Let us now add our lamentation, and let us shed our tears with those of Jacob, bewailing Joseph, his memorable and wise son. For Joseph, though enslaved in body, preserved his soul in freedom, becoming lord over all Egypt. For God grants his servants an incorruptible crown.
~ Oikos for the Matins of Holy Monday
Holy Week has finally arrived for Orthodox Christians like myself. It is full of services with beautiful hymns that truly enchant the hearer not only with their musical excellence but also with their deep lyrics as well. The passage above, however, is not a hymn but is to be read. Tonight, on Palm Sunday evening, we have a matins (morning prayer service) for Holy Monday by anticipation. On Holy Monday we commemorate two things, the withering of a fig tree at the command of Christ and the patriarch Joseph from the book of Genesis in the Old Testament, who I would like to reflect upon here.
All throughout Great Lent, leading up to Holy Week, the Orthodox lectionary changes from an Epistle reading and a Gospel reading to three readings from the Old Testament, slowly working our way through the books of Isaiah, Genesis, and Proverbs simultaneously. Thus, on Friday we read our last passage from the book of Genesis, which includes the following:
And when Jacob had finished commanding his sons, he drew his feet up into the bed and breathed his last, and was gathered to his people.
Then Joseph fell on his father’s face, and wept over him, and kissed him. And Joseph commanded his servants the physicians to embalm his father. So the physicians embalmed Israel. Forty days were required for him, for such are the days required for those who are embalmed; and the Egyptians mourned for him seventy days. (Genesis 49:33-50:3)
The story of Joseph is fascinating and takes up the last quarter of the book of Genesis (though one might consider it a further extension of the life of Jacob, his father, also known as “Israel”). Joseph is the favorite son of his father. His brothers are jealous of him and plot to kill him, but at the last minute are persuaded by Judah—the more righteous of the brothers—not to kill him (Reuben was also against it, but was not part of the persuading as he was absent). Instead, they sell Joseph to some slave traders, fake his death, and bring his coat, covered in goat’s blood, to their father Jacob, who laments the (seeming) death of his favorite son. Thus the oikos: “let us shed our tears with those of Jacob, bewailing Joseph, his memorable and wise son.” And this week we mourn the death of the Son of God, but are reminded today by the commemoration of Joseph that there is more to the story.
Joseph, as it turns out, ends up by Providence to serve in the house of Pharoah in Egypt and eventually become his most trusted adviser, wisely counseling the Egyptians to store up grain so that they can survive a coming famine. Thus, despite taking on the role of a servant and being betrayed by his brothers (and later falsely accused of a crime), Joseph rises up to save all the world (as Middle Eastern people would have put it), being seated at the right hand of the king. In case the reader is unfamiliar, this is almost precisely the same narrative as that of Jesus Christ—Jesus, to Christians, fulfills what the story of Joseph signified as a shadow takes on the shape of the one who casts it. That is, the story of Joseph is like a shadow cast in the form of Jesus Christ.
So, now we are close to Holy Week: Jesus has twelve disciples; Joseph was one of twelve brothers. Jesus will be betrayed by Judas and deserted by the twelve; Joseph was betrayed and abandoned by his brothers. Jesus will be falsely accused of a crime and unfairly tried; the same happened to Joseph. Jesus will be crucified and descend into Hades, the realm of the dead; Joseph will be thrown in a dungeon deep beneath the earth. Jesus will rise victorious from the dead and save the whole world; Joseph was freed from prison and saved the whole world from famine. And so on.
The passage from last Friday’s lectionary is interesting to me because it relates to the set-up to Holy Week: Lazarus Saturday and Palm Sunday. When Jacob (Israel) died, he was embalmed according to Egyptian custom. Interestingly, we are told that “[f]orty days were required for him, for such are the days required for those who are embalmed.” And this passage is read right at the end of Great Lent, at the end of our forty days of fasting in preparation for Holy Week and Pascha (Easter). The lectionary and liturgies are subtly inviting us to ponder our lives from this biblical perspective already: in our forty days of fasting, we prepare for our burial with Christ, as if we were being embalmed too.
Furthermore, the passage records that “Joseph fell on his father’s face, and wept over him, and kissed him” and that “the Egyptians mourned for him seventy days.” On Lazarus Saturday, we read that after Lazarus had died and Jesus had revealed to Martha that he is the Resurrection and the Life, Martha gets her sister Mary, who goes to Jesus as follows:
Now Jesus had not yet come into the town, but was in the place where Martha met Him. Then the Jews who were with her in the house, and comforting her, when they saw that Mary rose up quickly and went out, followed her, saying, “She is going to the tomb to weep there.”
Then, when Mary came where Jesus was, and saw Him, she fell down at His feet, saying to Him, “Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died.”
Therefore, when Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her weeping, He groaned in the spirit and was troubled. And He said, “Where have you laid him?”
They said to Him, “Lord, come and see.”
Jesus wept. (John 11:30-35)
Here we see Mary and those with her weeping and Jesus weeping as well over the death of Lzaraus, having just been reminded of how Joseph and the Egyptians wept for Jacob.
But this story does not end there:
Then Jesus, again groaning in Himself, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone lay against it. Jesus said, “Take away the stone.”
Martha, the sister of him who was dead, said to Him, “Lord, by this time there is a stench, for he has been dead four days.”
Jesus said to her, “Did I not say to you that if you would believe you would see the glory of God?” Then they took away the stone from the place where the dead man was lying. And Jesus lifted up His eyes and said, “Father, I thank You that You have heard Me. And I know that You always hear Me, but because of the people who are standing by I said this, that they may believe that You sent Me.” Now when He had said these things, He cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come forth!” And he who had died came out bound hand and foot with graveclothes, and his face was wrapped with a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Loose him, and let him go.” (John 11:38-44)
Lazarus, we are told, was “bound hand and foot with graveclothes, and his face was wrapped with a cloth.” He is, in a sense, mummified. Yet though he had died, at the command of Christ he rises again.
We are told that for this reason some of the leaders of Jesus’s own people begin to plot against him, which they planned to do when he came to Jerusalem for the Passover. Thus one day later, today, we commemorate Palm Sunday, the entrance of Christ into Jerusalem, the beginning of Holy Week, the beginning of his passion.
We have been preparing for this for forty days. We have tried our best to be like Lazarus, dead to this world lying in evil. Now we have one last week, like Joseph, to preserve our souls in freedom, as the oikos puts it, with the hope that “God grants his servants an incorruptible crown.” Faithful through suffering, preserved by Providence: this is the model of Joseph, and this is how he was shown forth to be in the likeness of Christ, a shadow of his brilliance, of which Christ invites all of us to partake.
May I be strong this week in my fast, persevere through whatever suffering may come, lean upon the hand of God, and remember that even those who come only at “the eleventh hour” share equally in the joy of the Lord (see Matthew 20:1-16).