecuted the prophets that God had sent to them because of their infidelity towards Him (Jer 24:4-6). By this time, the husband’s patience towards His spouse had run out to the extent that God, however reluctantly, presented Israel with a writ of divorce. This was after God had pleaded with His chosen people for seven centuries to heed His voice and return to Him and be a faithful and loving spouse. But they would not listen as they should in keeping with their marriage covenant with God. “And I saw, when for all the causes for which backsliding Israel committed adultery, I had put her away, and given her a bill of divorce; yet her treacherous sister Judah feared not, but went and played the harlot also” (Jer 3:8).
For your Maker is your husband;
the LORD of hosts is his name;
and your Redeemer the Holy One of Israel;
The God of the whole earth shall he be called.
Isaiah 54, 5
The decree of divorce did not in any way annul the marriage covenant between YHWH and Israel. It did not liberate the nation from observing the terms of their covenant relationship with God. His intention was to compel the Israelites to come back to Him by removing His protection over them from the surrounding hostile nations and allowing Israel to be taken into bondage because of her infidelity. The people of the Northern Kingdom or House of Israel ended up in Assyrian captivity, followed by the southern kingdom of Judah which fell to the Babylonians and resulted in the destruction of the first Temple.
If God’s writ of divorce was still in effect, His bride couldn’t return to Palestine or, in other words, her husband’s house. The writ served as a means of discipline exacted from an offended husband to his wife to enable her to realize how much she needed him rather than the false idols she had placed before Him in violation of their indissoluble covenant. It was because of His promise to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, God had no intention to disown, but to restore Israel and renew His covenant with her despite her unworthiness. God willed to take Israel back into His house, notwithstanding her adulterous past, provided she dissolved her marriage with the false gods of Assyria and Babylon and willingly came back to Him (Ezek 20:33-37; Jer 31:31-33).
And you shall be holy unto me: for I the LORD am holy,
and have separated you from other people,
that you should be mine.
Leviticus 20, 26
The Old Testament frequently depicts Israel as God’s bride, who is expected to be pure and chaste in her nuptial relationship with Him: faithful and loving. As the virgin bride of YHWH, nothing more is required of her than to place all her hope (hasah) and trust (galal) in her husband in a spirit of “steadfast love” which all the six aspects of faith embrace in Judaism. It is God who espouses Israel, removing her from her lowly origin, her fornication and prostitution, and purifying her to be His worthy spouse.
That God should renew His covenant with Israel is best explained by the fact that Israel was elected to be the people from whom the Divine Word would take his flesh. And since the people of Israel were to receive God Incarnate in their midst as one of them, they would have to be made exclusively worthy by means of a special holiness imparted by the Old Covenant. Both Israel and Mary had the divine privilege of bringing the Messiah into the world. Because of their common roles, both had to be specially prepared by God: set apart from the rest of humanity and consecrated to Him as His chaste and faithful bride.
Behold, the days come, said the LORD, that I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah: Not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt; my covenant which they broke, although I was a husband unto them, says the LORD: But this shall be the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel; After those days, says the LORD, I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts; and will be their God, and they shall be my people.
Jeremiah 31, 31-33
And in the sixth month, the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city in Galilee, called Nazareth, to a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Mary. And the angel being come in, said unto her: Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou amongst women.
Luke 1, 27-28
Various translations of Luke 1:27 have Mary “betrothed” or “espoused” to Joseph at the time of the Annunciation. Either term means that the couple were legally married, although their marriage hadn’t been consummated yet. Mosaic law provided a two-part marriage ceremony. It began with the betrothal or espousal (Kiddushin) in which Joseph would have given Mary a marriage document and a token of monetary value, usually a ring. The Hebrew word for “betrothed” is kiddush, which is derived from meaning “holy, consecrated, and set apart” as Israel is described to be in her marital relationship with God. In Jewish practice, this is the central moment of the initial wedding ceremony at which time a contract is signed making the couple legally married.
Now the second part of their marriage would have followed a year after the first wedding ceremony. By this time, Joseph was expected to be able to provide for Mary. And if both were happy with each other and remained faithful to each other, the second and final wedding ceremony (Nisuin) would solemnly take place. The ketubah (contract) was the focal point of the second wedding ceremony. Here Joseph would have formally accepted the responsibilities of providing food and shelter, clothing for his wife, and attending to her emotional needs. After the ketubah was signed by Joseph and the two witnesses, and presented to Mary, the marriage was solemnized. Assured of her marital rights, Mary could now move into her husband’s home and consummate their marriage.
However, according to early Christian tradition, Mary and Joseph agreed on having a chaste marriage before the first marriage ceremony took place because of a vow of continence she had made to God as a young girl while living and serving in the temple. That Joseph should agree to such an arrangement isn’t at all implausible considering Numbers 30.
