CHAPTER VI. THE FLIGHT INTO EGYPT.
'Surge, et aooipe Puerum et Matrem ejus, et fuge in Egyptum.'
Of the four Evangelists, St. Matthew alone relates the Adoration of the Magi and its consequence, the Flight into Egypt.
The visit of the three kings, as they are called by tradition, Gaspar, Melchior, and Balthasar, is full of import, but it belongs to the history of Joseph only so far as he witnessed it. Yet we may consider what he must have thought when he saw their camels coming up the steep street of Bethlehem, bearing the treasures of the East, and when he saw their Ethiop slaves bringing in their offerings of homage and adoration, as an old poet says:
'Myrrh, incense, gold, as to man, God, and king.'
And what must have been his feelings when he saw the venerable kings or sages in all their gorgeous apparel doing homage to the Holy Child in His Mother's arms! He is always represented as standing behind them, while the Star sheds a supernatural light through the open roof of the poor dwelling. He must have heard from the attendants the wonderful story of their following the miraculous star for many days and through many countries, till it led them to Jerusalem; and how, when they inquired of the great and learned in Jerusalem, they lost the light: and how, when they set out again according to the directions of the holy Scriptures which foretold the Christ, they again saw and followed it. Perhaps they told Him themselves in the exultation of their joy, how they had spent their nights in watching the cloudless sky of Arabia, and worn away their days in fruitless calculations; and how their long labours were repaid by the silent answer to their desires, the sign of a star in the sky which they had studied by astronomy; and how their long journey and anxious doubts were repaid by finding the expected Messiah, through that hard-earned knowledge, which the shepherds, without toil or delay, had gained from the voices of angels. The Magi might repeat the prophecy of Balaam, the ancient prophet of their country, 'Orietur stella ex Jacob,' and Joseph might see that they fulfilled the prophecy in Psalm lxxi. 10, 'Eeges Arabum et Saba dona adducent,' and that of Isaiah lx. 6,' Omnes de Saba venient, aurnm et thus deferentes.'
It seems as if the adoration of the Magi, paid as it was with the honour given by the world to a king, and with all the pomp and circumstance of earthly homage, aroused the enmity of the evil world. It conveyed a deep spiritual mystery, and its outward glory brought down the usual persecutions of wicked angels and men upon the defenceless Holy Family. It was the usual reaction of human events from the throne to the hovel. The bare suspicion of the mystery was enough to rouse the terrors of earth and hell. "While Joseph was at peace in the obscurity of Bethlehem, the court of Herod was in arms, and the mandate had gone forth from the king to slay all the infants in Bethlehem. The star which had guided the Magi to Christ was misused by the king to direct him in his crime, and his knowledge of the holy Scriptures only added to his guilt. So blind was his fury, that according to a heathen writer, says Bossuet, one of Herod's own children perished in the massacre; and yet the only child he sought was the only one which escaped. The Holy Family were far away before those cries of sorrow were heard around the tomb of Kachel, which had been prophesied of old, and which were yet remembered when St. Matthew wrote.
While this danger was imminent Joseph slept, and his sleep was mystical. Three times in sleep he received the commands of God by the mouth of an angel. The powers of his mind were suspended, his senses conveyed no intimation of the coming changes, and his thoughts were not occupied with designs. When man does nothing, God acts. Man does but interfere with and impede His work. 'Stand still, and see the salvation of God,' was the command given to the Israelites on the shore of the Bed Sea; and thus it was when an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph, in sleep, and said, 'Arise, and take the Child and His Mother, and fly into Egypt, and be there until I shall tell thee. For it will come to pass that Herod will seek the young Child to destroy Him.'
It has been said that these words formally conferred on Joseph the paternal office which he fulfilled towards the Son of God. St. Alfonso from St. John Damascene, tells us that God gave to him the love and vigilance as well as the authority of a father; and Bossuet explains thus, what he calls the beautiful theology of Psalm xxx. 15.: 'God does not form the heart like the other parts of the body. It is in His hands as soft clay, which He moulds and fashions like the potter. He gives to some a heart softened by love, and when He withdraws love the heart is hard. When He sends the Holy Spirit the heart becomes that of a child. While Saul kept his father's flocks his heart was changed to that of a king, and the heart of the rebellious people was moved to obey him.' Joseph had the heart of a father because he filled the paternal office, as Jesus had the heart of a son. Jesus was as an orphan, says Bossuet, and it seemed as if He could already have said, 'Deus meus, quid dereliquisti Me V Joseph guarded His infancy, and was a father to Him when His Father in heaven gave over to him His own office. How much more real a paternity is this than the natural love which we share with the animals for their offspring! They have watchfulness, care, tenderness, self-sacrifice, even to the loss of life; God gives them this natural love. The supernatural love is a greater gift.
