The Temptation of Joseph

I've been reading W.H. Auden's "For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio" for some of my Advent reflections. 

I wanted to share with you a remarkable section from the peice, "the Temptation of Joseph."

To start, many Protestants might not be aware of the temptation of Joseph. In Orthodox iconography of the Nativity, beyond Mary and the Baby, you will see on the edge of the icon an image of the temptation of Joseph. Joseph is talking to an old man, but the old man is really the devil, who is placing doubts in Joseph's mind about Mary's pregnancy. You can see the temptation of Joseph in the icon I've shared here in the bottom left corner. 

Traditionally, Joseph represents all of humanity, how each of us have to make a decision about the birth of Jesus. We have our doubts and have to answer: Is this baby truly the Son of God, conceived of the Holy Spirit? That is our trial. 

In "For the Time Being" Auden takes this moment of temptation in a fresh and surprising direction. 

It has been long observed how Mary and Eve stand in a relationship in salvation history. Where Eve introduces sin into the world, Mary reverses the curse by becoming the Mother of God, bringing salvation into the world. This relationship is evocatively captured in a widely shared image this time of year, of Eve hanging her head in shame with Mary reassuring her as she places her hand upon her womb. The snake tangles around Eve's leg, but its head is crushed under Mary's heel.

Following this parallelism, Auden uses the temptation of Joseph to make a connection between Adam and Joseph.

Specifically, one of the notorious things Adam does to Eve is throw her under the bus, blaming her, when God confronts him in the garden. In the hands of Auden, Adam's sin against Eve symbolizes all of the sins of men against women throughout history. Similar, then, to how Mary overturns the sins of Eve, Joseph has to stand in his moment of perplexity and doubt to reverse the sin of Adam against Eve. In Adam, men blame and stigmatize women. Men don't believe women. Joseph's trial, then, is that a man must believe a women. And in believing Mary, Joseph overturns the sin of Adam.

As Auden writes, "For the perpetual excuse / Of Adam for his fall--'My little Eve, God bless her, did beguile me and I ate'... / you must now atone, / Joseph, in silence and alone."

And Auden describes the many ways men mistreat, use, and lie to women, the sin of "the impudent grin... / That hides a cold will to do harm."

All this sin is gathered and falls upon Joseph. As a man, Joseph must endure the trial of being himself marginalized and excluded: "To-day the roles are altered; you must be / The Weaker Sex whose passion is passivity." More: "You must learn now that masculinity, / To Nature, is a non-essential luxury." 

The temptation of Joseph is passing as a man, and for all men, this trial of marginalization and doubt. To reverse the sin of Adam against Eve, Joseph must accept his peripheral role and believe Mary. Joseph here faces his #MeToo moment. 

As Auden writes:

Forgetting nothing and believing all,
You must behave as if this were not strange at all.
Without a change in look or word,
You both must act exactly as before;
Joseph and Mary shall be man and wife
Just as if nothing had occurred. 

And Joseph, showing men the way, passes the test. In the Christmas story, Mary heals Eve and Joseph heals Adam. And so we, with Auden, petition this season: 

"Joseph, Mary, pray for us."

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