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.