The Flight into Egypt

Anthony Zimmerman
February 9, 2004
Reproduced with Permission

As we picture the Magi harnessing up to return by another route to their homeland we ask why God selected them specially to receive the gift of faith. It is a mystery. Why did God select us to become His adopted children through Baptism? Saint Paul tells us that God chose us specially for faith and charity even before the world was made:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. He destined us in love to be his sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will (Ephesians 1:3-5).

God, then, has selected us for His personal friendship even before He brought the cosmos into existence. And that is not all. God even prepared beforehand the graces by which we could love Him and do good works: "For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them" (Ephesians 2:10). And if that is a surprise, another may be even more comforting. The Archangel Raphael told Tobias that God had selected his bride Sarah for him before the world existed: "Do not be afraid, for she was set aside for you before the world existed." In view of all this care for us, we ought to thank God every morning and evening for His watchfulness, and put our hands trustingly into His.

Rise, and flee to Egypt

Perhaps Mary and Joseph were still full of joy while basking in the memory of the momentous visit of the wise men when a sudden awakening came upon Joseph in the middle of the night. The message: "Run! Herod wants to kill the Child."

Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, "Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there till I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him." And he rose and took the child and his mother by night, and departed to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod (Mt 2:13-14)

Matthew doesn't go into details about this night scene, but we can imagine that Joseph and Mary responded quickly to the emergency. Did they have candles or a lantern to help them with the packing? Did Joseph stop to explain things to Mary and ask her ideas about the flight? We can imagine that he told her about the vision and then she knew what to do. Joseph was definitely in charge, because Matthew writes that "he took the child and his mother." The text allows us to picture that he almost grabbed the Child and hustled His mother out of the door and on their way. He didn't ask her opinion. His instructions were from the Lord. She understood. So she bundled up changes that would be needed by the Baby, while Joseph prodded the sleeping donkey to wake up.

We ask: But couldn't the Lord have warned Joseph ahead of time, to get ready for this in a more leisurely fashion? Why this sudden warning, and during the night? I don't know the answer, but God's manner of acting surely illustrates that He did not spare the Holy Family from exposure to harsh realities of life. We do not read that Joseph and Mary protested, that they expected that God would treat them with more consideration for their need to sleep at night, and to be better prepared for the journey. After all, were they not important people in the sight of God? But we don't read that Joseph turned over in bed saying: "Sure, tomorrow morning." He was up in an instant, then he "took" the Child and His mother, and was off.

It is a lesson for us too: if it is God's will, then we ought to simply go ahead and do it without hesitation, without grumbling, without turning to look back, as did the wife of Lot. She turned into a pillar of salt, whereas her husband and daughters escaped safely. God's way is always THE way for us. Joseph and Mary show us how to respond to God's call. So the next time we are jolted by unexpected events and ask: "Why does God do this to me?" let us follow up our protest by also asking: "Why did God do that to Jesus, Mary, and Joseph?"

Quiet, efficiency, speed - these were needed now. Joseph probably left a deposit for the inn-keeper, Mary tidied the room a bit, then they were out of the door and into the darkness, feeling their way for the road to Egypt, Joseph wanted to be out of sight of the town before daylight. No one should see them and perhaps tell Herod's henchmen that a family with a Baby had fled the town during the night.

Artists have Mary with the Child Jesus mounted on the donkey while Joseph leads it, but was it necessarily so? More realistically, so it seems to me, the donkey was loaded with clothes and utensils, while Joseph and Mary walked, taking turns carrying Jesus. They knew how to travel, having made the journey from Nazareth to Jerusalem for the annual festivals during the previous years. The present journey would be twice as far, at least 250 miles, first down from the hills to the plain along the Mediterranean, then on to Egypt. A large community of Jewish people lived in Alexandria, where the Old Testament had been translated into Greek from the original Hebrew and Aramaic languages. It was there that our Holy Family may have lived for some four years, keeping to themselves the secret of the origin of Jesus while living as settlers among Israelite nationals.

This was to fulfil what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, "Out of Egypt have I called my son" (Mt 2:15).

