Sunday, 26 March 2017

Enter the Wilderness

'Desert Speed,' James Xu

OUR TREK THROUGH LIFE IS ONE BIG SOJOURN through a desert wilderness. An Egypt left behind. A Promised Land ahead. With the haunting allure of Egypt’s onions and garlic tugging at one’s appetite along the way, whilst manna is providentially sprinkled along one’s path as strength for the journey ahead. The sun beating down one moment, eliciting sweat and angst; feet heavy, body sore, mind taxed—an entree from purgatory or hell; and a cool refreshing spring the next. Bringing with it fresh hope, new vision, and awakened creativity and motivation—as though a slice of paradise has been served early.

All in all, it’s the natural ‘up’ and ‘down’ fluctuation of the life we’re used to—indicative of our fallen human state. A fluctuation which C.S. Lewis calls the law of undulation.[1]

That’s the big picture. That life here bellow is one big desert—on the threshold of the heavenly land of promise at best, with Pharaoh and his army, that is the devil and his warping of the world, ever at our heels threatening to enslave us to the dark ways of our false-selves, if only we yield up the quest which those around us, like the Israelites of old, deride as hopeless and even fantastical.

The Many Deserts of Life

Yet on another level, on the small scale, we pass through hundreds and thousands of deserts in a lifetime. In fact, every day is in some way a desert in itself, with a mini Promised Land at the end.

On the literal side of things, we taste the Promised Land of eternal bliss when at the end of a day we hit the hay and find that welcome rest. Such rest can sacramentally lead us to savour the grace of eternal rest won by Christ, who rested in death after completing the work of the new creation on the cross, declaring “It is finished” (Jn 19:30). Just like the Father who rested when He had finished the work of creation.

Yet we don’t always find this tangible rest.

Fortunately, that’s no hindrance at all to experiencing God’s grace. For on the spiritual side, having passed through the desert of a day, its Promised Land lies in the fact that God has led us safely through another day, despite its foibles and pains, for He loves us, and through our repentance and joyful trust, He will turn the dry sandy day that has been into the milk and honey of our sanctification and that of others. For “we know that to them that love God all things work together unto good” (Rom 8:28).

The Promised Land

'Promised Land,' Sara Credito.
This is to say nothing of the tastes of the Promised Land we find in the midst of our daily sojourn, above all in our manna which is the Eucharist, that nourishes the life of grace within us, so that in turn we might taste Christ present in our neighbour, in the created world around us, in the circumstances of our life, and in our very own souls.

In a particular way, every week is also a kind of desert ending with its mini Promised Land of rest and contentment—the Sabbath, which according to a Jewish Talmudic teaching, is a one-sixtieth taste of the Promised Land of the world to come.[2]

The Desert of Lent

Then we come to another kind of desert which comes annually: Lent. A liturgical season by which the Holy Spirit through the Church drives her pilgrim members into the wilderness of penance, to pray, fast and give alms in greater fervour. Not just for the purpose of imitating Christ’s post-baptismal forty-day and forty-night fast in the desert, but for the purpose of receiving through our imitative Lenten disposition, the very grace Christ won for us in the desert all those years ago. The grace of deliverance from slavery to the whims of our selfish will, which because of concupiscence inclines itself towards choosing the three lusts (1 Jn 2:15-16) of satisfying our flesh; our eyes—which according to Augustine is to seek to quell our appetite to know out of vain curiosity; and the pride of life, by wanting to be esteemed as somebodies.[3]

In the desert of Lent, we find the freedom to be who we are, without the suffocating and complicating influences that creep in and steel our heart to God’s tenderness.

Such is the effect of the desert, which etymologically can be literally understood as “thing abandoned” or “thing forsaken”.[4] Since in this stripped-down and barren place—or in our sense, a state—we ourselves become through grace, and with Christ, as a “thing abandoned,” resulting from our renouncement of the world, the flesh and the devil.

Yet not merely abandoned in the negative sense of being abandoned from or by these things, but in the positive sense of being abandoned to and for God in Christ. This is the whole purpose of Lent: a liturgical desert of fasting, prayer and alms giving, designed to draw us out of the city apartment of our cosy inwardness where Christian mediocrity likes us to dwell in the manner of pious individualism—perhaps whilst belonging to a religio-intellectual clique—and deeper into the Promised Land of our God, wherein we can nourish our hearts on the milk of love of neighbour, and the honey of divine love.

