The Flight into Egypt
Manual of Devotions in Honour of the Seven Dolours, 1868
No sooner was Jesus born than He began to be persecuted by Herod, who then ruled over the Jews. This ambitious prince, hearing that the long-expected Messias was come into the world “to deliver His people, Israel,” was seized with envy and alarm. He feared lest this Saviour should supplant him in his authority and usurp his throne; therefore he sought to destroy him whilst he was yet a helpless babe. When the wise men came to Jerusalem from the east, enquiring “Where is He who is born King of the Jews?” Herod, thinking the time had arrived to rid himself of his supposed rival, called them privately, and learned diligently of them at what time the star which guided them from the East had first appeared: then, sending them into Bethlehem, he said: “Go, and diligently enquire after the child; and when you have found Him, bring me word again, that I also may come and adore Him.” He hoped, by this deceitful stratagem, to obtain possession of our Lord. But, like all God’s enemies, in the long run he deceived himself; for our Lord’s “time was not yet come ” to be betrayed and put to death.
After the wise men had found Jesus, adored Him and presented before Him their choicest gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, they were warned by a token from God that they should not return to Herod. They therefore went back another way into their own country.
When the envious tyrant found that his impious plans were thus brought to nought, like Pharao, King of Egypt, he hardened his heart yet further, and formed the cowardly and savage design of slaying by the sword every male child in that part of the country from two years old and under. For he concluded from what the Magi had told him, that the Messias would surely be among the victims to his cruelty. But it is the extreme of folly for man to oppose the Creator and fight against his God. Here, again, Herod’s wicked purposes are most wonderfully brought to nothing. He hoped by thus murdering all the male infants in and about Bethlehem, that Jesus would also be slain. But after the Magi had departed, an angel of the Lord appeared in sleep to Joseph, saying:
“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 child to destroy Him.”
And here let me contemplate the cause of Mary’s second Dolour.
St. Joseph, obedient to the command of the Heavenly messenger, at once arose and hastened to the Blessed Virgin, telling her what had been made known to him. Then, indeed, it was that the second sword transfixed the heart of Mary. How bitter, exclaims St. John Chrysostom, must have been the pain which was excited in the heart of Mary when she heard of the exile of herself and Son!” And, indeed,” says St. Alphonsus, “what greater tribulation could there be, than that a poor young mother should be forced to fly with her new-born babe far away from home, from friends to strangers, from the hallowed sanctuary of the Lord to the polluted temples of devils.” It was at the dead of night that the Blessed Virgin heard from the lips of St. Joseph the afflicting news; and, to add to her grief and embarrassment, the journey to Egypt was very long and toilsome, nor had she the provisions to sustain them on it. Mary doubtless reflected upon all these difficulties; great indeed, therefore, must have been her distress. She feared for the safety of her Child–she trembled for her spouse–she trembled for herself; nevertheless, she was perfectly obedient to the voice of Heaven. Nor did she complain of her lot; but, seated upon an ass, with Jesus in her arms and Joseph by her side, she departed at once from Bethlehem.
Mary knew perfectly that the fruit of her womb was God. She knew that although His Divine Majesty had humbly clothed Himself with human nature, He had not therefore lost the attributes of the Deity. Hence she was well aware that He still held in His Omnipotent hand the slender thread of Herod’s life, and that, did Jesus but will it, that impious tyrant would be deprived of throne and power and breath. She was not ignorant that, when “the earth was void and empty and darkness was upon the face of the deep,” then by His Almighty word light was made, and “all things were created by Him and in Him”–moreover that, as the Apostle goes on to say, “by Him all things consist, and by His frown all would be destroyed.” The same Omnipotence, she knew well, could laugh to scorn the kings of the earth, and that, should the sacred Humanity of her Child demand aid from the Eternal Father, He would give Him presently more than twelve legions of angels to sweep His enemies from the earth.
Therefore, when Joseph announced to her that they were to hasten with the Babe into Egypt in order to save His life, we may imagine her speaking such words as these: Why need we fear Herod’s wildest attempts? Why fly from a power that cannot touch or harm us? What can man do against my Son? Is He not truly God? Moreover, has not His enemy been already twice defeated in His plans? Why not this time also? Let us then remain here in peace and confidence. But does the Blessed Virgin thus excuse herself from the toils and pains which the Heavenly message enjoined? Far from it! She knew that the Divine will is ever to be obeyed; she knew also that such was the desire of her Divine Child. Hence, on hearing from Joseph the message of the Archangel, she at once complied, and, without the delay of a moment, the Holy Family set out on their long journey of obedience–certain of the command, uncertain of its duration. This only did they know, that they were to remain in Egypt until the Archangel spoke again.