The quotation is from the Book of the Prophet Hosea, 11:1. God had once called Israel out of Egypt under the leadership of Moses, to form them as His People in the desert, and then to lead them into the Promised Land. Matthew compares Christ's call back out of Egypt into the Palestine to that ancient historical call of the Israelites. The Evangelist thereby envisions Christ as the Head of the new People of God, the new Moses, who would found the Church as His Mystical Body. As Moses had formed the Israelites, so Christ would form the Church. This is one of the many delightful quotations from the Old Testament that Matthew cites in the New Testament to set up a sense of continuity between the Old Testament and the New. Indeed, God once called Israel out of Egypt, and now God would also call Jesus out of Egypt, where He was temporarily dwelling to remain hidden from the clutches of Herod.

Matthew then continues with the narration of the slaughter of the Holy Innocents:

Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, was in a furious rage, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time which he had ascertained from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah:"A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they were no more" (Mt 2:16-18).

Let us pause to speculate on the very interesting question about the eternal condition of children, born and unborn, who died without Baptism. The Church has seen fit to celebrate the infants killed by Herod's soldiers as martyrs who are in heaven. Although God has not revealed to us what happens to the infants who die without Baptism, the Church unblushingly celebrates these special "Holy Innocents" as heros beloved by God. This is very interesting, because the Christ taught clearly that to enter heaven we need to be baptized:

Jesus answered, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, `You must be born anew'" (John 3:5-7).

Back in the 1940's when I was studying dogmatic theology in the seminary our professor, Father Robert Studeny, SVD, insisted that infants who die without Baptism cannot enter heaven to see God in the beatific vision. We students found that hard to believe, and pestered him for three days with counter-arguments, all in our broken "home-made" Latin. He insisted upon the hard line that without Baptism no one can enter heaven. However, the infants are not punished since they did no wrong, but neither are they in heaven because they did not receive Baptism. So they must be in the Limbo of Infants. So said our much respected Professor Fr. Studeny. Father John A. Hardon's Modern Catholic Dictionary explains this theology as follows:

The great majority of theologians, approved by the Church, teach that infants who die in original sin suffer no "pain of sense." they are simply excluded from the beatific vision. Do they grieve because they are deprived of heaven? St. Thomas Aquinas answers that they do not, because pain of punishment is proportioned to personal guilt, which does not exist here. Rather "They rejoice because they share in God's goodness and in many natural perfections" (De Malo, V,3). It is believed that infants in Limbo know and love God intimately by the use of their natural powers, and they enjoy full natural happiness (p. 319).

I once shared this concept, imagining all kinds of wonderful natural happiness for the little ones: scenic travel in the cosmos, sports and parties, no pains but only joys. But today I prefer to believe that God takes them to Himself in heaven. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that we and the Church are bound by the law that Baptism is necessary for salvation, but that God Himself is not bound by the law:

1257 The Lord himself affirms that Baptism is necessary for salvation. He also commands his disciples to proclaim the Gospel to all nations and to baptise them. Baptism is necessary for salvation for those to whom the Gospel has been proclaimed and who have had the possibility of asking for this sacrament. The Church does not know of any means other than Baptism that assures entry into eternal beatitude; this is why she takes care not to neglect the mission she has received from the Lord to see that all who can be baptised are "reborn of water and the Spirit." God has bound salvation to the sacrament of Baptism, but he himself is not bound by his sacraments.

The CCC then treats about adults who can be saved through martyrdom and through Baptism of Desire. Then in Paragraph 1261 the CCC reminds us of the duty to Baptize children promptly, but also allows us to hope that God takes to heaven those children who died without Baptism:

1261 As regards children who have died without Baptism, the Church can only entrust them to the mercy of God, as she does in her funeral rites for them. Indeed, the great mercy of God who desires that all men should be saved, and Jesus' tenderness toward children which caused him to say: "Let the children come to me, do not hinder them," allow us to hope that there is a way of salvation for children who have died without Baptism. All the more urgent is the Church's call not to prevent little children coming to Christ through the gift of holy Baptism.

We gladly baptize our children promptly so that Christ can receive them into His friendship and protect them in their innocent years. We grieve with the mothers of the Holy Innocents whom Herod killed so cruelly, and we sympathize with parents today who sorrow for children who departed this life without Baptism. But God is good and we can hope that all beloved infants, born and unborn, who died without Baptism, are now happy with God in heaven, and that they await our own arrival there, once we too depart this life, pierce the clouds on our flight through space, and enter heaven through the massive portals of the Golden Gate.