Vows taken by a married woman
“And if she is married to a husband, while under her vows or any thoughtless utterance of her lips by which she has bound herself, and her husband hears of it, and says nothing to her on the day that he hears; then her vows shall stand, and her pledges by which she has bound herself shall stand. But if, on the day that her husband comes to hear of it, he expresses disapproval, then he shall make void her vow which was on her, and the thoughtless utterance of her lips, by which she bound herself; and the LORD will forgive her.”
Vows to afflict herself
“Any vow and any binding oath to afflict herself, her husband may establish, or her husband may make void. But if her husband says nothing to her from day to day, then he establishes all her vows, or all her pledges, that are upon her; he has established them, because he said nothing to her on the day that he heard of them. But if he makes them null and void after he has heard of them, then he shall bear her iniquity.”
Torah scholar Jacob Milgrom informs us that the woman’s vow “to afflict herself” meant fasting and abstaining from sexual relations to ancient Jews. Judith may have made such a vow after her encounter with God. She never remarried at her young age after her husband died and left her childless, probably because of her close nuptial type of communion with God. And the fact she never remarried presupposes that such a vow must have been permanent. Moses himself remained continent in his marriage for the rest of his life once God summoned him to lead the Israelites to the promised land, and so did the seventy elders abstain from their wives after they received the call to produce the Septuagint. Eldad and Medad did likewise after the spirit of prophecy came upon them, according to ancient Jewish tradition (Midrash Exodus Rabbah 19; 46.3; Sifre to Numbers 99 sect. 11; Sifre Zutta 81-82, 203-204; Aboth Rabbi Nathan 9, 39; Tanchuman 111, 46; Tanchumah Zaw 13; 3 Petirot Moshe 72; Shabbath 87a; Pesachim 87b, Babylonian Talmud). Provisions such as these were made under Mosaic law. Vows like these which were taken by women were permissible, since the command to propagate strictly applied to men under ordinary circumstances.
If Joseph agreed on having a chaste marriage with his wife Mary, it would be because he chose to honour her vow which was made before they had met, when she was a girl serving and residing in the Temple from an early age. Meanwhile, there was no statute that condemned a man for having sinned by honouring his intended wife’s vow. Nor was there any directive for him to abort the initial wedding ceremony upon hearing of the vow. Joseph did have the option to either cancel or go through with the Kiddushin after hearing of Mary’s vow. He would have sinned if he had first accepted the vow and then tried to nullify it after they were legally married. Mary would have sinned if she had sprung the news on Joseph after they became espoused or betrothed. Anyway, this provision in the Mosaic law does help explain how Mary and Joseph could have wed, albeit her vow of chastity in her personal covenant with God.
But after he had considered this, an angel of the LORD
appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David,
do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what
is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.”
Matthew 1, 20
The angel Gabriel spoke to Joseph in a dream after he discovered Mary was with child to reassure him that his wife hadn’t done anything unfaithful, but that the child she was carrying was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit (Mt 1:18-25). Until then, Joseph had the legal right to file for divorce on the ground of his wife’s apparent promiscuity. In fact, he had the right to publicly condemn her and have her stoned to death for having committed adultery (Deut 22:22-29). But upon the angel’s visit the table had turned. Now Joseph had to reconsider whether he had any legal and moral right to go through with the second wedding ceremony, since his wife Mary had conceived a child by another person.
We know that Joseph was a just man who faithfully observed the precepts of the Mosaic law (Mt 1:14). Under Mosaic law, according to Louis M. Epstein (Marriage Laws in the Bible and the Talmud: Cambridge), if a man’s wife or betrothed was found to be pregnant by another man (person), the husband was forbidden to have conjugal relations with her from that point on. A woman who had known relations with another man, even if by force, was considered no longer fit to be visited by her husband (Gen 49:4; 2 Sam 20:3, 16:21-22).
True, God did not make physical contact with Mary in the natural way, but in her passivity, she was physically affected by the power of the Holy Spirit. And, of course, the two did have a child together. When Adam and Eve were created, God sanctified marriage and decreed that a man and a woman should have children together only on condition that “the two become one flesh” (Gen 2:23-24). In His absolute righteousness, God could never dismiss His own moral law. This is obvious by the fact that the angel appeared to Mary with the good news just before it was time for her husband to take her into his home, which explains why the Jews who knew him regarded our Lord to be the “carpenter’s son” (Mt 13:55). Moreover, God chose to beget a child together with a woman who was a virgin and had no children of her own, not even daughters. Morally Mary belonged to God as his virgin bride which Joseph, being a religiously devout Jew, would have keenly understood in principle.
