Flight into Egypt by Giotto di Bondone
If I were writing the story a disadvantaged family in the Middle East, I might start the story with the flight to escape a murderous despot. Then, I would do a flashback. The flashback would tell the story how this family became a target of the despot and why they had to flee.
So, let me begin. A family of three, father, mother, and an infant, received a warning that the brutal despot, King Herod-the-Great was about to swoop down on the town of Bethlehem with a force of mindless soldiers. The soldiers were ordered to kill every male child two years old and younger. Sadly, this warning went only to this family. You see, their child was born under unusual circumstances and there was a particular need to protect it. Off this young family goes. They leave in the middle of the night with only the few possessions they could carry. They depart the town of Bethlehem and embark into the southern desert headed for Egypt.
To get to this point, however, we have to go back six months to the night when angels sung. That night young woman, her name is Mary, experienced the pangs of childbirth. Only her fiancé Joseph was in assistance. Nevertheless, it was a joyous event. Shepherds appeared out of the darkness saying they had seen a vision of angels that told them a child had been born in a stable in the town. The child, they said, was to be the savior. Mary was moved by their visit and wondered why angels would have been seen telling the men of the child’s birth. But, she was busy tending the new born. She had to nurse him and keep him warm and clean until they could arrange for a permanent location. Joseph, busy cleaning up after helping Mary give birth stood in confused awe as these men came out of nowhere and wanted to rush them away. It was bad enough he and his bride had to spend the night in a stable much less entertain people they did not know.
Mary learned that somehow, beyond explanation, she would be the mother of the one who was to come to relieve the people of their plight.
I have to go further into the background of this story, so the reader or listener will understand why this young family had to flee into the desert in the dead of night. Back in their home village, Nazareth, Mary, and Joseph had been active in the Jewish Messianic Movement, expecting the redemption of Israel and the overthrow of the tyranny of Herod’s rule and, the oppression of Rome. Mary learned that somehow, beyond explanation, she would be the mother of the one who was to come to relieve the people of their plight. She understood the child she was bear would uproot the proud in the conceit and provide for the needy.
Joseph and Mary had been a part of a network of dispersed Jews who prayed for and expected the Messiah to come at any time. That network stretched from Alexandria in Egypt, the Levant, Damascus in Syria, and up into Asia Minor. Thus, when word came to flee, Joseph knew to escape to friends in the Egypt.
I have gotten ahead of the story again.
This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.
Forty days after the birth of the child, a boy, the couple took their infant to the temple for Mary’s purification as was the custom. After all was done in accordance with the law, a prophet named Simeon came up to them and took the child into his arms and declared in that child he had seen the Savior and then Simeon* blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.” If that were not enough to confuse Joseph and Mary, an elderly woman named Anna seconded Simeon’s assertion. It was an exciting day, certainly was not a time for dread. However, Simeon said her son would pierce her soul. Boys do have a tendency to worry their mothers. Unlikely then that she took it to mean nothing more than he would challenge social authority. She probably did not expect he would one day return to Jerusalem and be executed by sadistic, powerful men.
Days and weeks pass without incident in the story. Joseph and Mary
remained in Bethlehem for several months, about six probably. Joseph found a permanent place for his wife and the child and he and Mary watched him grow and develop in a well-disposed boy. Joseph, being a skilled craftsman, had no trouble finding employment. He planned to stay in Bethlehem to make his living. Nazareth, despite the fact it was on a trade route to the sea, was not a good place to earn a living. It was a slum, a backwater of a place that people passed through to larger towns nearby.
Unknown to Joseph and Mary, three astrologers from Mesopotamia appeared out of the desert and went immediately to Herod’s palace in Jerusalem. The astrologers reported observing a star they believed portended the birth of a new king for Israel. Herod had his own soothsayers look up information about a predicted king and he found out that the prophesied threat to his authority was to be born in Bethlehem. Any threat, real or imagined, sent Herod into a murderous rage, but only after the king instructed to astrologers to go to Bethlehem to search for this newborn king. The astrologers did, found the family, left gifts, and heard the angel warn them not to return to Jerusalem. This was why family had to flee. Up to the arrival of the three astrologers, Herod-the-Great had no notion that a potential rival to his power loomed on the scene. No matter it was an infant, barely a year old, he had murdered wives, children, cousins, uncles, and anyone else threatening is reign and rule.
