Flight into Egypt

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Flight into Egypt

The Gospel according to Matthew tells that soon after Jesus was born, King Herod sent soldiers to Bethlehem to kill all the town's male infants (see Holy Innocents' Day). An angel warned Joseph of Herod's evil plot and told him to escape with his family to Egypt. The Holy Family obeyed the angel's command and departed. This event, called the Flight into Egypt, has been depicted by many artists over the centuries, including Giotto (c. 1267-1337), Titian (1488 or 1490-1576), Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528), and Nicolas Poussin (15941665). It is commemorated in Orthodox churches on December 26 - or January 8 in churches that still use the Julian calendar - in a service referred to as the Synaxis of the Theotokos (for more on theJulian calendar, see Old Christmas Day). Synaxis means "meeting" and Theotokos, a title given to the Blessed Virgin Mary, means "God bearer." In the Middle Ages, some western Europeans, particularly the French, remembered the Flight into Egypt with a festival called the Feast of the Ass.

When King Herod died, the angel returned again, notifying Joseph that it was safe for him to return with his family to Judea. When Joseph learned that Herod's brutal son, Archelaus, had inherited his father's throne, he decided not to return to Bethlehem, and instead moved his family to Nazareth.


What happened to the Holy Family on this perilous journey into Egypt? The Bible doesn't say. Perhaps because of this omission, legends and lore soon sprouted up around the event. According to one tale, Herod's soldiers knew the Holy Family had escaped and so pursued them. As Mary, Joseph, and Jesus passed some peasants sowing wheat, Mary said to them, "If anyone should ask if we have been here, tell them that we indeed passed by while you were sowing this field of wheat." Miraculously, the wheat sprouted and grew tall overnight. When Herod's soldiers inquired of the peasants and learned that their prey had passed through the region at the time the wheat was planted, they figured that the Holy Family was many days ahead of them and so lost heart and returned to Judea.

An ancient document known as the Arabic Infancy Gospel records another near escape. In this story, the Holy Family is held up by bandits on their way to Egypt. One of the highwaymen, however, feels a special sympathy for the fugitives and refuses to rob them. In fact, he tries to convince the other robber to let them go. The other refuses until the first robber agrees to pay him a girdle and forty coins. The kind-hearted thief does so and the other reluctantly allows the prisoners to depart. The baby Jesus predicts that he and the bandits will die on the same day in the same place. Sure enough, according to the Arabic Infancy Gospel, these men turn out to be the two thieves, the one remorseful and the other not, who were crucified alongside Jesus about thirty years later (Luke 23:93-43).

Another tale, this one from a document called the Apocryphal Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, finds Joseph losing faith as the family trudges through the desert. They stop underneath a date palm tree where Joseph frets about how to find water. Mary asks her husband to pick her some dates. Joseph scolds her for requesting something so far out of his reach. The infant Jesus, however, speaks to the tree, commanding it to bow down so Mary can gather fruit. The tree responds. Then Jesus orders an underground spring to break through to the surface so that they can drink and fill their water bags. As this tale spread through Europe, people changed the date tree to a cherry tree and changed the timing of the event so that it takes place before Jesus was born.

Another legend concerning trees reports that the Holy Family passed through a forest on their long journey to Egypt. Every tree except the aspen bowed in reverence as they passed. Irritated by this lack of respect the baby Jesus then cursed the tree, which is why its leaves tremble in the wind till this day.

Another plant that paid respect to the Holy Family on the Flight into Egypt is the Rose of Jericho. It sprang up wherever they passed. It is sometimes called Mary's Rose.

One final tale popular in the Middle Ages proclaims that the Holy Family encountered a gypsy woman on the road to Egypt. She extended her well-wishes to the Holy Family and, noticing Mary's fatigue especially, she took them to a place where they could rest and offered straw for their donkey. She then proceeded to recount Mary's past history. Afterwards she read Jesus' palm and accurately foretold the major events of his life, including the crucifixion. Then she begged for alms, but not in the usual manner. Knowing the true identity of the child, the gypsy woman asked for the gift of genuine repentance and life everlasting.

Further Reading

Gulevich, Tanya. Encyclopedia of Easter, Carnival, and Lent. Detroit, Mich.: Omnigraphics, 2002. Hackwood, Frederick W. Christ Lore. 1902. Reprint. Detroit, Mich.: Gale Research, 1969. Jameson, Anna. Legends of the Madonna. 1890. Reprint. Detroit, Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1990. Leach, Maria, ed. Funk and Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythol-ogy, and Legend. San Francisco, Calif.: Harper and Row, 1984.
Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2003

Flight into Egypt

December 26
Many congregations within the Eastern Orthodox Church commemorate the Holy Family's flight into Egypt on December 26. According to the Gospel of St. Matthew, King Herod wanted to seek out and kill the infant Jesus. But an angel warned Joseph, the husband of Jesus' mother, Mary, of the danger and instructed him to take the family to Egypt for safety and to remain there until Herod's death. Two days later, according to the Gospel, all of the male children under two years of age in Bethlehem were massacred, an event that is commemorated on Holy Innocents' Day.
EncyChristmas-2003, p. 255
RelHolCal-2004, p. 116
Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary, Fourth Edition. © 2010 by Omnigraphics, Inc.
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