The angel relieved Joseph of his fear when he instructed him to take Mary into his home as his lawful wife, but not to normally co-habit with her: “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife” (Mt 1:20). In the Greek translation of the original Hebrew, the prepositional phrase “to take home as your wife” reads paralambano gunaika. This shows that there was no need for the angel to tell Joseph that he shouldn’t be afraid to “come together” with his wife (bo-e-lei-ha imma) or “lay with” her (vai-yish-kav imma) (Gen 30:3, 16-17), since the couple had already agreed on having a chaste marriage. And since Mary didn’t commit adultery, Joseph was permitted by law to “take her home” as his lawful wife, regardless of whether the couple had intended to have conjugal relations and children of their own. Anyway, the original Greek phrase does not refer to having conjugal or sexual relations unlike the Hebrew phrases above.
If Mary and Joseph had intended to have children of their own by the time of the Annunciation, the angel would have told him not to fear “coming together” or “laying with” his wife in the conventional marital sense. But Joseph should be assured that their marriage was still morally valid before God, because not only did Mary conceive Jesus by the Holy Spirit, but also the couple shall not have conjugal relations and any children of their own. Thus, Joseph mustn’t be afraid to formally solemnize the marriage and take his wife into his home for fear of violating the moral law so long as the couple live together but remain continent.
And Mary said to the angel: How shall this be done, because I know not man? And the angel answering, said to her: The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Most High shall overshadow thee. And therefore also the Holy which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God.
Luke 1, 34-35
God conducted Himself with Mary as a husband with his wife no less honourably and righteously as He had with Israel in their mystical marriage covenant. The spiritual and moral marital relationship Mary had with God was fully consummated at the precise moment she was overshadowed by the Holy Spirit. As the personification of Daughter Zion, Mary was divinely declared to be kiddush or “holy, consecrated, and set apart” for God when she vowed to enter a personal marriage covenant with Him while still a young temple virgin. Yet she couldn’t have fathomed at the time that she felt compelled to make such a vow by the prompting of the Holy Spirit because she was predestined to be the mother of the divine Messiah.
And so, the nuptial covenant between God and Mary was forever ratified when she faithfully and lovingly consented to be the mother of our divine Lord and permitted the Holy Spirit to cover her nakedness by laying His cloak over her and covering her with His shadow: “Let it be done to me, according to your word” (Lk 1:38). The angel told Mary that she would be “overshadowed by the power of the Most High.” In ancient Jewish culture, a man’s “laying his power over” (resuth) a woman was a euphemism for having marital relations. Similarly, for a man to “overshadow” a woman or “spread his cloak or wing over her” was a euphemism for having conjugal relations in the holy bond of matrimony.
Ruth intended to have conjugal relations with her lord Boaz when she replied: “I am your handmaid Ruth. Spread the corner of your cloak over me (“cover me with your shadow”), for you are my next of kin” (Ruth 3:9). Rabbinic scholar and Hebrew convert to the Catholic faith, Brother Anthony Opisso, M.D., tells us that the word “cloak” (tallith), literally “wing” (kannaph) is derived from the word tellal, meaning “shadow”. Jesus referred to Israel as his bride when he said: “How many times I yearned to gather your children together as a hen gathers her children under her wing” (Lk 13:34).
As a chaste and religiously devout Jewish woman, Ruth refused to lay with her lord Boaz unless they were morally joined as husband and wife. It was after Boaz had lain with Ruth as his lawfully wedded wife that God permitted her to conceive and bear a son, whose name was Obed, the grandfather of King David, who prefigures Christ as the royal head of God’s kingdom (Ruth 3:9; 4:13). Likewise, Mary was not merely God’s servant when the Holy Spirit came upon her, but His morally united spouse, who conceived and gave birth to our divine Lord and King, whose “kingdom is not of this world,” and who “shall rule all nations with a sceptre of justice” or “rod of iron” (Jn 18:36; Rev 2:27).
The Lord loveth the gates of Zion above all the tabernacles of Jacob.
Shall not Zion say: This man and that man is born in her?
and the Highest himself hath founded her.
Psalm 87, 2, 5
The early Latin and Greek Fathers of the Catholic Church implicitly perceived Mary to be the spouse of the Holy Spirit in two fundamental ways which reflect the unitive and procreative aspects of conjugal love. First, they portrayed Mary as having been spiritually united with the Holy Spirit and having something supernaturally in common with Him by her interior disposition. The quality of her soul was affected by His sanctifying grace, so that she could worthily be His spouse and the mother of our divine Lord. Our most Blessed Lady had to have a perfect share in His divine nature, seeing she was chosen to conceive and bear the Holy Begotten of God.
