Because of an unstable political situation which threatened their child’s life the Gospel of Matthew presents Joseph, Mary and Jesus crossing national borders in order to get a safer life in Egypt. Unlike the desire of many people in the U.S.A. the borders of the ancient Middle East were porous. Egypt was open to the Holy Family.
To protect his reign from a usurper Matthew reports that Herod killed all the male children under age two in Bethlehem. Like the story of George Washington chopping down the cherry tree, there is scholarly question as to the historicity of this narrative. We do know that Herod was the type of ruler who would not have hesitated to uses such methods. But the real question is not whether these events actually occurred – but what are they meant to tell us?
A messenger from God (angelos) tells Joseph to take Mary and Jesus out of their country to be exiles in Egypt. Why Egypt? For Matthew Jesus is the new Moses. Moses came out from Egypt – so in order to fulfill Matthews sense of the prophesy Jesus had to go to Egypt in order to come out of Egypt as prophesied.
It could have been a heavenly messenger or it might have been someone with connections who alerted Joseph to what was about to happen. Joseph needed to flee. To flee safely they would not go towards Jerusalem or to Galilee as might have been expected. So that left heading towards the coast, to pick up the caravan route and on to Egypt to safeguard Jesus from Herod. After a sojourn there another messenger tells of Herod’s death allowing them to return to Israel but then also provides a reason (Archelaus ruling in the Bethlehem area) for Joseph, Mary & Jesus to end up in Nazareth.
I find this story helps us to see Mary and Joseph as flesh & blood people – who fear for the safety of their child, who feel helpless in the face of world events, and even to in them the dogged determination to survive and to provide a better life for their child.
To hear this Gospel story helps us remove Mary & Joseph from two dimensional greeting cards and stained glass windows, and even from frozen scripture texts by hearing that their story has parallels with our stories.
In Matthew’s Gospel I see people who are displaced. And looking around us now
- We see people still displaced from Hurricane Katrina.
- We see people displaced from the multiple disasters in Haiti.
- We see the displacement of men and women from other nations in this hemisphere who come to the US seeking a more stable life economically and politically; safety, education and medical care for their children.
- We see displacement all around us due in large part to the real estate crises over the past several years, and because of the economic upheaval in our own and in the international economy
- Many among us may feel displaced for these or for other reasons and are searching to find God’s presence in the events and occurrences of their life.
That demonstrates that scripture is not some sort of historical fiction for our entertainment but helps inform us on our life journey. We meet through the Gospel these forebearers in faith as human beings with whom we can empathize, from whom we may learn, and who we may emulate in our own search for “God with us” in the midst of the stuff and events of our life.
And may we be able to see in these faces of the displaced (whether domestic or foreign, deemed legal or illegal by law & policy) the faces of the Holy Family and relate and react to them with the reverence and care we might give to Mary, Joseph and Jesus.