Perennial Access to the Promised Land

It is true, the Promised Land— the real and existing archetype which speaks of the object and the objects of our supernatural hope—can seem like a faraway dream. Something for tomorrow, not today. For we must await the full manifestation of the Promised Land in the life to come, and as the life to come.

Yet notwithstanding this fact, we have perennial access to the Promised Land, for the Promised Land came to us in the Incarnation, and it still does today in the Sacrament of the Altar, and by extension in the secret recesses of a believing heart, which nourishes itself by reception and Adoration of this Mana from above, wherein is contained the milk and honey of the twin loves.

Enter the Wilderness

'Elijah Fed by An Angel,' Ferdinand Bol, 1660-1663.
In 1 Kings 19 we read of Elijah, fleeing into the desert from Jezebel who sought to kill him (much like the Infant Christ and the Holy Family, who fled into the wilderness to escape the wrath of Herod). There in the wilderness Elijah rested under a tree where he was eventually visited by an angel and was given nourishment for the journey that lay ahead.

Enter the desert wilderness of Lent and what will we find? The Abandoned One, the Forsaken One, stripped naked, bloody, thirsty and exhausted, hanging on a tree, held fast by Triune love more than three nails; and the shadow cast by the cross and His outstretched arms, which extends itself through every age, right unto this very day.

Here within this shade we are beckoned to rest—just like Elijah. Yet whereas Elijah was nourished by an angel on temporal food, we are nourished by God Himself on the Bread of Angels: the very Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Christ. The very medicine that realigns our body’s flesh to the praiseworthy purposes of God, and replaces the proud hunger to be somebodies with a hunger to share in Christ’s abjection. Whilst the disordered craving of our eyes, inherited since Eve goggled with pleasure over the forbidden fruit (Gen 3:6)—curious to know and experience (to taste) right and wrong—finds its remedy in an adoring gaze of the Abandoned One in the Holy Eucharist. In desiring to see Him face to face, and to come to know Him in quiet intimacy.

Promised Rest

This is the desert call of Lent. A call repeated every day of our lives but which takes on an emphasis in this liturgical season. To come away and return to the Cross. To rest beneath its homey shadow, and to cover and nourish ourselves on the love pouring from His side more abundantly than the wine flowed at the wedding of Canna, and more than did the honey and milk in that temporal Promised Land.
In the Gospel of Matthew our Lord invites us to share in the mystery of the Cross, to shoulder its yoke in love that we might find spiritual rest:

"Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light."(Mt 11 28-30).

Suffering is characteristic of life in our post-Fall world. No one can escape it, and everyone wants to find peace and rest - a life free from hassles. Yet here our Lord is telling us that the peace and rest we desire, the Promised Land we seek, is found not by running away from the crosses of our life - which will hunt us down anyway! - but by embracing them, accepting them, and resigning ourselves to them. (Resigning ourselves to crosses that come our way and present themselves, not by being masochists, nor by resigning ourselves to other people's sufferings as some glossed excuse to act indifferently; since shouldering our yoke necessarily involves lightening someone else's load).

We carry out such resignation to our crosses not for the mere sake of it, and not out of the strength of self-will, but by bringing our crosses to Jesus the Afflicted One for the fulfillment of His mysterious purposes, in the confidence that uniting ourselves with His sufferings, He will strengthen us to bear the plight at hand, and will pour into us that grace of peace and rest which is the wages of a life lived in union with Him.

To shoulder our yoke requires faith that God is walking with us in the midst of our sufferings. Surrendering to His Will in this way turns the yoke of our crosses from aimless desert wonderings into speedways directly into God's heart where true peace is found. It also turns each cross from a foreboding obstacle of a Red Sea, like the Red Sea was at first for the Israelite's, into a parted Red Sea - serving as a shortcut towards the Promised Land of our spiritual desires.

