Friday, March 05, 2021

The Patriarch Joseph in the Liturgy of Lent

The liturgy of Lent gives a particularly prominent place to the story of the Patriarch Joseph being sold into slavery by his brothers, as recounted in Genesis 37. It is traditionally read as the Epistle of today’s Mass (verses 6-22), then repeated in a longer form (verses 2-28) in the Office of the following Sunday, the third of Lent, as the readings of the first nocturn. Other stories from Genesis such as the Creation (chapter 1), the Flood of Noah (chapters 6-8) and the Blessing of Isaac (chapter 27) are read at one point in the Mass and another in Office, the last of these within the same week, but Joseph’s is repeated within only two days.

The Office reading is part of the regular cursus from Genesis which starts on Septuagesima Sunday; the Matins responsories for the third week of Lent are taken from the subsequent chapters, in which Joseph goes to Egypt, becomes Pharaoh’s right-hand man, and ultimately saves his family from the great seven-year famine. In the Mass, the story is chosen specifically to be read on a Friday, looking forward to the Passion of Christ on Good Friday, because of the way it was interpreted by the Church Fathers.

Joseph’s dreams of the heavenly bodies and the sheaves of wheat (Genesis 37, 6-11); Florence Baptistery, ca. 1225. (Image from Wikimedia Commons by Sailko; CC BY 3.0. At this link, you can find images of excellent quality, in high enough resolution to see the individual tiles, of this extremely beautiful and complex mosaic ceiling.)
Already at the very beginning of the third century, Tertullian explained the sufferings of Joseph as a prefiguration of Christ’s Passion.
Joseph himself was also a figure of Christ, on this point alone … that he suffered persecution at the hands of his brethren, and was sold into Egypt, on account of the favor of God, just as Christ was sold by Israel, by his brothers, when He was betrayed by Judas. (Adversus Judaeos 10)
For St Ambrose, Joseph’s status as the youngest of Jacob’s children also makes him a figure of Christ, who comes as the last of God’s emissaries, like the son in the Parable of the Vineyard, which is read as the Gospel on this day, Matthew 21, 33-46. In his treatise On the Blessings of the Patriarchs (11, 48), which explains the blessings imparted by Jacob to his sons in Genesis 49, he writes:
My son, he says, is younger. Truly younger, because he was the last born. And the Scripture says “Jacob loved him, because he was the son of his old age. (Gen. 37, 3). This also refers to Christ; for the son of God, through the child-bearing of the Virgin Mary, came late, shining upon a world grown old and already failing, and as the son of old age according to the mystery took a body, even He that before the ages was always with the Father. (Ambrose’s citation of Genesis 49, 22, “filius meus adolescentior”, derives from the Septuagint reading of a famously difficult passage.)
The tunic of Joseph, which his brothers dipped in goat’s blood in order to make Jacob believe that he was killed by an animal, is then read as a symbol of the body which Christ took upon Himself in the Incarnation, so that He might undergo the Passion. The tunic was “bloodied”, as the body of Christ was bloodied, again looking forward from this Friday to Good Friday. St Ambrose says explicitly in his Exposition of the Gospel according to Luke (5, 107), “The tunic of Joseph was bloodied unto the likeness of the Lord’s body.” The Mass lectionary, however, ends with Ruben stopping the other brothers’ plan to kill Joseph, presuming that the hearers know how the story continues.

Jacob Receiving the Bloodied Tunic of Joseph, by Jan Lievens (1607-74); (public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)
Lent is, of course, also the period in which the Church prepares the catechumens to receive the Sacrament of Baptism on Easter night, and many of the traditional readings for the Lenten Masses are chosen with a view to their instruction. For St Augustine, Joseph prefigures the entry of the gentiles into the Church in Baptism; commenting on the words of Psalm 80, 6, “He ordained it for a testimony in Joseph, when he came out of the land of Egypt,” he says:
“Joseph” is translated as “increase.” You remember, you know that Joseph was sold into Egypt: (this is) Christ passing to the nations. … Joseph pertains more to the nations, and therefore (is called) “increase”, because “many are the sons of the desert, more than of her than hath a husband.” (Isaiah 54, 1; Augustine understand the “sons of the desert’ to be the gentiles, and the sons “of her that hath a husband” as the sons of Israel.) … When Joseph went out from the land of Egypt, which is to say, the people multiplied from Joseph, he was sent through the Red Sea… The passing of the people through the sea foretold in a figure exactly this, the passage of the faithful through Baptism. The Apostle is my witness; he says “For I would not have you ignorant, brethren, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea. And all in Moses were baptized, in the cloud, and in the sea.” (1 Cor. 10, 1-2) Therefore, the passage though the sea signified nothing else than the Sacrament of the baptized. (Exposition of Psalm 80)
This interpretation of the Passing of the Red Sea is also extremely ancient; the scene appears on many ancient Christian sarcophagi, and the story is read at the Easter vigil in all historical rites.

