“Isn’t this the carpenter’s son?” (Mt. 13:55). How many times have we heard this phrase from the Gospel? And we might have been tempted to hear it merely as a mundane description used by Jesus’s enemies. The word in Greek, tekton, however, can be translated anywhere from “builder,” “workman,” and more exactly “carpenter” or “craftsman in wood.” The reference, here, is immediately aimed at Joseph of course, the husband of Mary and the earthly father of Jesus. But used in the Gospel by Matthew, it can/must also be understood in a deeper manner, referring to God the Father, who is nothing less than the Master Builder and Artificer of the universe, aka the Divine Architect. Since Jesus is both son of Joseph (by adoption) and God the Father (by eternal generation) he is doubly “son of the tekton.” Thus the resonances between these two ‘fathers’ in Jesus’s life, and the Gospel’s use of word tekton (carpenter) should not missed, because there is here to be found a treasure-trove of truth and wonder.
The Jews threw down this epithet “carpenter’s son,” here, with a healthy dose of condescension, if not contempt. Because in the ancient world (not unlike today) a tekton was seen as performing a particularly lowly vocation. His work requires mundane physical labor, and especially callousing the hands. This went against both the Greek ideal of leisure for philosophy and the Jewish ideal of devotion to the Torah/Scriptures. The perfect man in their worlds should not lower himself to such menial (and degrading) tasks, for this would keep him from the highest pursuits of the mind (Greek) and the law (Jewish), respectively. Or as I’ve heard a former catholic priest once say, “these hands were made for chalices not callouses.” Today, there is also a strong antipathy toward the physical trade crafts, (aka blue collar work), in favor of any other form of modern employment. But this just goes to show how much Jesus was coming at things from a ‘different level’ than his or our contemporaries—from a divine level—of understanding the cosmos. His Father is the Master Builder of the world. Nevertheless, in using the phrase “carpenter’s son,” the Jews make a confession of Jesus heavenly father without knowing it—typical Gospel poetic justice and whit.
But there is much more for us to learn here. Minimally, a craftsman is a worker in wood. In the ancient world, wood was understood as a living, fabric-like, material uniting heaven and earth in a warp-and-woof cross/stitch pattern. Thus wood was a sacred and quintessential symbolic material for building a living space/structure for man-in-the-world. Unlike stone (earth itself), wood is a plant, thus it breathes air and stands between heaven and earth, like man; it eats and drinks; and grows in stature; it is fruitful and multiplies; as a plant it is also pliant; it is flexible and forgiving. It can bend and break; But it can also take a lot of abuse. It can suffer, even bleed. Most importantly, it can die. Once a tree dies, it is often lifted/hoisted up, and placed in a cross pattern (aka post and beam) and built into a living space for man. So wood is the matter/material of choice for craftsmen and carpenters, and they would have it no other way. Carpenters love wood.
The symbolism is obvious now, yet still deeper than we can fathom or describe at this point. But such is the case with all traditional symbolism, understood from a metaphysical point of view, and in relation to divine revelation. The symbol of wood, therefore, is nothing less than a revelation from God to man about how the world works and how it supposed to be stitched together in cross pattern with heaven itself. Preeminently, it is revelation about man’s task on this good green/garden earth full of trees. Man himself is a revelation of God, the very image of God (who unlike the plants and animals) actually builds a order (Greek: cosmos) out of confusion (Greek: chaos). Furthermore, carpentry is itself a revelation of how God has designed the world to fit together. It is an invitation into the mind of God as Craftsman. [For a book on this theme check out: Divine Craftsmanship: Preliminaries to a Spirituality of Work, by Jean Hani.]
“My Father is working until now, and I am working… Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing. For whatever the Father does, that the Son does likewise. For the Father loves the Son and shows him all that he himself is doing. And greater works than these will he show him, so that you may marvel” (John 5:17-20).
This is truly meant to make us “marvel.” For Jesus has the knowledge (Greek: gnosis) of the Master Builder himself. He has been watching his Father work, as only a son can, from eternity, outside time and space. Likewise, metaphysics (outside-physics) and symbolic cosmology is nothing less than the language (logos) of divine architecture itself. The sacred Scriptures provide some of the blueprints/designs revealed in words, or more precisely, letters and numbers. Nevertheless, studying the Scriptures is not enough in itself. One must also, do and work. One must somehow sacrifice the flesh. And this is the mystery of the Incarnation unique to Christianity. There is even the connection between working with the hands, sacrificing them through callousing, scarring, and even bludgeoning (an inevitable reality for carpenters), and the “piercing of the hands.” Is it not striking that nothing is more characteristic to a carpenter than driving nails through wood? As the Venerable Fulton Sheen comments:
Every tree with its branches at right angles to the trunk had reminded [Mary] of the day when a tree would turn against its Creator and become His deathbed. Nails on the floor of a carpenter shop, crossbeams against a wall, arms of a youth stretched out against the background of the setting sun after a day’s labor, throwing the shadow of a cross on the opposite wall—all these were advance tokens of this dread hour. — The World’s First Love, 257.
Even after the Resurrection, it is by the nails from the wood that Jesus is recognized.
“Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” (John 20:19-21)
This physical sacrifice of the flesh and the mystery of the Carpenter’s Son are thus one and the same, and part of the hidden wisdom (Greek: Sophia) of God revealed in Christ Jesus. We have much more to learn from this divine lesson, not least of which is how to understand our unique vocations in the world, and more precisely how our physical labor is supposed to be a ‘working with God’ to bring (stitch) heaven and earth closer together. This is the mystery of a tree; this is the craft of a carpenter. And this is the call upon every Christian’s life; the physical cross/cruciform symbol upon our flesh and blood bodies.
I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies bas a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship (Rom. 12:1).
Quite the opposite of getting in the way of spiritual knowledge, physical labor/suffering is actually the path thereunto, provided and exemplified by the Divine Flesh Worker himself. And carpentry, so far from being merely a lowly vocation of little worth (whatever the ancient and modern world may say), is a unique invitation into the mind of God himself.
Lastly, Saint Joseph himself, as the human (adopted) Father of Jesus on earth, provides his own angle for understanding this revelation as carpenter, husbandman, and father. He is also the known as the patron saint of workers (all of which we will explore elsewhere). But whatever our labor here on earth, as Christians we must learn to understand our work always and only in relation to the master builder himself, so that we imitate his work more and more. For “Unless the LORD builds the house, those who build it labor in vain” (Psalm 127:1)
* Painting: William Holman Hunt (1827-1910) “The Shadow of Death” (1873) Oil on canvas Pre-Raphaelite Located in the Manchester City Art Gallery, Manchester, England The painting depicts Jesus as a young man working as a carpenter, stretching his arms after sawing wood. The shadow of his outstretched arms falls on a wooden spar on which carpentry tools hang, creating a “shadow of death” foreshadowing his crucifixion. His mother Mary is depicted from behind, gazing up at the shadow.