The flight of Joseph and Mary together with the baby Jesus is well and truly celebrated in the Coptic Church in Egypt. All kinds of legends are associated with their journey. They were protected from dragons, and worshipped by lions and leopards who wagged their tails in homage. According to the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, on the third day of their journey:
“When the blessed Mary had sat down, she looked up at the top of the palm tree and saw it was full of fruits and said to Joseph: ‘I wish someone could fetch some of the fruits of this palm tree’”. Joseph said that the palm tree was too tall and that their greater need was for water. Then the infant Jesus spoke to the palm tree: “’Bend down your branches, O tree, and refresh my mother with your fruit’. And immediately at his command the palm bent its head down to the feet of the blessed Mary, and they gathered from its fruits with which they all refreshed themselves”. The palm tree remained bent, and so Jesus told it to rise again. Then he said to it, “’Open beneath your roots a vein of water which is hidden in the earth, and let the waters flow so that we may quench our thirst from it’. And immediately it raised itself and there began to gush out by its foot, a fountain of water very clear, fresh and completely bright.”
Later on at one point in their journey through the desert, they were attacked by two robbers, one of whom however repented when he saw Mary’s tears. These two were eventually the thieves crucified with Jesus, and the good thief was the one who went to Paradise!
On our recent trip to Cairo we saw many pictures of the Holy Family travelling on a donkey, with the pyramids in the background. In Old Cairo we visited Abu Serga, a fourth century church dedicated to Saint Sergius and Saint Bacchus, which tradition says was built on the spot where Joseph and Mary together stayed for a while. We went down into the 10-metre deep crypt, said to be the site of their home.
However, Cairo was apparently not the end of their journey. Joseph, it is said, got to know some sailors of the Nile boats, and they invited Joseph to go for a cruise down the Nile to Upper Egypt in the south of the country. The monks of the ‘’Monastery of the Blessed Virgin’ wrote that the Holy Family could afford to travel because of the gold they had received from the Wise Men of the East!
What a contrast there is between these legends and what Matthew has to say in his Gospel. There we simply read that “Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod” (Matthew 2.14,15). Matthew does not tell us where Joseph and Mary together with baby Jesus went: they may simply have gone a few miles over the border; or they may have gone as far as Alexandria, where the Jews formed two-fifths of the population; or perhaps, less probably, they could have gone even to Cairo.
One thing for certain: the flight into Egypt was a natural one. It was a classic refuge for those fleeing from tyranny in Palestine. When, for instance, Solomon sought to put him to death, Jeroboam “arose and fled to Egypt” (1 Kings 11.40); when Jehoiakim sought to kill the prophet Uriah, the son of Shemaiah, he too fled and escaped to Egypt (Jer 26.21).
It would be interesting to know what effect the journey to Egypt might have had on Jesus.
Margaret Magdalen in her book The Hidden Face of Jesus argues that there must have been inevitable trauma. Certainly, “if we suffered homelessness, refugee status, becoming a ‘wanted’ person, an exile… there would be deep and indelible scarring”. She goes on to wonder whether Jesus even suffered from the so-called ‘survivor syndrome’. Frankly, we do not know. All we can say is that in becoming one with us Jesus, like many refugees today, also knew what it was like to be homeless and at risk of losing his life. In that respect the this story resonates strongly for many today.