Bossuet says, when Joseph received his office he received also a father's heart. He had the affections of a father as well as a husband. Men adopt sons; but Christ adopted a father, and this journey to Bethlehem was the first act of Joseph's ministry.
Who can say to what an intense degree his heart had been made capable of appreciating Him who was to be his foster-son % Perhaps he foresaw the future sufferings of the stable and the crib, and the flight into Egypt. He felt as a father would have done; for holiness does not weaken, but refines and deepens, the feelings with which God has endued our nature and implanted in us, perhaps with a view to this First-born of creation; for as the mother's heart is formed on the type of Mary's heart, so the affections of a father's heart are types of what Joseph was to be to Jesus. He felt these affections as no father or husband ever felt, yet he obeyed the will of God as it was manifested through ordinary means; and like Mary in after-years at the foot of the Cross, he was ready to sacrifice those very feelings to the great work of the reparation of God's honour, and the redemption of the world.
The angel now bade Joseph take the child and His Mother, and guard Him in Egypt till he was told to bring him back. As God gave him a spiritual paternity, so He gave the heart of a son to Jesus. He clung to Joseph for aid and for protection. He followed him henceforth and obeyed him. Till now Joseph had not known tribulation; he had been perplexed and harassed, but there had been no danger, no mortal fear. Not that Joseph feared as men do, for as a saint he feared only to offend God. His trials began when first lie came in contact with Christ, and this one differed in degree rather than in kind. His fear was not like that of ordinary men, with weak faith and misplaced hopa and misguided love. He sees indeed the difficulties and sufferings that await him. He bears Christ with him, and that will increase the danger though it consoles him in his hasty flight. He must rise instantly, without time for preparation, with perfect detachment from all he has, and perfect abandonment of all to come. He must dwell in a foreign and a hostile land. He must act and labour and suffer, and he must see the Divine Infant and His Blessed Mother suffer also. But he had Christ with him; he could not have the anxiety of doubt, or repugnance, or disbelief. He adored the designs of God over the Bedeemer of the world. He concurred in them, though he did not understand them. He could not fear the rage of Herod, for what was it to the Son of the Most High, and to those who dwell under the shadow of His wings I but he grieved to see Him rejected by His own nation and driven among the heathen—to see Him who came to lay down His life for His people persecuted by them as a usurper. Joseph felt all the humiliation of his flight, and not the least of this was that he should be the instrument—that God should appear to men as in need of his weak instrumentality to secure Him from the threatened danger, and that this might lead even those who knew them to doubt that He was the Messiah, whose divinity was becoming more and more deeply veiled. Then again, what a model of obedience was God pleased to give the world! for it is the only virtue the Son of Man could at first practise. The command too was not given by the Eternal Father to His Son, but through an angel to Joseph—an angel who was indeed high in the heavenly court, yet inferior to our Lady; and was not Mary, that most exalted of pure creatures, the fittest to receive and obey the message 1 No; Joseph, the lowest in dignity ofallthatHoly Family, was to communicate His command, and the others were to obey.
St. Francis in his Conferences of Sales, says in his own sweet way: Could not our Lord Himself have whispered in the ear of His good father St. Joseph, 'Let us go into Egypt; we shall stay there so long.' But He would not speak before His time was come. Could not He have inspired it into the heart of His Mother or His father better than to leave it to the charge of an angel 1 No; for Gabriel had charge of the Annunciation and of the Holy Family, and our Lord chose to be governed by him. And why does the angel speak to Joseph instead of to our_ Lady i and why is she not offended 1 They all know we must take the messages of God from those whom He appoints.
And might not St. Joseph, if he had been less perfect in obedience, have hesitated at the command itself? It might have seemed unreasonable that God should have to fly before man. And again, must he have no time to prepare, no means of providing for their long abode in a strange land, nor even know how long he is to remain there t No; the command is peremptory and without explanation; the obedience is simple and without a reflection or reply.
