The Flight into Egypt – Br. Eldridge Pendleton

Br. Eldridge PendletonJeremiah 31: 7-14; Psalm 84: 1-8; Ephesians 1: 3-6, 15-19a; Matthew 2: 13-15, 19-23

I have been reading Tracy Kidder’s Strength in What Remains, the story of a young Burundian Tutsi who fled for his life to the United States after great suffering and months of running and hiding during the genocidal holocaust that swept through Burundi and neighboring Rwanda fifteen years ago.  Throughout the long months of massacre in which he lost members of his family, friends and neighbors, Deo Gratias, for that is his name, lived in the forest a hunted man, constantly on the run, starving and sick, until a friend and former classmate at medical school (and, ironically, a Hutu, the ethnic group responsible for the slaughter), saved his life by helping him get a visa and a plane ticket to the United States.  Deo arrived in America virtually penniless, and without a job or the ability to speak English.  He barely survived.  Then a series of miraculous encounters involving a former nun, a lawyer, a childless couple and Dr. Paul Farmer turned his life around and enabled him to get a degree from Columbia, finish medical school, and embark on a project to build a free clinic in a remote area of Burundi that would not only minister to the sick but also bring peace and reconciliation to the warring ethnic factions of that region.  Experiencing years of such abject tragedy could easily have embittered him, but instead it had the opposite effect.  This is an amazing story of one man’s determination to work wonders against all odds, and how his personal dedication and sense of mission have inspired others and liberated them from fear and violence.

I came to this story of the Holy Family’s flight into exile in Egypt with the modern story of Deo’s escape to the United States fresh in my mind and remembered the many millions who have had to undergo similar traumatic moves to flee evil and death.  According to Rudolf Otto and other biblical scholars, including, in recent years Raymond Brown, there is a good possibility that exile in Egypt may not have been a part of the infancy of Jesus, but instead, a Matthean fiction used to enhance a prophetic truth.  In none of the Gospels did Jesus in his ministry allude to an early sojourn in Egypt, which is only mentioned in Matthew’s Gospel.  This is also true of the massacre of the Holy Innocents and the two stories are directly connected.  Both echo the experience of Moses, the liberator and lawgiver of the Israelites.  Moses had been miraculously saved from death during infancy when Pharoah slaughtered the first born male children of the Hebrews.  Later it was Moses who led his people out of bondage in Egypt and served as God’s lawgiver in the Wilderness.  In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus’ infancy closely resembled the experience of Moses.  He, too, would be a liberator to emerge from Egypt and he would give his people a new commandment of love.

While such theologizing may have been Matthew’s intent in including the story of the escape to Egypt, such a journey may well have taken place to save the holy family from the treachery of Herod.  Egypt had long been a safe haven for Israel’s prophets fleeing evil.  Furthermore, there were colonies of Jews in Egypt by this time, and, later, one of the earliest strongholds of Christianity outside Palestine.  The Coptic Church and Christian monasticism owe their origin to these early Egyptian claims to a privileged position because of the tradition that the Holy Family sojourned for awhile in Egypt.  There also developed from this Egyptian claim all sorts of charming folk legends.  The way their journey was made easier by many miracles—they were protected by friendly dragons, reverenced by lions and tigers that wagged their tails in homage, and marvelously fed by palm trees that bent down before them.   The earliest chronicle says Joseph and his family found refuge at Matariyah, a largely Jewish settlement near Cairo.  Others argue for Heliopolis and Leontopolis, further south along the Nile that.  According to the Gospel of Matthew the family remained in Egypt until an angel in a dream to Joseph announced the death of Herod, but since Archelaus, his evil son, now governed Judea they did not return there but made their home at Nazareth in Galilee.

We are almost at the end of the Christmas season.  Has it lost its excitement and meaning for you?  Do the episodes of the infancy narrative seem little more than parts of an over exposed fairy tale, cloying in sentiment, related too often to really be heard?  Has it lost its spiritual impact?  Let me suggest a way of praying that may revitalize the story of the birth of Jesus and give it meaning for your life.  Why not take another look at Jesus, Mary and Joseph, and, in prayer, enter into their story.  Imagine them a flesh and blood family and consider their situation when Jesus is born.

Start with the baby Jesus, an infant physically vulnerable and dependent on others for nurture and security.  God through the mystery of the incarnation chose to enter our human world not as a full blown, powerful hero, but as a infant, totally dependent on others for his well being.  How does this truth affect your image and relationship with God?  Can you relate to his vulnerability and dependence?  Perhaps you have to rely on the help of others to get by?  Do you resent your dependence on them, your weakness that requires help?  Are you grateful for the kindness of others?

Consider Mary, how confused and tired she would feel after the pain and discomfort of pregnancy, the long, harrowing journey from Galilee, the unanesthesized labor and birth of her first child in poor, makeshift surroundings.  When she said yes to God she never believed it would be like this.  If you are a mother remember the emotions you felt at the birth of your children.  Or have you had a similar experience of confusion after saying yes to God?

