Today’s gospel records how the holy family had to flee into Egypt when Herod was about to massacre the Innocents in an attempt to obliterate the Christ as a perceived rival to his throne. This reference is only in St Matthew’s Gospel but it is a very secure reference within the Tradition of the Church. Here is what St Matthew says:
13 Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, saying, “Arise, take the young Child and His mother, flee to Egypt, and stay there until I bring you word; for Herod will seek the young Child to destroy Him.”
14 When he arose, he took the young Child and His mother by night and departed for Egypt, 15 and was there until the death of Herod, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying, “Out of Egypt I called My Son.”
Notice how St Matthew sees the flight into Egypt as the fulfilment of Hosea’s prophecy in Chapter 11 and verse 1. This may initially strike us as strange since in the prophecy the Lord is referring to the Exodus of his people out of Egypt, not into Egypt. However it is appropriate here to see the flight as a fulfilment of prophecy because in the new context of the coming of the Messiah, Israel is not a place of freedom from bondage in Egypt, rather Egypt has become a place of security and refuge from imminent danger to God’s Son in Israel. Everything in history is reversed. Herod becomes the new Pharaoh, but now he himself is actively slaughtering the firstborn. So it is that the Holy Family become refugees beyond Herod’s jurisdiction yet still within the relative safety of Roman imperial highways and cities.
We might pause to reflect here on the significance of our Lord being himself a refugee from political violence. It means of course that He is no stranger to being hunted down and dispossessed. As so often will be the case in His future ministry, Christ stands with and for those who are cast out and who have no fixed abode. As it is recorded in the Gospel of St Luke Jesus declares: “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head.” (Luke 9:58). For now His family find a place of refuge for Him in Egypt.
There are some sources outside the New Testament that give more detail of this hidden time in Egypt before the Holy Family return to Palestine after the death of Herod about four or five years later. Some of these traditions are, frankly, colourful and quite fanciful; for example, palm trees along the route bend their boughs for their fruits to be plucked and pagan idols fall to the ground and are smashed as the Holy Family passes by. Further examples consist of characters who are added to the scene, evidently much later than in the original tradition. Prominent amongst these are Salome who continues her role as a nurse and even an encounter with the two thieves who will later be crucified alongside Christ. One additional character whose place in the story seems more secure is the saint whom we commemorate today alongside the Mother of God and St Joseph, namely St James, the brother of God. Tradition recounts he was the elder son of St Joseph’s first marriage and stepbrother to our Lord. He is often portrayed in Byzantine icons as accompanying the Holy Family on their journey. St John the Baptist with his parents is also said to have joined our Lord in Egypt and the picture of the early years of these two families together has often been portrayed in Renaissance western Christian art. Then there are the places, now holy shrines, in Egypt where the Holy Family are said to have rested and eventually stayed. The church of St Sergius and Bacchus in Cairo probably has the strongest claim to have been built on the site of our Lord’s temporary home.
One thing that these extra details, some fanciful, some probable, do is to leave us with a much more realistic portrayal of the situation and circumstances of our Lord’s exile in Egypt in those early years, even if imagination is lending a hand here:- no matter, we can appreciate what it was like. Being on the run in fear for your life and reliant upon the mercy of the nations to which you flee is an experience which many in this congregation have also shared. Even those who have not been refugees or asylum seekers can relate to the feelings of insecurity and danger which homelessness, unemployment and even an unfriendly neighbourhood can engender. Our Lord is no stranger to such situations and feelings even if he was only a toddler when such things happened to him. Moreover from the perspective of eternity as God, his great compassion and unbounded mercy leads him to suffer voluntarily in solidarity with all such victims of violence, including of course in the context of this feast, the Massacre of the Innocents, a bloodbath that Christ together with the Forerunner St John the Baptist both so narrowly themselves escaped.
Finally, this gospel today leaves us with no uncertain impressions of just how difficult and dangerous the birth of Christ actually was, how precarious the coming of our Lord actually was in the context of the prevailing political, social and religious conditions of the time. Yet behind all of this is the providential care of God who willed to bring to fruition his great plan for the salvation of all. That should encourage us to keep the faith when the going gets really tough for each one of us, as sometimes it will.