St. Hippolytus refers to the Virgin Mary as “the tabernacle” of our Lord and Saviour, and being this “she was exempt from all putridity and corruption” (Orations Inillud, Dominus pascit me). Origen pronounces this “Virgin Mother of the Only-begotten Son of God” to be “worthy of God, the immaculate of the immaculate, one of the one” (Homily 1). Indeed, as the most chaste spouse of the Holy Spirit and most worthy Mother of God, in Mary “all things are fair” and, as St. Ephraem adds,” there is “no stain” in the Mother just as there is “no flaw” in her divine Son in his humanity (Nisibene Hymns, 27:8).
Further, St. Athanasius calls Mary the “noble Virgin” who is “greater than any other greatness” and who no human soul “could equal in greatness” since she had been chosen and prepared to be “the dwelling place of God”. He addresses the Virgin Mary as God’s “Covenant”, being “clothed with purity instead of gold”; she is “the Ark in which is found the golden vessel containing the true manna … the flesh in which Divinity resides” (Homily on the Papyrus of Turin, 71:216). St. Ambrose concurs Mary was “a Virgin, not only undefiled, but a Virgin whom grace had made inviolate, free of any stain of sin” (Sermon 22:30). So, for St. Augustine “Mary was the only one who merited to be called the Mother as the Spouse of God” (Sermon 208).
Mary was perceived to be the spouse of the Holy Spirit by not only having begotten Jesus together with Him through supernatural means, but also by having cooperated with Him in providing spiritual life to the human race. They cooperated as all husbands and wives do in giving life to their children. By consenting to conceive and bear Jesus through the activity of the Holy Spirit, Mary brought the living Source of all grace into the world. The early Church Fathers perceived Mary to be the new Eve, the spiritual “mother of all the living.” Concerning the incarnation and virgin birth, St. Irenaeus writes: “The Word will become flesh, and the Son of God the son of man: The Pure One opening purely that pure womb, which generates men unto God” (Against Heresies, lV.33.12). Mary’s womb was made pure by the Holy Spirit, for it was selected to physically carry and nourish the holy Son of God, and spiritually His brethren (Rom 8:29). We who are regenerated through the baptismal water in the womb of the font are a new creation and children of the new Adam by being the seed of the free promised woman (Gen 3:15).
Thus, as the new Eve and spouse of the Holy Spirit, Mary couldn’t have conceived other children in sin and borne them in guilt by having conjugal relations with her legal husband Joseph. The only child she was predestined to conceive, and bear, would be of her seed alone. Mary’s womb was meant to provide humankind with the “blessed fruit” which was Jesus (Lk 1:42). In moral union with the Holy Spirit, Mary was chosen to exercise her maternal role of nourishing the human race with the divine Word and the regenerating graces only He could have merited for us in his humanity. All who are baptized in Christ are of the seed of the Woman in hostility with the seed of the serpent or dragon, sinful and wicked humanity ( 1 Cor 11:12; Rev 12:17).
Finally, the early Church Father St. Cyril of Jerusalem (d. 386) believed that Mary’s chastity and purity of heart reached the culminating point of her virginity when the Holy Spirit had overshadowed her, and she carried Jesus in her womb for nine months. And so, these nine months redounded to her glory and made her the perfect model of virginity. All her children who are reborn in Christ through the cleansing and regenerating water of baptism must emulate that immaculate heart of their mother in their lives. For by doing so, they emulate the purity and righteousness of her firstborn Son and their brethren Jesus. St. Cyril writes: “It became Him who is most pure … to have come forth from a pure bridal chamber” (Catechetical Lecture 12). The Church Father implicitly taught that all those who are born of the Spirit are Mary’s offspring as well, having come forth from a pure bridal chamber together with Jesus. “Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit” (Jn 3:6). Mary would have defiled the bridal chamber if she had had marital relations with her husband Joseph. His seed, tainted by original sin, would have desecrated the holy sanctuary of her womb – the sacred dwelling place of God incarnate (Isa 7:14).
All Jesus’ brethren, who proceed from the same pure womb untouched by the seed of Adam and are born of the Spirit, shall not perish as new creations in Christ. It is the Spirit who gives birth to spirit and new life to all who are re-created in the Spirit through Mary’s pure womb. All Mary’s offspring must weave for themselves the holy flesh of their Virgin Mother by cooperating with the Holy Spirit and His divine grace. This is all part of the creative aspect of the conjugal union between the Holy Spirit and our Blessed Mother. St. Epiphanius reminds us that “the whole human race proceeds from Eve; but it is from Mary that Life was truly born to the world, so that by giving birth to the Living One, Mary might also become the Mother of all the living” (Against Eighty Heresies 78, 9).
“And I will betroth you to me forever;
I will betroth you to me in righteousness and in justice,
and in love, and in mercy. I will betroth you to me in faithfulness;
and you shall know the Lord.”