Let me here contemplate the prompt obedience of the Mother of God–
how it puts to shame my past obstinacy and self-will.
Ten great commandments has my Creator given me. Do I fulfil them? Do I sincerely worship Him by faith, hope and charity? If not, my obedience is most unlike that of Mary. Do I ever take the name of the Lord, my God, in vain? If so, I am disobedient. Do I observe devoutly the Sabbath day? If not, I am not like Mary. Am I truly obedient to my parents, to my pastors, and other lawful superiors? If not, I am far indeed from being like Mary. Do I from time to time foolishly allow anger on my brow? Do I ill-treat my neighbour or ever seek revenge? Am I given to a life of debauchery, or to the sins of uncleanness? Do I wrong any one in his property by negligence, stealth, or fraud? Have I at any time robbed another person of his good name, or tarnished his character by unnecessary or lying informations? Have I ever desired my neighbour’s wife, or envied his acquirements or his riches? Oh, if I have not kept the holy precepts which God has given me, surely I can claim no resemblance to her who, in obedience to the will of Heaven–despite the greatest inconvenience of time, of distance and fatigue–forsook her dearest friends, her much-loved home, to live in exile in an unknown land. Pray, then, my soul–pray fervently to this Holy Virgin, and cease not until she grants thy supplication, and obtains for thee from her Son the virtue of heroic obedience. Thus wilt thou be enabled to overcome all thy enemies; for, as Solomon testifies, “The obedient man shall speak of victory.”
Let me accompany this afflicted Mother into Egypt, and compassionate her on the long and cheerless journey thither. The distance from Bethlehem to Heliopolis, the city in which the Holy Family took refuge, was very great, and appears still greater when we consider the imperfect modes of conveyance then in use. It is commonly said to have been about four hundred miles, and was rarely accomplished in less than forty days. The way was rough, unfrequented, and wild; the season the very depth of winter. Neither hospitable house nor warm clothing defended from its severity this tender Virgin and her still more tender Child. No doubt she had frequently to contend with violent storms and winds, and vainly endeavoured to shield her infant from the snow or rain. Great indeed must have been her sufferings! I seem to see her from time to time fainting from sheer fatigue. Had she been as robust as other women, the severity of this journey might not have weakened her so greatly; but tradition tells us that she was of a most delicate frame; moreover, she was then very young, being no more than fifteen or sixteen years of age, and had but just become a mother. What added yet more to her sorrow was that no food remained either for St. Joseph or herself. The little provision which in their haste they had brought with them, must have been soon consumed, and perhaps for half the journey none could be procured. During that long and toilsome way, Mary had also to give nourishment to her Son. Alas! poor Mother! how must his piteous cries have pierced her heart! “What greater-pang,” says St. Alphonsus, “can a mother suffer than to behold her child weak and hungry, and be unable to minister to its wants?”
Nor were these the only sufferings endured by the Blessed Virgin during the flight into Egypt. Those who travel now, even the poorest, can get some lodging, however humble, where they can rest at night and find a shelter from the wind and rain. But it was not so with the Mother of God. She was for nearly forty days exposed to the severities of the winter, with only the bare ground to sleep upon, and with no roof to shield her from the storm.
Oh! how can I pamper my body when I contemplate the Mother of the Most High vainly endeavouring each night to rest her wearied frame on the damp earth; in vain! for how could she possibly close her eyes in sleep, when she feared each moment lest some wild beast, or, still more terrible, some messenger from Herod might come to rob her of her child! Half of her perilous journey was through thick forests, half through the wilderness of Arabia. Whilst in the former, the falling of withered leaves, the rustling of shrubs, and the crackling of the branches of trees, sounded, most likely, to her attentive ear, like unto the near approach of robbers or the coming of ravenous wolves. When in the latter, she had to traverse over long tracts of sand, with no shelter whatever, and exposed completely to thirst, dust, excessive heat or excessive cold, according to the state of weather on each successive day. No doubt the drifting of the sands, the darkening of the sky, and the thick mists of noon and morning, must have alarmed her greatly lest some fierce hurricane might break out and destroy them in the wilderness.
