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The testing St Joseph endured

Archbishop J, why St Joseph in Lent?

What is at the core and inner heart of Lent? I believe we have a clue in the Gospel of the First Sunday of Lent: “The Spirit drove Jesus out into the wilderness, and he remained there for 40 days, and was tempted by Satan” (Mk 1:12ff).

Lent is a time of testing, a time when we are taken into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit to be tempted by Satan.

To understand the testing of Lent, we need to understand the roots of temptation. Let us go back to the garden, in Genesis 3, where the serpent engages the woman in a conversation that betrays his insidious plan.

He strikes at her fragile consciousness, proposing there was no harm in eating the fruit. In fact, it was good for opening the eyes, to make you like God, knowing good and evil (Gen 3:5). Satan is the enemy of human nature, the accuser who afflicts the human in numerous ways.

Led by the serpent, the woman saw “the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom” (Gen 3:6). This is the triple concupiscence that is communicated by original sin: lust of the flesh, lust of the eye and pride of life. This is the three-headed monster that afflicts us and then accuses us.

Lust of the flesh is all the bodily desires of the human—the appetites: food, pleasure, comfort etc. Lust of the eye refers to material possessions—the nice things of this world. Pride of life is concerned with arrogance and feelings of superiority—our believing we are better than others.

Together, they corrupt the human and create much disturbance in the life of the disciple.

The gospel text from St Mark also says Jesus was tempted. This may seem strange since we know Jesus was sinless. He did not have concupiscence, the affinity for sin. Yet, He was tempted.

This is not strange; Adam and Eve did not have concupiscence when they were tempted. But they fell and what a fall they had.

Temptation is in three stages. First, the thought enters the mind—just a thought. Then comes the desire, where concupiscence and temptation meet. Traditionally we speak of this stage as entertaining the thought.

It is not just that a thought emerged; you are actively pursuing the thought and deriving pleasure from it. The third stage is acting on the thought. This is done to derive pleasure or benefit.

Lent is the time when we resist concupiscence. By fasting we resist the lust of the flesh, through almsgiving we resist the lust of the eye and by prayer we resist pride of life. Each of the spiritual disciplines work individually to combat the testing of Satan: they work together to transform the soul.

 

St Joseph, a man who was tested

Have you ever been tested to your core—tested by losing what was so important to you? If you have experienced this, you will begin to understand St Joseph. Imagine the scene of Mary telling St Joseph that she was pregnant, and the child was God’s. No matter how a woman puts it; it cannot be a pretty picture. Everything St Joseph held most precious was taken from him at that moment.

Fasting: Mary was special, there is no question about it. The tradition believes that she had already taken a vow of virginity, according to Numbers 30:10–15. For this to stand, St Joseph would have had to agree. Here we see the fasting of St Joseph, not just 40 days of self-denial of food, but a lifetime of denying himself sexual pleasure by choosing to be the chaste spouse of Mary.

Could you imagine how painful the news of her pregnancy? If they had made perpetual vows for celibacy before marriage, which part of the tradition believes then, the pain would have been even greater. The disappointment would have been gut-wrenching, and the temptation would have been full blown. “You really want to take that woman as your wife”?

In the face of temptation, Joseph’s actions were noble: “When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife” (Mt 1:24).

Prayer: We know from the Scripture that Joseph was a man of prayer. Twice it is recorded that Joseph was in communion with God. Twice he had a dream which changes the outcome of his life and the life of the Holy Family. Twice God spoke to him and Joseph obeyed the voice of God and saved Mary and child from grave harm.

The ultimate fruit of prayer is the bending of the heart to God’s will. This Joseph did in a very dramatic and public way.

He reversed his decision about divorce and in doing this he demonstrated he was a man of Torah. That is a man who meditates on the Scripture deeply and allows God’s word to be “a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path” (Ps 119:105). It is his depth of prayer that allows him to live through the challenges that he faced.

Almsgiving: If Joseph had divorced Mary, she would have been without protection as an unmarried woman and the child an orphan. By taking Mary as his wife, he chooses to give to Mary and the child all of his possessions. He is not doing stewardship or tithing by offering a 10 per cent of his income. He is giving all to God through Mary and Jesus. This is an act of utter generosity. We know that he was poor, for at the time of the Purification, he only gave a pair of doves or two young pigeons (Lk 2:24).

By giving his all, what does Joseph receive in return? That which was most precious to God, His only begotten Son. By giving Mary and Jesus a home, Joseph becomes head of God’s household. This we will explore next week.

 

Key Message:

St Joseph was a man of prayer, fasting and almsgiving. Through these disciplines he configured his heart to God.

Action Step:

Remember to listen to the daily podcast and enter into this time of consecration to St Joseph. Renew your commitment to prayer, fasting and almsgiving.

Scripture Reading:

Mt 1:20–24

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