It is so common with us all to be placed in circumstances when we must act in blind obedience, that we may take a merely natural view of the angel's command. St. Joseph must have felt that the honour of beholding the adoration of the shepherds and the Magi was too great for him, and now he might feel the dangers and difficulties were also too great. How could he take the Immaculate Virgin and the Hope of Israel into a heathen land? Simeon had foretold troubles, and they were come. He shrinks not to accept them willingly. Some saints have earned their cross by detachment: they have left their families and died a voluntary death to all that makes life dear, that they might receive a hundredfold here, and hereafter life eternal (Mark x. 30). Joseph, like the beloved disciple, bore the keener pangs of anxiety for the treasure intrusted to his charge: he shared the fatigues, the shame, the privations of the Holy Family; the crown of thorns already pierced his head, and the nails his hands and feet; his eyes were Winded with tears, and his heart was faint within him through divine love. None could allay his thirst or give him ease upon the cross, for it was that of Christ.
Joseph had been in glory. He had wondered that he should be the guardian of a mystery, the father of a king. He had to recover by flight his appointed state, his hidden life, and a new phase of the work of God opened before his eyes. The warning of Simeon had awakened the first thought that persecution is the lot of all who belong to Christ; but the same truth is spoken now by an angel.
The flight of Joseph, like everything else, is typical. We pass through the world urged on by outward things; but if we take the Child and His Mother with us, we are safe. We are sometimes kings, and sometimes beggars; in Canaan, and then in Egypt; in prosperity or sorrow; in pleasant places with joyous friends, and then alone, dark, dull, and confined ; it is a different surrounding, but the person is the same. All change outside, like the scenes of a theatre. To go forward is the law of creation. Move onwards, pass through these things, is the necessity of time. To Egypt now in fear, then to Canaan in uncertainty; but all is right at last, for the will of God is done.
The command of the angel showed precipitation and fear. The Son of God came in infirmity and subjected Himself to the troubles of human life; and He must hide in Egypt. Eise, fly, was the command; as if terror had possessed heaven before the message spread it on the earth. And Joseph rose from sleep to obey. Others might have asked how they should go as pilgrims on a long and dangerous journey to Egypt, where they had no relations or friends; a strange and barbarous nation, and a country whence his ancestors had been rescued by such repeated miracles. Well might Egypt be the type of the world, as Canaan is the type of heaven; and ordinary men know that the escape of the people of God from Egypt does but faintly shadow out the difficulties of each soul which is rescued from a perishing world, as St. Arsenius was from the imperial court by the words, Fly, be silent, and be calm. Joseph must have seen another difficulty in the command. How could the Messiah leave His people, of whom He said afterwards: I am not sent but to the house of Israel 1 How could the Son of David leave Canaan for Egypt 1 How leave Bethlehem and Jerusalem, now in full expectation of their Saviour? How carry the Hope of Israel from the Temple of God to the abode of devils? But Joseph reasoned not, nor gave a thought to the disappointment of his own hopes, nor to the change from adoring worshippers to negligent or scornful heathens. He must give up all that God Himself had given, and abide in ' terra deserta et invia et arens;' a land where the heat of the desert, and the barren and pathless sand and thirsty solitude, figure but too plainly the spiritual journey of the soul in her time of desolation. Yet it is said of the Spouse of Christ (Cant. iii. 5),' Who is this that comethup from the desert, flowing with delights, leaning upon her Beloved? And again (Hosea ii. 14), 'I will allure her and lead her into the wilderness, and I will speak to her heart; and she shall sing there according to the days of her youth, and according to the days of her coming up out of the land of Egypt.'