But, oh! how far more must she have feared lest, on account of all these severities of the journey, she might lose her life’s sole happiness, her darling Babe, lest He might die; “for Mary,” says St. Bonaventure, “was not so much concerned for her own sufferings as for those of Jesus.” She would keep her dear Son from danger of dew and cold, but how could she? She presses Him to her loving breast; but all in vain, for she herself is totally unprovided for the inclemencies of the weather. Had she the means, she would also comfort St. Joseph; but what help could she give him? She could administer nothing to him save encouraging words, and this no doubt she did, in spite of fatigue of body and of mental anguish. Hagar, in the desert of Beersheba, is a striking picture of the Blessed Virgin in her flight into Egypt. The Sacred Scripture tells us, in the 21st chapter of Genesis, that the water being exhausted, Hagar placed her son, Ismael, under a tree, and, withdrawing from him that she might not see him die, she abandoned herself to tears and groans until the angel came to console her. But Thou, O God, alone knowest how greatly Mary was convulsed with grief when she beheld the sufferings of her Child. I ask for grace to understand this great affliction, which even angels cannot comprehend without special light from Thee. Let this sorrow of thy daughter, O Heavenly Father, be deeply imprinted on my heart, that I may lovingly compassionate her who suffered with so much patience! This much, however, is granted me to know, that her affliction for her Divine Son must have almost infinitely surpassed in pain all the tears, groans, despair, and anguish of broken-hearted Hagar: since Mary fully understood that the life of Jesus was far more precious than the lives of all the children of Adam.
From the mournful journey of Mary with her spouse and child, through dark and wild woods, and through the Arabian desert, Christians are to learn, says Cornelius a Lapide, how to deport themselves during their long pilgrimage in this vale of tears. The world is the road to Heaven. But it is a very rough and dangerous path; experience teaches this to all. As I travel onwards, I am blown to and fro by contrary winds of temptation, while the rain of persecution and tribulation beats hard against me, or reproach, like snow, freezes my heart. Since such is indeed the case, I must never forget the afflicted Mother of God. She is patient under all her fatigues and sufferings. I must also be patient. She does not care for the severities of the season, nor should I be cast down by afflictions; I should courageously combat against them, asking the help of God’s grace. She delays not on her journey, but makes it with great speed; neither should I, therefore, suffer the foolish toys of this world to stop my progress towards Heaven.
Oh! my soul, when, during thy exile here below, thou seemest rather to be struggling amidst tempests and whirlwinds than living in serenity, forget not Mary on her way to Egypt, if thou wouldst not be destroyed by the storms. If the strong winds of temptation blow, be not afraid, but look at Mary in the desert. If from time to time thou art beaten on all sides by the violent rain of pride, ambition, detraction, or jealousy, consider Mary in the desert. If the terrible thunders or the ravaging lightnings of anger, hatred, or revenge, disturb thy peace; or if despair, like a blight, withers the heart, think of the conduct of thy Mother in the woods and desert; see her patience, her faith, her unbounded hope, her entire reliance on the providence of God. If, my soul, the dust of imperfection or the gloom of the journey trouble or discourage thee, remember Mary on her way to Egypt. If the filth and mire of lust impede thee on thy way, do not forget Mary. In dangers, in anguish, anxiety, and doubt–in all thy troubles during thy pilgrimage towards Heaven, think of Mary in the desert. Let her sorrow there never depart from thy mind, thy heart, thy lips. Following her, thou wilt not go astray; praying to her, thou wilt not despair; led by her hand, thou wilt not fall to the ground; under her protection, thou needest not fear; she being leader, thou wilt not be fatigued; and by her gentle guidance thou wilt happily reach thy destination, where, with the holy angels, thou wilt praise her forever. (See St. Bernard, on the Name of Mary.)
Behold, most afflicted Mother, thy humble client praying at thy feet. Here will I kneel, contemplating thy wonderful obedience and heroic patience: thy wonderful obedience in fulfilling so readily the onerous command of Gabriel, the Archangel; thy heroic patience in doing so without murmur or complaint. O Mary, dearest Virgin Mary, obtain for me, I beseech thee, these two beautiful virtues. Teach me also how to journey safely through this vale of tears. Comfort me in my sorrows, help me in my wants, and never suffer me to deviate from the right path, but as a star guides the mariner securely into port, so do thou, my protectress, conduct me safely to Heaven. Most sincerely do I compassionate thee in that indescribable woe which thou didst feel when in the dreary desert, and I devoutly beg of thee to stamp deeply on my heart thy second bitter Dolour, that with thee, dear afflicted Mother, I may suffer and weep here below, and be glad and rejoice with thee in Heaven. Amen.