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The Holy Family’s Flight into Egypt

Our journey of faith is not made alone.

By: Jeanne Kun

The Holy Family’s Flight into Egypt: <em>Our journey of faith is not made alone.</em> by Jeanne Kun

The story about Mary and Joseph taking their newborn child and fleeing to Egypt to escape Herod’s wrath has much to teach us about our own journey of faith.

When they had departed, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Rise, take the child and his mother, flee to Egypt, and stay there until I tell you. Herod is going to search for the child to destroy him.” Joseph rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed for Egypt. He stayed there until the death of Herod, that what the Lord had said through the prophet might be fulfilled, “Out of Egypt I called my son.” When Herod realized that he had been deceived by the magi, he became furious. He ordered the massacre of all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had ascertained from the magi. Then was fulfilled what had been said through Jeremiah the prophet:
“A voice was heard in Ramah,
sobbing and loud lamentation;
Rachel weeping for her children,
and she would not be consoled,
since they were no more.”
When Herod had died, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, “Rise, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the child’s life are dead.” He rose, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go back there. And because he had been warned in a dream, he departed for the region of Galilee. He went and dwelt in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He shall be called a Nazorean.” (Matthew 2:13-23)

In this unsettling story, Joseph and Mary must go a way that is not of their own choosing. Nonetheless, it is the right way, a way directed by God to rescue their child from danger.

Joseph, visited by an angel as he dreams, is warned to take his family and flee to protect the baby from Herod’s murderous intent. Many times already Egypt had been a place of refuge for God’s people (Genesis 12:10; 46:4; 1 Kings 11:40; Jeremiah 26:21). Now, at God’s command, the frightened family heads into this foreign land—perhaps to the city of Alexandria, where there was a large Jewish colony—and into an uncertain future, leaving behind all that was familiar and dear to them.

Willing obedience and unquestioning service are the secrets of Joseph’s life. Although he speaks no word, they are the clear message he leaves us. Mary trusts in her husband’s care, and silently follows him into exile. How quickly Simeon’s words have come to pass that Mary would be pierced by sorrows.

Any new parents can empathize with the plight of the holy family. Instead of taking delight in the home they had lovingly prepared for their baby, Joseph and Mary take to the road, departing by night in fear for the life of their child. This family in distress could well be invoked as the patron of those millions of refugees in misery who flee political oppression, ethnic genocide, war, or famine. Before he ever had a real home or knew a homeland, God-on-earth becomes a homeless, displaced person.

Herod the Great brought culture, prosperity, and magnificence to Judea with his enthusiasm for constructing great cities and fortresses. He even refurbished the temple in Jerusalem. Nonetheless, his thirty-three-year reign was one of terror. He executed anyone he suspected of being a threat to his power, including his own family members (one of his wives and two sons, according to the Jewish historian Josephus). Almost seventy years old at the time of Christ’s birth, Herod was not ready to give up his kingship. It was a small matter to him to kill a few infants in a “preemptive strike” to protect his throne.

Imagine what pain Mary carried with her to Egypt—and throughout her whole life—knowing that innocent children suffered martyrdom because of her son.

Matthew links the sorrow of the mothers in Bethlehem to the grief experienced by Rachel, as described by the prophet Jeremiah. As the wife of the patriarch Jacob, Rachel wept for her “children,” the tribes of Israel who were taken into exile in Babylon (Jeremiah 31:15; Matthew 2:18). Jewish tradition locates Rachel’s tomb either on the outskirts of Bethlehem, where she gave birth to Benjamin and died (Genesis 35:16-20), or near Ramah, in the territory of Benjamin, (1 Samuel 10:2), a region that knew repeated devastation and sorrow in Israel’s history (Isaiah 10:29; Hosea 5:8).

In the face of such horrendously evil deeds as King Herod’s, we can only trust in God and take comfort in his promises: “God’s dwelling is with [us]…. He will wipe every tear from [our] eyes, and there shall be no more death or mourning, wailing or pain….” (Revelation 21:3-4).

“There is anguish for us, twenty centuries later, in thinking of the slain babies and their parents,” according to Catholic apologist Frank Sheed, who wrote:

For the babies the agony was soon over; in the next world they would come to know whom they had died to save and for all eternity would have that glory. For the parents, the pain would have lasted longer; but at death they too must have found that there was a special sense in which God was in their debt, as he had never been indebted to any. They and their children were the only ones who ever agonized in order to save God’s life. (To Know Christ Jesus)

All the stopovers on the Messiah’s itinerary that Matthew mentions in this account were planned and guided by the will of God. Born in Bethlehem to fulfill the prophecy of Micah (5:2), Jesus spends the next phase of his life in Egypt. In this, we recall the events of the Exodus, when another cruel king—the Egyptian Pharaoh—ordered the execution of all newborn Israelite males. Moses was saved by God’s providence (Exodus 1:8-16, 22) and later led his people out of Egypt. Now Jesus, spared too by God’s protection, will come as the “new Moses” to bring spiritual deliverance to God’s people. By quoting the text, “Out of Egypt I called my son” (Hosea 11:1), Matthew identifies Jesus as God’s Son and also suggests that Jesus is the personification of the people of God. Just as God called Israel out of Egypt in order to create a special people for himself, so he called Jesus out of Egypt into the land of Israel in order to create a new people.

Finally, Jesus returns to Nazareth in a now familiar pattern—at the angel’s word to Joseph in a dream. Another prophecy about the Messiah’s origins and identity is then fulfilled: “He shall be called a Nazorean.” Pope St. John Paul II reflected on the quiet years ahead in his encyclical Redemptoris Mater:

When the Holy Family returns to Nazareth after Herod’s death, there begins the long period of the hidden life. She “who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled” (Luke 1:45) lives the reality of these words day by day. And daily at her side is the Son to whom “she gave the name Jesus” . . .
During the years of Jesus’ hidden life in the house at Nazareth, Mary’s life too is “hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3) through faith. For faith is contact with the mystery of God. Every day Mary is in constant contact with the ineffable mystery of God made man. (17)

The flight into Egypt and return to Nazareth give us an image of the lives of Mary and Joseph and their child as a journey of faith, with hearts set on God, “on the way” with his promises. As we so often experience ourselves, it is sometimes a difficult and challenging journey, but one with a sure Guide as our companion.

Jeanne Kun is the author of numerous books, articles, and Bible studies.