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.

Wednesday, 8 March 2017

24 Hours for the Lord

 The purpose of this article is to provide information on 24 Hours for the Lord and links concerning the event, along with the official poster for the year.

24 Hours for the Lord is an initiative of the Pontifical Council for the Promoting of the New Evangelization encouraged by Pope Francis since 2014 to be held annually in every diocese in the world on the Friday/Saturday preceding the Fourth Sunday of Lent. It is to involve 24 consecutive hours of Adoration of the exposed Blessed Sacrament, in accompaniment with extended periods -ideally 24hrs- of the Sacrament of Confession (Reconciliation) being made available.

I write this in 2017 and hope to update this article each year with the relevant information. Please comment if you've better or updated information regarding this wonderful and spiritually enriching Sacramental and communal initiative.

Official Information on the Event

Official information for the holding of the "24 Hours of the Lord" is found bellow, drawing from two documents by Pope Francis. By no means is it explicitly spelt out in these documents - although this could be stated elsewhere (please let me know if you do) - that this is an annual occurrence - but it is irrefutably expressed in the latter document quoted.

Misericordiae Vultus, Bull of Indication of the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy,
(11 April, 2015).

The initiative of “24 Hours for the Lord,” to be celebrated on the Friday and Saturday preceding the Fourth Week of Lent, should be implemented in every diocese. So many people, including young people, are returning to the Sacrament of Reconciliation; through this experience they are rediscovering a path back to the Lord, living a moment of intense prayer and finding meaning in their lives. Let us place the Sacrament of Reconciliation at the centre once more in such a way that it will enable people to touch the grandeur of God’s mercy with their own hands. For every penitent, it will be a source of true interior peace.

Misericordia et misera, Apostolic Letter, 20 Nov, 2016.

A favourable occasion for this [Sacrament of Reconciliation] could be the 24 Hours for the Lord, a celebration held in proximity to the Fourth Sunday of Lent. This initiative, already in place in many dioceses, has great pastoral value in encouraging a more fervent experience of the sacrament of Confession.

The above is written at the end of last year ('The Year of Mercy'), and makes the assumption that the 24 Hours for the Lord is and will be a continuing event.

I haven't come across an explicit mention of the annual nature of the 24 Hour for the Lord either by Pope Francis, or the Pontifical Council for the Promoting of the New Evangelization. Yet the above reference in Misericordia et misera is satisfactory for the annual endorsement of the event. An event which remains a worthwhile event even without such endorsement, but which is made a prerogative all the more so, because of it.
Still, it isn't hard to find all over the internet the opinion that the 24 Hours for the Lord was intended to be an annual event from the beginning. For example, the official website of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of England and Whales states the following (2014):
24 Hours for the Lord is for the whole Catholic Church and one of its main aims is to create a powerful tradition.
It's hoped that the initiative will be held annually on the Fourth Sunday of Lent.
(Source here).

24 Hours for the Lord this Year: 2017

The official website of the Pontifical Council for the Promoting of the New Evangelization makes the following statement:

Following the enthusiasm of past year, the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization proposes the 24 hours for the Lord also for the Lent of 2017, on March 24-25.

(Source here)
The theme of this year's event: "I desire mercy" (Mt 9:13).
So simple answer: it's on this year, and all dioceses, and even parishes, are encouraged to participate in this prayerful initiative of the New Evangelisation which has the Eucharist as its source and summit.
A truth expounded by Pope Saint John Paul II in Ecclesia Eucharistia (2003, 22).
From the perpetuation of the sacrifice of the Cross and her communion with the body and blood of Christ in the Eucharist, the Church draws the spiritual power needed to carry out her mission. The Eucharist thus appears as both the source and the summit of all evangelization, since its goal is the communion of mankind with Christ and in him with the Father and the Holy Spirit.