Consider Joseph.  What a sense of responsibility he must have felt for Mary and the baby.  Was he elated by the newborn or did he fear for its safety or doubt the paternity of the child?  Russian icons of the nativity of Jesus show Satan in the form of an old man filling Joseph’s ear with doubt.  And then the angel warns Joseph to take his family in Egypt.  What message does this aspect of the story have for us?  There is more movement of the earth’s people today to find safety than at any time in its history.  For them the threat of death is a constant reality.  North Americans of the United States and Canada live in nations of immigrants.  If we are not asylum seekers, our ancestors were and for them these countries were lands of promise.  Can we deny safe haven to those who are seeking it now?  Or perhaps you feel like you, personally are being threatened by evil and are in danger.  Maybe you are in a relationship that is not healthy, one in which you are being abused in some way, one that enslaves you and causes you harm.  Maybe you are struggling with an addiction.  In this Gospel story God may be urging you to resist evil and  begin a new life.

The Christmas story may take on greater meaning and import if we look to the real life struggles of Jesus, Mary and Joseph.  Entering into the scenes through prayer means entering into the lives of fully human people, whose experiences can enable us to deepen our relationship with God, who is near us, with us and one of us.

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  1. Carole Trickett on December 29, 2015 at 14:02

    I recently lost my life partner, my husband of 53 years. Even with gratitude for these many years, I wish for more. I am very sad. Your message was a slice of light. Thank you.

  2. Karen A Hartsell on December 27, 2015 at 17:29

    Thank You so much for the words and comments on your advent calendar. It makes my Christmas season bright, warm, and real. We were not able to celebrate as we wished because of my broken arm and my husband’s jaw infection. Your words brightened my holiday and strengthened my soul.

  3. Cathy on December 27, 2015 at 15:17

    We have just reread The Best Christmas Pageant Ever. It speaks wonderfully to the question of what the nativity may really have been like.

  4. Sallie on December 27, 2015 at 07:55

    thank you for your thoughts….but I must let you know that for many years now we have not given birth with anesthesia unless there was a special need for it. So most of us have given birth as Mary did

  5. Christina on December 29, 2012 at 11:37

    Dear Brother Eldridge:
    Thank you for this morning’s homily. This passage always mystifies me: Mary, Joseph making their way to Bethlehem.
    If we jump forward a few pages in the New Testament, we read of the family being part of a large group of the Jewish community making their way home. They discover that the young Jesus is not within the party and Mary and Joseph return and find him listening to the teachers in the synagogue. To me, that makes sense: the journey made with their community.
    But, this journey made to Bethlehem always leaves me questioning why Mary and Joseph were not accompanied by others. Surely they could not have been the only two making their way to Bethlehem to be registered in the city of David, Joseph being of the house and lineage of David.. Were they being cast aside because of Mary’s pregnancy- she and Joseph being unmarried.?
    Always, when I read this passage, I find it troublesome?

  6. Rick Porter on January 7, 2012 at 08:54

    Your words also speak to me and I am only 68. Thank you. This reminds me, though I did not really need a reminder, that life is difficult and provides endless opportunities to quit or plow on with God at our side.

    The life lived by Mary and Joseph is not appealing from a worldly perspective. But from what we know they relied upon their faith to carry them from one crisis to the next, from one day until the sunrise of the next. And that seems to be the key to remaining in a state of inner peace and closeness to Jesus. He gives us one day at a time and strength for that day only.

    We may build the warehouse today only to die tonight. Prudent planning is necessary and healthy but no guarantee or even assurance that life will unfold the way we envision. I have found that to be such a difficult way to live. Sometime it leads to saying, what the hell, what is the point? or falling on the other side and saying I don’t have to worry about that, God will take care of it.

    Joseph got up and went to Egypt in the story and trusted that if he did as God commanded then God would take care of them. He had to listen and act and then trust. Every day.

  7. Richard Payne on January 7, 2012 at 07:56

    Thanks so much for your meditation, Brother Eldridge. I have often thought that the baby Jesus invites us to reach out in loving care. He calls us to the loving and tender care of each other and of our God. Baby Jesus reminds me of my own helplessness and my need to be picked up and held. Blessings upon you all and this great daily ministry which I’m taking with me in my computer as my wife, Joan, and I head for quietness and warmth, traveling in our small motor, home to Big Bend National Park in Southwest Texas.

  8. Derald W. Stump on August 25, 2011 at 08:59

    Bro. Eldridge,

    Thanks so much for your meditations. I am 80 years old and your perspective speaks to me in a way that younger clerics, because of their age, can’t. Thanks so much !

    [Rev. Dr.] Derald Stump, Fellowship mbr from “way back”……

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