Come Away and Rest A While

Our Lord is with us in our desert experiences, and the Cross, like the shade of the tree which sheltered Elijah from the heat of the sun and from the fears of persecution, offers us a refuge of meaning and rest. The words of the Cantor resonate deeply in this context:

With great delight I sat in his shadow,
and his fruit was sweet to my taste,
He brought me to the banqueting house,
and his banner over me was love.[5]

What else is the fruit but the nourishment of Jesus' Body and Blood; the banqueting house but the Immaculate Heart of Mary wherein the Almighty chose to dwell; and the banner of love naught but the Precious Blood, commingled with the water that gushed from His side.

“Let Christ crucified be enough for you,” writes Saint John of the Cross, “and with him suffer and take your rest.” [6] It would seem like a paradox, to find rest in the Cross. But it’s true, and it’s the message of Lent. That in desert of this life, and in its numerous deserts, among them Lent itself, we can find that old rugged Cross, that Tree of Life with its salvific shade, upon which hangs our Promised Land—not as a plot of land, but as a God-man, resting in our hearts and disguised under the appearance of bread and wine, calling us to "come away... and rest a while" (Mk 6:31). [7]

[1] Undulation meaning: a wave like motion. On the law of undulation see C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters, chs. 8-9.

[2] “Sabbath is one-sixtieth part of the world to come.” Babylonian Talmud, Berakoth 57b, available at

[3] “For besides that concupiscence of the flesh which lies in the gratification of all senses and pleasures, wherein its slaves who “are far from You perish”, there pertains to the soul, through the same senses of the body, a certain vain and curious longing, cloaked under the name of knowledge and learning, not of having pleasure in the flesh, but of making experiments through the flesh. This longing, since it originates in an appetite for knowledge, and the sight being the chief among the senses in the acquisition of knowledge, is called in divine language, “the lust of the eyes.” Augustine, Confessions, Book X, Chp 35, 54, available at

[4] “from Late Latin desertum "thing abandoned" (used in Vulgate to translate ‘wilderness’), noun use of neuter past participle of Latin deserere ‘forsake’” Online Etymology Dictionary, “Desert,”

[5] Song of Songs 2:3b-4, RSV.

[6] John of the Cross, Maxims and Counsels, Maxims on Love, 13, available at

[7] “the promised land… is the image of eternal life” (Compendium of the CCC, 253), and it is in Christ in whom this life is lived, who is “The way, the truth, and the life” (Jn 14:6).

Monday, 20 March 2017

Jesus, Joseph, and the Serpent in the Wilderness

BEFORE BEING LED "BY THE SPIRIT into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil” where “he fasted forty days and forty nights,” (Mt 4:1-2) Jesus underwent His baptism in the Jordan river. Prior to this Jesus was living out His hidden life with Mary and Joseph—carrying out the carpentry trade of his virginal father. Jesus lived this obscure life of a carpenter in Nazareth for about thirty years. We know this because our Lord withdrew from His hidden life and commenced His public ministry shortly following His baptism. St. Luke writes:

Jesus, when he began his ministry, was about thirty years of age, being the son (as was supposed) of Joseph (Lk 3:23).

The exact year of Joseph’s death is unknown, but based on the Gospels, and the consensus of tradition, by the time Jesus started His public ministry Joseph had died. General opinion places Joseph’s death shortly before Jesus commences His ministry, and thus for all intents and purposes Jesus spent thirty years by the side of Joseph, sharing in his trade, praying with him, laughing with him, and honouring him as his father more than any biological son ever has or will.

Jesus’ Baptism in the Context of Joseph’s Death

Jesus’ baptism is by no means a stage of His life divorced from His first thirty years on earth. Rather, it is incarnate in a human context. Joseph had recently died. However recent, we do not know, but recent nonetheless, and recent enough—as those who’ve lost close ones would know—to still be mourning. Not in any imperfect way which is an understandable tendency for fallen creatures prone to untamed passions and reliant on unseen faith and unfelt hope to bring perspective and consolation, but in a perfectly tender and human way. For we know that Jesus wept when Lazarus died, and we can hardly paint an accurate Jesus without considering the reality of Joseph’s passing and the effect it would have had on Jesus.

