Thursday, September 10, 2009

Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt

Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.’ Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I have called my son.’

When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through 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 are no more.’

When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.’ Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, ‘He will be called a Nazorean.’

- Matthew 2:13-23

In this passage we come to understand Jesus' link to the history of Israel, to prophecy, and to the notion of exile. Jesus' father once again has a dream, revealing to him what is to be done with regard to his fledgling family and this child of Mystery. An angel appears to him in a dream, saying, "Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him." Joseph's flight to Egypt is reflective of the history of the people of Israel, who once took refuge in Egypt and was made captive. As the Israelites fled Egypt, my study bible points out, so Joseph flees into Egypt, by night. Perhaps it is the gifts of the Magi that pay for this journey. My study bible also points out that this is one of a number of instances in Scripture where God's people must elude civil power in order to do His will. For me, the notion of exile is and remains an important one: we are seeking to do the will of that which rules in a kingdom not of this world. I find that it is often that what appears in prayer as the right solution to a problem is not necessarily conventional nor what others' opinions would dictate as a social rule.

"Out of Egypt I have called My Son" refers to Israel in Hos. 11:1. In the Old Testament the son of God is Israel; here in Matthew's gospel Jesus is now the true Israel. The cruelty of Herod is prefigured at Moses' birth, when Pharaoh tried to kill all male children in order to destroy the first Israel. In the book of Jeremiah the people of Jerusalem are recorded being led away to exile - they pass Rachel's tomb at Ramah. In his prophecy, Jeremiah pictures Rachel, long dead, weeping even in her tomb for the fate of her children, the people of Israel. Now the mothers of Israel weep for the children slaughtered by Herod. In many branches of the Church, these children are remembered as the Holy Innocents, and are regarded as saints and martyrs.

Herod died in 4 B.C. Archelaus was eventually banished to Gaul in A.D. 6, after the Jews petitioned for his removal because of his cruelty. It's this cruelty Joseph is warned about, so he returns not to Judea but to Nazareth, a town in Galilee. Galilee was governed by Herod Antipas, another son of Herod.

So in the gospel of Matthew, Jesus' early life is already portrayed as reflective of prophecy and the history of the people of Israel. We read of exile and return, of fleeing from the cruelty of the authorities -- and even the return is to a new place, to Nazareth in Galilee. We recall Moses' words in Exodus 2: "I have been a stranger in a strange land." Woven in with mystical history, prophecy, and the immediacy and reality of the cruelty of tyrannical political rule, is also the thread of the presence of God. An angel appears in a dream to Joseph, caretaker and guardian of mother and child, and guides his way as a father who is, yet, not a father. Woven into the thread of all of this paradox and wonder is the presence of God, of grace. We must recall that in our "exile" - wherever we are - there is a place of "home" in our hearts. This is where we take peace and rest, and find ourselves, no matter where we are or what cruel reality is pressing down on us with fear.

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