Recently a particular thought pervaded my meditation—whether or not St. Joseph was present for the Visitation. I asked several of my friends their thoughts. Most of them told me either they never thought about it before or they thought Joseph did not. I knew what my initial thoughts were, and I thought that I would do a brief study on the question, and seek a resolution. My inquiry was threefold: scripture, mystical revelation, and artistic expression. On the feast of the Visitation, I wish to share my findings.
I am the first to admit, I always imagined the young Mary of Nazareth leaving her family’s home and joining a caravan of people heading to Jerusalem, at which she would break off and head to Ein Karem, the village where Elizabeth and Zechariah lived. I never gave consideration to whether or not Joseph went with her, but if I ventured a guess, I would say, like many others I asked, he did not. I would say that the scriptures would support this, given their silence on the matter.
In Luke 1:39, it says, “During those days Mary set out and traveled to the hill country in haste to a town of Judah.” It does not say, “During those days Mary and Joseph set out in haste.” One thing I always keep in mind is something St. Bernard wrote in his homily Missus Est, that Luke loves to relay details. Commenting on the Annunciation event, Bernard points out the specific facts: the sixth month, to a town of Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin, betrothed to Joseph, named Mary; Elizabeth, Mary’s kinswoman, is six months pregnant. Even with the Visitation, Luke pays attention to detail, pointing out that Mary stays with Elizabeth three months, thereby indicating Mary saw the birth of John the Baptist. With an emphasis on facts, why would Luke leave out that Joseph joined Mary on this journey to Nazareth?
Secondly, the Matthean gospel, in recounting the birth of Jesus, states that Joseph decided to divorce Mary quietly (Mt. 1:19). Given the timeframe between the Annunciation, the Visitation (while not in Matthew’s account), and Mary’s return to Nazareth, it would seem the decision to separate from Mary due to perceived infidelity happened following the Visitation. If Joseph joined Mary, wouldn’t he know or seen Mary’s progression in pregnancy? From a scriptural standpoint, it would seem my original opinion, validated by those I queried, stands to reason, namely that Mary went to visit Elizabeth, on her own accord, despite her young age, and then returned to Nazareth herself.
However, my research did not end with scripture and further study yielded another answer, suggesting that Joseph did in fact travel with Mary to visit Elizabeth and Zechariah. In my second phase of studying this question I turned to the mystical writings of Venerable Mary of Agreda and Venerable Anne Catherine Emmerich. Mary of Agreda received ecstatic mystical visions, preserved in her account The Mystical City of God, for the purposes of this reflection I will cite from the abridged version, published by TAN (1978). Many people might also know the name Venerable Anne Catherine Emmerich because Mel Gibson based The Passion of Christ off of another work pertaining to her mystical visions (The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ). In addition to her visions of Jesus, Venerable Anne Catherine Emmerich also received revelations regarding Mary’s life, presented in The Life of the Blessed Virgin Mary (Tan Books, 1970).
By having recourse to mystical private revelations, I do not wish to exalt these writings to the level of dogma or public revelation. I do, however, find them to be a great resource in order to clarify or glean insight into some of the unknown facts of the Holy Family not contained in the pages of Sacred Scripture. These revelations contain the ability to satiate the hungering mind’s curiosity, as is the case with this essay.
Both Mary of Agreda and Anne Catherine Emmerich are in agreement on Joseph’s role in the visitation. Mary of Agreda wites, “Having pursued their journey four days, the most holy Mary and her spouse arrived at the town of Juda, where Zachary and Elisabeth then lived”(180). Anne Catherine Emmerich, provides more details than Mary of Agreda, saying that “The time was now drawing near when Joseph wished to go up to Jerusalem for the Passover, Our Lady decided to accompany him in order to help Elisabeth in her pregnancy. Joseph therefore started with the Blessed Virgin on the journey to Jutta”(148). Another common emphasis of both mystics regards Joseph’s knowledge of Mary’s pregnancy. Both agree that he was not aware of the privilege granted to Mary (Agreda, 185. Emmerich, 148). Lastly, both agree for a third time, that Joseph returned to accompany Mary on her journey back to Nazareth. Where they differ though is on the distance traveled. Mary of Agreda reports Joseph returned to the house of Zechariah and Elizabeth (cf. p 191) while Emmerich states Joseph met Mary half-way (cf. p 166). For both mystics, it was during the return trip home that Joseph notices Mary’s pregnancy and considers his course of action.
An appeal to private revelation provides an alternative answer to the one offered earlier through an appeal to Sacred Scripture. It is from here, that we proceed to the third mode of research—artistic expression.
The life of Mary as recounted in the gospels, believed in the tradition, and seen by mystics, has been the subject of several artists’ works. I am careful to use the word artist, to connote not only the great painters or mosaicists, but also cinematographers for our contemporary age.
The 2006 The Nativity Story presents the life of Mary leading up to the event of Christmas. After the Annunciation, the young Mary tells her family her desire to go and see Elizabeth and Zechariah, citing her pregnancy. While Mary’s parents disbelieve her, they acquiesce to her departure. Mary tells Joachim and Anne, that Jacob and his family were going south and that she promised Sarah assistance with the children. Her parent’s reply, “make sure Zechariah finds a good family for you to return with.” After Mary’s departure from Ein Karem and subsequent return to Nazareth, her pregnancy is noticed, and Joseph discusses the troubling choices he now faces.
The Ignatius Press Film from 2014, Mary of Nazareth, depicts a similar episode, yet at the same time, differs from The Nativity Story. Following the Annunciation, Mary again shares with her family about Elizabeth and her intent on visiting. Mary tells her family she will join a caravan on the way to the temple. Her parents question the departure since the wedding is so close. Unlike The Nativity Story, which did not show Mary consulting Joseph, Mary of Nazareth does. Joseph volunteers to go with Mary, but Mary dismisses Joseph, telling him she does want to steal his time away from working on the house. Mary joins a caravan and after spending time with Elizabeth, returns to Nazareth, where she is met with the disgust of her townspeople who see her pregnant. Joseph tells Mary that he will leave her quietly so that she will not be put to death, and later destroys the house he was working on. It was after the destruction, that Joseph has his dream and decides to take Mary into his home.
The recent films pertaining to the life of Jesus and Mary do not depict Joseph as a participant in the Visitation. While film does not, and many paintings depict solely Mary and Elizabeth greeting one another, there is no shortage of paintings and mosaics that depict Joseph as a bystander at the Visitation. Here are few to reflect on:
Many Catholics regularly reflect on the mystery of the Visitation of Mary to Elizaabeth when they pray the second joyful mystery. If others are like me, they may have never considered Joseph to be present for the Visitation, which the insights gleaned from this study may enhance their prayerful meditation on the Visitation. In our inquiry that spanned scripture, mystical revelation, and artistic expression, we find conflicting answers. Either conclusion, whether Mary went to Ein Karem alone or accompanied by Joseph, could be correct. The reality is, we simply do not know for Sacred Scripture remains silent on the issue. Recourse to private revelation indicates that Joseph journeyed with Mary, whereas the film genre, which has the ability to shape people’s minds, does not depict this. The imgination of artists throughout history suggest Joseph’s presence. In closing, it is up to the individual believer to form his or her own belief, through study, prayer, and reflection. I hope this inquiry, has been of some assistance, opening our minds to new possibilities in the mystery of the Holy Family and the Vistiation.