We cannot doubt that Jesus carried in His humanity the face, memory and presence of Joseph wherever he went until the day he died—as the living and visible icon of His Father in heaven. We can hardly imagine therefore how profoundly Jesus would have been moved when He perceptibly heard with His human ears, after having risen from the waters of the Jordan, “This is my beloved son in whom I am well pleased” (Mt 3:17).

How often such similar words would have been repeated by Joseph who literally adored His Adopted Son, and now from heaven speaks His Unbegotten Father in a time when Jesus is more than conscious of his foster father’s physical absence. It’s not like Jesus doesn’t know His Father is in heaven, nor that Joseph is present in spirit—He is God after all, and in His humanity by virtue of His divinity He knows as much as can be possibly known—it’s simply that in hearing His Father’s voice, Jesus comes to experientially taste the Paternal Love which is in some mysterious way mediated to Jesus in His humanity through Joseph and the memories He has of Him.

From Nazareth to the Wilderness

It is from the hidden life of Nazareth following Joseph’s death, and from the banks of the Jordan following an epiphany, that Jesus enters the wilderness of the desert to be tested by the devil. Present at the Jordan in the form of a dove that alighted atop Jesus’ head, it is the Holy Spirit that drives Jesus out into the wilderness. In fact, the word used by Matthew ἀνήχθη (root word: anagó), and translated as “was led (brought or driven) up,” bears connotations with setting sail (see Acts 18:21). Indeed, it is by the Divine Gust who is the Person-Love between the Father and the Son, that Jesus ‘sets sail’ from the Jordan into the wilderness. Thus literally, by, on and in the Father’s Love Jesus makes His way to the desert.

Satan Attacks Jesus’ Sonship

Here in this desert wasteland, once Jesus “was hungry” (Mt 4:2), the devil approaches Jesus, and makes three concrete attempts at trying to tempt Him to forsake and dishonour His Father. In the first two temptations—the first, to turn stones into bread, and the second, to cast Himself off the pinnacle of the temple—Satan begins his case with the words: “If you are the Son of God”. Such mocking words; and one can imagine the emphasis was placed on the “if”.

By attacking Jesus’ Sonship and attempting to bait Him in the hope that He will prove and defend his honour associated with such a dignity, what Satan is trying to do here is catch Jesus out so as to verify His Divine identity. The desert father St. Ephraim writes, “Satan reflected and said to himself, “As long as I have not tested him by combat through temptation I will not be able to identify him.”[1]

Jesus and Psalm 91

In the second temptation Satan quotes Psalm 91:

"If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, 'He will give his angels charge of you,' and 'On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.'" (Mt 4:6)

The irony is in the psalm itself. For the very next verse, which Satan conveniently leaves out, and because of his pride was possibly blind to its actual meaning, prophesises his own demise at Jesus’ doing: “You will tread on the lion and the adder, the young lion and the serpent you will trample under foot.” (Ps 91:13).

Joseph and Psalm 91

The first verses of the psalm are particularly poignant in regards to the Father-Son dynamic within Jesus’ testing in the wilderness, as well as the immediate background experiences foreshadowing it.

He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High, who abides in the shadow of the Almighty, will say to the LORD, “My refuge and my fortress; my God, in whom I trust.” For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler… he will cover you with his pinions, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness is a shield and buckler.

In the deepest and highest sense, God the Father is the protecting shelter and shadow of Jesus. Yet at the same time Saint Joseph is none other than “the shelter of the Most High” and “the shadow of the Almighty” for the Father entrusted His office of fatherhood to Joseph who served as the protecting shelter and hiding shadow of God the Father for the most part of Jesus’ terrestrial life. This is especially shown to be the case in how it is through Joseph that the providence of the Father saved Jesus from Herod’s plot to kill him.[2]

Jesus Tramples the Serpent

The words of Psalm 91, “the serpent you will trample under foot,” applies first and foremost to Jesus. This is undoubtedly connected with the oft’ quoted passage in Genesis, “he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel,” (Gen 3:15) which is attributed to Jesus who defeated Satan on the Cross whereon his heel was bruised from bearing the weight of His body.