The Crossing of the Red Sea, depicted on a paleo-Christian sarcophagus, the front of which was sawn off and used as the front of an altar in the cathedral of Arles, France.
In his book specifically about Joseph, St Ambrose explains one of the dreams recounted in today’s Epistle as a prophecy of a different aspect of Christ’s life.
Finally, in the boy the divine grace showed forth, since indeed he dreamed, when he had bound sheaves with his brothers, that it might appear to him in a vision, his sheaf arose, and stood upright; and those of his brothers turned and worshipped his. In which assuredly the future resurrection of the Lord Jesus was revealed, whom the eleven disciples worshiped when they had seen him in Jerusalem… (De Joseph Patriarcha, cap. 2, 7)
The story of Joseph read on this Friday therefore prophesies not only what happens on Good Friday, the Passion, but also looks forward to the Friday of Easter week, when the traditional Gospel is St Matthew 28, 16-20, in which Christ meets the eleven disciples, “and they adored Him.”

In the post-Conciliar lectionary, the story has been retained, but is told through a different selection of verses, removing all but two glancing references to Joseph’s prophetic dreams (3-4, 12-13, and 17b-28). The verses added on to the traditional version of the readings (23-28), in which the brothers sell Joseph as a slave, rather than kill him, are no longer read in the Office, and therefore find a place in the Mass. The traditional Gospel has also been retained, but, like many of Our Lord’s harder sayings, verse 44 has been censored out of it: “And whosoever shall fall on this stone, shall be broken: but on whomsoever it shall fall, it shall grind him to powder.”

One of the most important features of Lent in the Byzantine Rite is the Canon of St Andrew of Crete, an extraordinarily beautiful series of meditations on sin and exhortations to repentance, filled with typological and mystical explanations of Scripture, drawn from both Testaments. The following four tropars refer to the story of Joseph.

tropar I confess to thee, o Christ the King: I have sinned, I have sinned, like Joseph’s brothers of old, who sold the fruit of chastity and of prudence. (The Church Fathers, and Jewish interpreters of the Bible before them, saw Joseph as a model of chastity, because he refused the advances of Potiphar’s wife, and of prudence, because of the way he saves not only his own family, but the whole of Egypt, from the famine.)

tropar The just soul was delivered up by his kinsmen; the one dear (to his father) was sold into slavery, as a type of the Lord; and you yourself, (my) soul, are sold entirely to your evil deeds.

tropar Imitate Joseph the just, and his prudent mind, my wretched, reprobate soul, and be no longer wanton, that dost ever transgress in unreasonable impulses.

tropar If Joseph did once dwell in a cistern, Master and Lord, it was as a type of Thy burial and resurrection; but what such thing may ever I bring to Thee?

Joseph Placed in the Cistern, and Sold to the Midianites; icon by Theodoros Poulakis, 1677-82. modelled on an engraving by the Flemish artist Jan Sadeler. From the Museum of Byzantine Culture in Thessaloniki, Greece.
On Holy Monday, a special commemoration is made of Joseph.

tropar Joseph, making an image of the Lord, is put down into the cistern, he is sold away by his kinsman; famously, he suffereth all things, truly as a type of Christ. (From another Canon of St Andrew, sung at Compline.)

ikos Let us now add lamentation to lamentation, and pour forth tears, weeping with Jacob for Joseph, renowned and prudent, made a slave in body, but preserving his soul free from slavery, that became lord of all of Egypt, for God grants an unperishable crown to his servants. (At Orthros.)

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