Official Poster for the 24 Hours for the Lord: 2017



Wednesday, 15 February 2017

Infirmus: A Recasting of Henley's Invictus

The following famous poem is by William Ernest Henley called Invictus (Latin for 'unconquerable' or 'undefeated') I will share it here before proceeding.

Out of the night that covers me,
      Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
      For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
      I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
      My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
      Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
      Finds and shall find me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
      How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
      I am the captain of my soul.

In reading again William Ernest Henley’s poem Invictus, I was at once in marvel at the raw brilliancy of the poem—powerful, emotive, and an expression of the resilient human spirit in its fierce and mesmerizing autonomy. Yet at the same time, not to slight the plight of health and sincere expression of Henley that arose from this state, I was struck by how false I perceived the poem to be—I am the master of my fate / I am the captain of my soul.

These words have the illusion of truth, and they resonate because they touch something at the core of us, but they only touch upon a fragment of the truth whilst missing the point completely. These very lines above all, and the entire poem upon closer inspection, seemed to embody the complete antithesis of the Truth which is revealed in the Scriptures, and which flips human rationale on its head (or on its feet, as it flips a disordered thinking the right way up!) —and the truth is this: that true nobleness, power and glory resides not in the triumphalism of human strength over weakness, but in human weakness yielded to God, which because of the Incarnation and Redemption of Christ on the Cross, has become the locus for divine transcendence. An indwelling or habitation, if you will, for the Divine Glory, Strength, and Power; as opposed to a stepping stone to mere human conquering which may have its day, and can speak fine heroic words, but which is ultimately vain as it will perish in the grave.

It is true that having free will, and thus the power to choose, we are in some ways the masters of our fate and the captains of our souls. Yet not really, because we are creatures, and therefore contingent beings upon a higher power—and so such mastery is mere illusion at best. It is conditional, and therefore not true mastery at all. After all, we are not gods, but are vulnerable creatures prone to sickness, deception, and death, which one fell swoop of mother nature can crush at the blink of an eye. So much for gods.

The very notion that freedom and autonomy is fulfilled by means of asserting our mastery, and taking the helm of the ship of our soul as its captains, is perhaps the greatest lie of all. A lie which Satan fed to Eve so long ago, and which he perpetuates to this day. Since if we are creatures with a mastery which is illusionary and subject to stronger forces which can rip the wheel from our hands and toss us about, to and fro, eventually unto the grave; then asserting this mastery by becoming the captain of our souls will bestow no more than a contingent, temporary and imperfect freedom and autonomy—a freedom and autonomy subject itself, to at the very last, sink in the final storm.

Thus in the truest sense, this isn’t freedom or autonomy at all. For a finite and limited captain cannot steer a ship into infinite and unlimited horizons. He can try, but he'll die trying in vain. An infinite and unlimited captain is needed for this—and by yielding oneself, one’s ship, to such a captain, one will sail on the waters of true and unbounded liberty, and will be truly autonomous, because one’s free will which is limited in its scope of realisation, once yielded to this captain, will share and acquire the limitless scope of this captain’s unbounded will. This captain is none other than God Himself, and happy is the soul who freely bows her head to His mastery, the mastery of His Divine Will, which sets one free, simply at the cost of pride—a brilliant price to pay.

The following poem adopts the form of Henley's Invictus, and not so much parodies but recasts his poem as it were in the Light of the Gospel. The poem, titled Infirmus, is inferior to Henley's, but it rings more true.


Within this night that covers me,
      Dark as cavernous Pluto’s pole,
I thank my God—sweet loving He,
      For frail my vulnerable soul.

On stage where plays the vehement scenes
      I’ve stood bold, trembled, cried aloud.
Under the thorny crown and beams,
      My head bloody, but freely bowed.

Beyond this field of tears and shame
      Shines through the pain an untouched dawn.
And thus the years like moon that wane,
      I gladly welcome as the morn.

It matters not how thin the gate,
      How black with sins that judging scroll;
I’ve yielded up to Him my fate,
      He is the captain of my soul.