This is not a written homily but an attempt to explain two passages that may appear confusing.
In today’s Gospel reading where the pregnancy of Mary is announced to Joseph through a dream, it is written, “When… Mary was betrothed to Joseph…” and “…Joseph, her husband, since he was a righteous man yet unwilling to unwilling to expose her to shame, decided to divorce her quietly.”
The first question is, “Why is Joseph called Mary’s husband when they were still in the betrothal stage?’ The second is “Why talk about divorce when they were not yet married?”
To put it in another way, “What was the status of their relationship?” Can you imagine Mary or Joseph filling in a bio-data questionnaire, and how would they each answer the question regarding civil status?
I am reminded of a parish priest Fr. Jose Bosch, SDB, in my childhood. Though he was from Spain, he was an ardent student of the Cebuano language.
Indeed, he lived more like a Cebuano than most of us Cebuanos. He tried to correct the usual translation that described the status of the relationship as “sinayoran” (betrothal). He explained that describing Joseph and Mary as “minyo,” (married) would be more accurate.
While growing up, I admired his audacity to correct the usual Cebuano translation and even hero-worshipped him for studying my native tongue.
He opened my mind to the idea that there is more to be understood about the background behind the written texts. I still agree with him that Joseph and Mary were closer to our contemporary understanding of being married, thus as man and wife than being simply engaged.
The confusion comes from culturally conditioned practices related to marriage. Betrothal today does not mean the couple is legally bound to each other.
It is a private exchange of consent between the couple and there is no public ceremony to seal it. It was not like that in the past.
Before the religious codification of marital practices, the formal betrothal ceremony was as important as, if not even more important than, the wedding.
The couple would behave like our contemporary husband and wife after the betrothal ceremony. But in the case of Joseph and Mary, the Gospel says they were already betrothed but they were not yet living together.
Today, we consider the consent given during a wedding ceremony as the ratification (ratum) while the first sexual intercourse after the wedding is the consummation.
It was not always like that in the past.
Fr. Ramon D. Echica is the Dean of Studies of the San Carlos Major Seminary. He obtained his doctorate in Sacred Theology from the Catholic University of Leuven (Katholieke Universiteit Leuven) in 1998.