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Driven from their home

by
23 December 2022

Adrian Leak continues our series with a reflection on the Massacre of the Innocents and the Flight into Egypt

incamerastock/Alamy

The Flight into Egypt by Vittore Carpaccio, c.1515

The Flight into Egypt by Vittore Carpaccio, c.1515

NOW after [the wise men] 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” (Matthew 2.13-15).

 

IN THE age of the Patriarchs, Egypt was a refuge for Israel. Joseph had escaped there from his murderous brothers, and had then found wealth and power in the service of Pharaoh. Later, his father and brothers joined him, fleeing from the famine in Canaan. Generations afterwards, their descendants emigrated back to the Promised Land. It was that second migration that marked the birth of their nation as they crossed the Red Sea.

“Out of Egypt I have called my son” was a text from the prophet Hosea, referring to the Exodus. It was quoted by Matthew to indicate to his readers that the story of the Holy Family’s flight from Herod must be seen as a prelude to the birth of the new Israel.

The reason given by Matthew for their escape is Herod’s “Massacre of the Innocents”, an event which most scholars doubt ever happened. The historical evidence is certainly weak. The historian Josephus makes no mention of it, although, in his detailed account of contemporary Judaea, he refers in detail to other atrocities committed by Herod the Great. It is unlikely that he would have omitted to mention the slaughter, had it happened.

 

IT IS such a repellent story that it has either been deleted altogether from the Church’s memory or reduced to a passing reference in the liturgical calendar. In the Middle Ages, the Shearmen and Tailors’ Guild of Coventry turned the account of how “Herod the King, in his raging Chargèd he hath this day His men of might in his own sight All young children to slay” into a bitter-sweet lullaby, with its chorus, “Lully, lullay, thou little tiny child, Bye, bye, lully, lullay”.

The Habsburg Emperor, Rudolph II, was so appalled by the painting of The Massacre of the Innocents which he discovered in his castle in Prague that he ordered the canvas (by Peter Bruegel the Elder) to be altered. Human babies were overpainted to appear as bundles of linen or livestock, thereby turning the event from one of infanticide into a scene of soldiers’ looting a village.

This sanitised version of the painting, itself looted during the Thirty Years War and later purchased by our own King Charles II for his palace at Whitehall, now decorates walls of the royal apartments at Windsor.

A consequence of Herod’s rage was the flight of the Holy Family and their subsequent return from Egypt. Matthew used this story, in which he included exaggeration, legend, and scriptural reference, to depict Jesus as a second Moses. He did not intend his narrative to be a biography of Jesus of Nazareth — a figure of history. He wrote to build up his readers’ faith in their present and living Lord.

 

THE account of the Holy Family’s flight is a story for every age. The horror of expulsion is not new. The English led the way in this odious practice when, in 1292, Edward I expelled the entire Jewish population. The ban prohibiting their return continued for almost four centuries, until Oliver Cromwell allowed them back — he needed their money.

Since the early Middle Ages, the sight of refugees fleeing from one tyranny or another has been a common feature of European history, and, as we now know, of almost every other continent as well.

We all yearn for somewhere to call our own. In Western culture, from Homer’s account of Odysseus’s quest to return to Ithaca in The Odyssey onwards, the journey home has been a recurring theme. Close to an understanding of coming home is our use of the word “parish” to mean somewhere local and accessible. The parish church is where we are “at home” as the body of Christ.

 

BUT, hidden deep in our language, there is the reminder of an uncomfortable truth. The word “parish” derives from the Greek paroika, which means temporary residence in a foreign land. When Luke writes about the encounter between the two disciples and the risen Lord on the road to Emmaus, they are astonished that this fellow traveller, whom they do not recognise, is unaware of what has happened: “Are you the only stranger (paroikeis) in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?”

The writer of the Letter to the Ephesians tells his readers, “You are no longer strangers and aliens (paroikei), but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God” (Ephesians 2.19). And so there is a home for us all — but not of this world.

 

Almighty and merciful God,
whose Son became a refugee and had no place to call his own;
look with mercy on those who today are fleeing from danger,
homeless and hungry.
Bless those who work to bring them relief;
inspire generosity and compassion in all our hearts; and guide the nations of the world towards that day when all will rejoice in your Kingdom of justice and of peace;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

 

Adrian Leak is a retired Anglican priest, whose recent publications include a collection of essays, The Golden Calves of Jeroboam, published by the Book Guild at £13.99 (CT Bookshop £12.60); 978-1-91-320883-7 (Books, 11 December 2020); and his memoirs, After the Order of Melchizedek, published by the Book Guild at £14.99 (CT Bookshop £13.49); 978-1-914471-76-6 (Books, 8 July).

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