Joseph knew the Scriptures, and he knew their mystical sense; he knew that the glory of the world is the desert of the soul, and that the earthly deserts he had to pass were rich in heavenly graces. That very night, says Gerson, he arose and collected his poor tools, that he might work for his family; and he set out on a journey of 400 miles by unknown roads, and then over pathless sands, to foreign cities, inhabited by heathens, where the servant of God is more lonely still; a stranger dependent on charity; day by day exposed to the heat of the summer and the cold of the winter, and to the attacks of wild beasts and robbers. Mary takes the Child in her arms, and gathers up their mean garments and utensils; and they go forth as pilgrims. Painters represent the Holy Family, perhaps from Some tradition, Mary riding on an ass, and carrying the Holy Child; Joseph walking beside her, leading the ass and carrying his tools. And there is a legend, that in crossing the desert they were attacked by robbers, and that their captain, moved by the ineffable graces of Mary, yielded to the inspirations of pity, and let them pass in safety; and that that captain was afterwards the penitent thief rewarded for this one good deed by the grace of conversion, and a good death. But who can imagine the anxieties felt by the guardian of that Holy Family; the hurry and confusion of a journey at night, and in secret, and in danger from the soldiers of Herod; the uncertainty of getting food and shelter; the unspeakable responsibility of directing the flight without a guide or guard? All rested on Joseph. One only of these cares might harass and oppress a man who has with him a treasure; but what of Mary, the tender, the spotless, the beautiful Virgin; the Child, whose birth and office were known only to himself and to Mary 1 He must protect the Euler of heaven and earth; he must beg for the support of Him in whose hands are all created things. Yet his faith failed not, nor his patience. His fortitude bore him up through a long series of monotonous days, which brought neither help nor comfort. There seemed to be no voice, nor any that regarded. His was the courage of endurance in obscurity, neglect, and delay. His whole life in Egypt was to be hidden to man, and to himself, and to the sensible intercourse with God; but the Christ and His Mother were with him, and it sufficed his faith to know that he was told' to take the Child and His Mother, and fly into Egypt, and be there till I tell thee.' Though the holy Scriptures are silent, and St. Matthew only says, that at the command of the angel Joseph arose, and took the Child and His Mother by night, and retired into Egypt, and was there till the death of Herod; yet a single glance at the map will show ns what that journey was. The mountains of the Amalekites almost separate Judaea from the wilderness of Paran. A narrow plain extends from Gaza along the coast of the Mediterranean, and joins the sandy deserts which extend over the peninsula on the north of the Eed Sea; so that the Holy Family, flying by night and defenceless, must have crossed the wilderness of Sheir and that of Paran, before they could reach Goshen; a journey difficult even to caravans. We are not told whether Joseph took the route inland by Hebron, where it is said that Adam was created, and where Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were buried in the cave of Macpelah; or whether they went by Beersheba, where Hagar and Ishmael nearly perished by thirst in the wilderness of Sheir; or whether they went by Jerusalem and the castle of Emmaus to Gaza, once a rich and stately city, where Samson had carried the gates on his shoulders, and pulled down the idol temple on the Philistines; but Alexander had taken the city, and it lay in ruins, on the edge of a desert, where nothing grows but a few palm-trees. The camels do not cross it in less than six days; and how did St. Joseph pass it without the help of angels 1 We are only told that Joseph guided the Holy Family to Egypt, and .we know that the troubles and dangers of the journey disappeared like the pillars of sand which rise so often on the horizon of those deserts, and seem to thicken and approach so as to overwhelm the traveller, but which melt away in the wind, like dreams at daylight.
It is thought that the Holy Family went to the city of Pelusium, at the mouth of the westernmost channel of the Nile, where in the ninth century Bernard, a Saxon monk, saw a church dedicated to our Lady.
Pelusium. was then no doubt divided, like the rest of the great cities of Egypt, between the gross idolaters who worshipped the serpent and the crocodile, and the sceptical philosophers of the Alexandrian schools. There were, besides, the depraved and worldly, and shameless immorality was publicly allowed. The cities were all governed by Boman officers, for the country had been conquered by them not many years before, and the obelisk of Cleopatra was still standing, and bore the name of that queen, so celebrated not long before for luxury and beauty.
But there were other recollections which lead us back to the great chain of type and prophecy which runs through the history and teaching of the Old Testament; for St. Matthew applies to this passage the words of Hosea, 'Out of Egypt have I called my Son;' and again, 'Israel is my son, and I have loved him.' Before the Advent all revelation was full of types, and Kohrbacher says, from Bossuet (Elevations), that this refers literally to the departure of the people of Israel, but figuratively to the Son of God, of whom they were the figure. Egypt during the famine was their refuge, and became their prison, and God delivered them from their prison to place them in the land of Canaan. Egypt was also to be the refuge of Christ, and God would in time take Him out of it. The patriarch Joseph and the Saint were driven from the land of Promise by the sins of those who dwelt in it, to Egypt, the type of the Gentile world; and in after-times the sin of the Jews themselves, which led St. Paul (Actsxiii. 16) to say, 'Lo, we turn to the Gentiles.' It seems as if this world were a mere shadow of greater things, and we ourselves are as in a dream, doing or else hindering the work of God, and our thoughts go back like those of Joseph to the great patriarch who was sent down from Canaan to preserve life, to be the saviour of the Egyptians as well as of his brethren. Joseph must have remembered how he called down his family to enjoy the temporal prosperity of Egypt, as our Lord calls us to follow Him, that we may have peace. 'Venite ad me, et ego dabo vobis omnia bona ^Egypti, et comedetis medullam terrse.' The patriarch, and now the saint, placed his family in the land of Goshen, where stood Eameses, between the Nile and the Red Sea. The city had been built like Pithom by the Israelites, and both were store cities to Pharaoh; and here the miracles were afterwards done by the rod of Moses in the field of Zoan or Tanis, the most ancient and the royal city of the Pharaohs, on the next branch of the Nile beyond Pelusium. Joseph the patriarch was not forgotten. The Pyramids he had built at Noph, or Memphis, are standing to this day near the present Cairo; and they now show, in the castle of Cairo, the ruins of Joseph's well, with thirty large pillars of Theban stone, and railings painted with gold and azure, and Pharaoh's hall, and a room called after the steward of Joseph. They show Joseph's prison also, and Joseph's granaries. And they show too in old Cairo, in the church of St. Barnabas, a dark chapel, which was once the house where the Holy Family dwelt; but others say they dwelt in a village two miles from Cairo, where they inhabited a square room with a paved floor and a well. They show also a tree which they say was growing there at that time; so that Goshen was the abode of the second as well as of the first Joseph.