Joseph warned in a mysterious way, packed up his family and left to find friends and fellow Jews in Egypt. It would have been good had he warned some others in Bethlehem, but let us assume he had no time to give such a warning. He could hear the tramp of military boots coming down the road and they had to go at once. Herod’s thugs arrive and murder the male children two years old and younger. The lament of mothers as the blood of their sons filled the gutters of the little town’s streets could be heard in heaven, but the world, oblivious to their cries, was accustomed to the powerful murdering children.
While shepherds had seen visions of angels filling the night sky, most people of the first century did not know that Mary, and her infant child Jesus, along with Joseph were on a course that would alter world history.
The times were dark in Israel in those days. Hope for a Messiah remained, but it was a faint hope. While shepherds had seen visions of angels filling the night sky, most people of the first century did not know that Mary, and her infant child Jesus, along with Joseph were on a course that would alter world history. The baby in Mary’s arms was more than Mary and Joseph probably imagined and certainly more than the people of Israel expected.
The preface, or maybe the first chapter, of my book ends. Of course, it is the story of the flight into Egypt as told in the Gospel according to Matthew; with information about the early months of Jesus’ infancy from the Gospel given to us by Luke. While my opening section is a story filled with mystery, angels, and divine messages coming during sleepless nights, it would be truly unique if were not the story of the world even today. It is the story of children dying at the hands of despots, fearful parents fleeing, and the cries of mothers filling the air as their children suffer. Scenes of such despair are seen nearly daily in television news reports. Families flee into nearby countries; they flee into Europe, and other parts of the world to escape terror, famine, and death.
Today, as it was in those days now two thousand years ago, the world is turbulent. When we pay attention, we notice there are Herod-the-Greats killing children, displacing families around the world. There are Herod-the-Greats seeking power for its own sake. There are those who keep the world in fear because they gain status and power from fear. Today, the world is reeling from the flight of refugees. Is there in that mass of humanity there is someone who will finally make a positive difference as the infant in Mary’s arms did so long ago?
Hopefully, some great person who will make a positive difference in our world will emerge from the dispossessed children.
I do not presume that a new Messiah is among the dying children of the oppressed in today’s world, but it is possible that among the dead children a scientist who might have cured a deadly disease was among them. Or, a talented poet has died because his or her parents could not quickly flee the tyranny of oppression. Hopefully, some great person who will make a positive difference in our world will emerge from the dispossessed children. A person who will invent effective ways of cleaning our atmosphere of carbon dioxide or cleaning our oceans of deadly acids, or a person who will find a way of caring for the sick that will change lives around the world.
…we are all refugees. We are strangers on an alien planet. We are looking for a way out.
In some way, we are all refugees. We are strangers on an alien planet. We are looking for a way out. Unlike the Holy Family, there is no Egypt to which to flee. Instead of finding a haven, most of the world flees to an ephemeral hope. Some flee into witlessness, ignoring the world around them, but the world finally catches up. Some escape by blaming others for their misfortune, but they are never relieved of their discomfort. Some flee into hedonism. They believe seeking pleasure and numbing the mind with drugs is the answer, but the human organism finally fails and forever lost. Some flee into cultic religion, hoping some guru will relieve them of their oppression, but any cult founded on one personality will. There are all sorts of ways to flee.
The only way to face reality, however, is to escape into the arms of the God Jesus proclaimed, a loving God who gives strength to face the unknown, the oppressor, and the world’s evils. In this flight into the arms of the loving God of Jesus nothing changes other than those who seek and are restored in faith. As Jesus will later preach, the righteous will be persecuted, but theirs is the kingdom of God. The world remains the same, but the refugee is strengthened. Reinforcing Each refugee is knowing that the unconditional love of God extended is the same love the refugee extends to his or her companion migrant. The Holy Family fled to Egypt alone, but in the companionship of the Body of Christ refugees flee into the arms of God together.