Mary Tramples the Serpent

Yet because the Hebrew pronoun הוּא can also mean "she" (i.e. Gen 29:12, Ex 2:2 etc.) this passage from Genesis is also rightly translated as, “she shall bruise your head, and he shall bruise your heel,” and is thus attributed to Mary, who in cooperating with Jesus in the Redemption, as Co-Redemptrix, crushed Satan under her feet from the moment of her immaculate conception by the redemptive power of Christ working retroactively. Hence Psalm 91, “the serpent you will trample under foot,” can also be read through a Marian lens.

In spirit Our Lady was there with Jesus in the wilderness, working to affect the crushing of Satan’s influence from the hearts of men in union with Her Son who manifestly began to carry out His trampling during those forty days and nights in the wilderness.[3]

Joseph Tramples the Serpent

Yet there’s a third slant of Genesis 3:15 drawn from the Septuagint which literally translates as follows: “he shall watch against thy head, and thou shalt watch against his heel”. The root word τηρέω—appearing here in the future indicative active 3rd person sing. and 2nd person sing.—can be translated as ‘he shall keep/guard/observe/watch over’.

It is here that we can see how Genesis 3:15 and Psalm 91 also apply to Joseph; albeit in an inferior way compared to Jesus and Mary, but in an exalted and unique degree nonetheless. For Joseph is the one who kept long watch against the wiles of Satan, guarding the Divine Child against Herod, and in a broader way, against untimely publicity by keeping locked away in his heart the truth of Jesus’ divinity. Thus by shielding Jesus under the wings of his paternity, Joseph trampled the head of the serpent like an eagle so does with its pinions.

Joseph Present with Jesus in the Wilderness

Being God, Jesus didn’t need Joseph’s aid to overcome Satan’s snares in the wilderness, and by this point, in His humanity—as a mature man who had shed the dependency of childhood—Jesus no longer relied on Joseph to carry out the protective role which was vital in his formative years. Yet He came straight from Nazareth, from under the protective shelter and hidden shadow of Joseph. Then to the Jordan where His Sonship was proclaimed by the Father; and then into the wilderness, where He would have keenly felt the absence of His Beloved Mother, and above all of Joseph who had recently passed away.

Thus during these forty days and nights Jesus would have not only have looked eagerly to the future in what lay ahead, nor on the present of carrying out His reparations, but He would have spent at least some time reflecting on His time with Joseph, communed with Him, and would have offered thanks to His Father, through Joseph, for being His protecting shelter and hiding shadow.

Abiding in the Shelter and Shadow of Joseph

We ourselves live in a state of wilderness—a land of exile scattered with snares on every side. Even our very souls have their own desert regions—barren areas in need of the rain of grace—where sins, attachments and imperfections abide like various serpents and scorpions. We become particularly aware of this during the desert like season of Lent in which we participate in our Lord's desert trial. Yet unlike Jesus, we need help to overcome “the snare of the fowler,” and Joseph has been given to us as our efficacious helper, our watchman and protector in this regard.

The one who practices a devotion to Joseph, not merely by acts of piety which are accidental to true devotion, but by an interior disposition of reverence and trust in Joseph and his intercession, imitating him in silent adoration of our Lord in union with Mary, truly “dwells in the shelter of the Most High” and “abides in the shadow of the Almighty” and can gladly say with Jesus in the wilderness, in the face of the serpent’s wiles and the scorpions of one’s self-deficiencies, “My refuge and my fortress; my God, in whom I trust.”

[1] Ephraim the Syrian, Commentary on Tatian’s Diatessaron, 4.4-5, as translated in Arthur A. Just, Jr., and Thomas C. Oden eds. Luke, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, New Testament III (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsityPress, 2003), 73.

[2] “But by the providence of the Father the child escaped the plot. For Joseph heard a warning from heaven and took the child and its mother and fled into Egypt, since Herod was seeking the life of the child.” Methodius, Commentary on the Apocalypse, 12.3-6, as translated in William C. Weinrich and Thomas C. Oden eds. Revelation, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, New Testament XII (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsityPress, 2005), 73.

[3] “But why did Christ need to fast? The Father slays the sin in the flesh by his body. He kills the motions of the flesh in us.” Cyril of Alexandria, Commentary on Luke, Homily 12, as translated in Arthur A. Just, Jr., and Thomas C. Oden eds. Luke, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, 73.