The memory of Joseph the patriarch had not checked the idolatry of the Egyptians; and Joseph and Mary, and even Christ, must have beheld them worshipping the crocodile and the ibis. But there was a prophecy that the statues of Egypt should be shaken ; andBossuet says that it was now fulfilled, and that the idols were shaken at the presence of Christ, and that the devils who were worshipped in Egypt trembled because the time of their expulsion drew near. But it is impossible to imagine the solitude of the Holy Family in Egypt. Hebrews among idolaters and philosophers, with none of their own kinsfolk and nation, strangers among foreigners; they must have concealed their ineffable purity and their dignity in the sight of God, while they carried on their trade and earned their living among their neighbours. It is said that Joseph made ploughs and yokes, and that our Lord carried the work to those who employed Joseph, and that He laboured with Joseph's tools while preparing to cultivate the hard and barren heart, and place His easy yoke on the children of men. They dwelt unknown, and degraded, and unobserved; but in less than one hundred years St. Mark was Bishop of Alexandria, and the Church of Egypt was soon afterwards glorious in the Fathers of the Desert. Even then the Holy Family was a light shining in darkness, and St. Francis de Sales says that St. Joseph exercised the heroic virtues of virginity, humility, constancy, and courage.
In that Holy Family he beheld as it were the seeds sown of that religious life which was afterwards established in the Church, to bring before the eyes of the world those counsels of perfection which can be followed only by those who withdraw from worldly sympathies. St. Joseph may be regarded as the finished type on which it was to be formed. Mary and Jesus Himself loved that same simple hidden but intensely heavenly life. But St. Joseph being, as it were, nearer to our weakness, serves as a faithful mirror in which we gaze at the resplendent beauties of the divine life. Exteriorly his is a life of unceasing, humble, painful labour, not with a view of amassing riches, nor of gratifying sensuality, but purely to satisfy with scanty measure the bare necessities of nature, and with the remainder to relieve the poor. But this labour is accompanied with, unceasing prayer; and while his hands are busy, his heart is fixed on his God, and the intervals of labour are given to contemplation. His nights are often passed in prayer, which he learns from his divine foster-son. "What must have been that prayer offered up in company with Jesus and Mary, not as now in spirit, but in corporeal presence! How did he grudge the little time snatched from it for the repose of his wearied body! and when the rising sun recalled him to his daily labours, did he not, like St. Anthony, find that its bright rays came too soon to recall him to earth. Have we not here a faithful image of the life which so many thousands afterwards were to lead in those same deserts? and can our dull minds, material as they are, dare to think that the abode of seven years in Egypt was time lost 1 It had been foreshadowed by seven years of plenty and seven years of famine. It was a precious seed-time, which was to produce an abundant harvest, not only peopling earth with living angels, those Fathers of the Desert, of whom it might be said that there were giants in those days, but with a spiritual progeny, which was to overflow the whole earth, and enrich the Church with the beautiful varieties of a life of perfection, which are to adorn her to the end of time. Has not Jesus, though yet a helpless Child, already begun the great work for which He quitted Heaven, namely, the sanctification and so the salvation of men? and as in all His works He proceeds with a holy deliberation, first preparing the ground, and
watering the soil, and forming the model on which the future plantation will be trained. We have seen Joseph a model of other states and duties, but here he is especially the model of religious and of those interior souls who, though outwardly in the world, seek inwardly that solitude of heart in which God dwells alone.