Matthew 2:13-23. The Holy Family & The Flight into Egypt.

December 26th celebrates the feast of the Holy Family.  It was instituted by Pope Leo XIII as the Sunday in the Octave of the Epiphany.  After the introduction of the new missal, it was moved to the Sunday in the Octave of Christmas.

The Gospel reading tells us that an angel appeared to Joseph and told him to take Jesus and Mary to Egypt, as Herod was about to order the slaughter of the innocents.  When Herod died soon thereafter (the historical data indicates Herod died between 2 and 24 months after the birth of Jesus), an angel again directed the Holy Family to return to Israel.  Rather than return to Jerusalem, they went north and settled in Nazareth near Galilee.

Matthew, the Evangelist who writes for a Christian audience that still regards itself as very Jewish, does not forget to highlight the parallels between the adventures of the Holy Family and the traditions of the Book of Exodus.   Just as Joseph the son of Jacob was taken against his will into Egypt (Gen 37:25-28), so too, the Holy Family fled to Egypt.   Just as Pharoah, in Exodus 1:16, orders the Israelite firstborn males to be killed, we also see Herod ordering the same in Matthew 2:16.  And just as Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt and into the promised land, we also see Jesus, Mary and Joseph return from the wilderness of Egypt to Israel.

A few biblical scholars suggest that Holy Family’s flight into Egypt is itself fancy. But Rudolph Schnackenburg is surprisingly open to the account of the flight into Egypt.  Schnackenburg even regards Herod’s massacre of the innocents as plausible, since the historian Josephus confirms the cruelty of Herod. Schnackenburg argues that while the Sacred Author Matthew was fully aware of the parallels with the Exodus account, this does not discount the possibility that the Holy Family actually fled into Egypt. Schnackenburg goes so far as to suggest that Revelation 12:14 is an indirect reference to the time the Holy Family spent in Egypt.  [1]

I recently listened to a homily on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. Much of what the priest said was a reflection on the Holy Family, as much as Mary.  The priest suggested that “the Holy Family did not have it easy.” And he went on to say that Mary’s “yes,” where the angel of the Lord appeared to her to bring tidings that she would bear a child, did not assure a comfortable life for her or Joseph, her new spouse.

And consider the challenges that the Gospels tell us that the Holy Family faced.  Mary brought forth a child where Joseph was not the paternal father; at the time Jesus was born the family was traveling and had no place of residence; Herod went on a rampage and ordered the execution of children in Bethlehem, where Mary and Joseph stayed temporarily; and finally, Mary and Joseph were forced to flee their own country for Egypt.

When Pius XIII introduced the Feast Day in honor of the Holy Family, he extolled the virtues of Joseph, the carpenter who supported his family by working, and whose personal piety and devotion to his wife and son was an example for all fathers.  He commended the “perfect faith” of Mary, and her obedience to God.  Pius suggested that wealthy families would do well to note that the Holy Family was not wealthy, but rich in virtue.  At a time when social unrest threatened to turn violent in the wake of labor unrest throughout Europe, Pius also exhorted working men to imitate the model of the Holy Family,rather than be tempted to resort to organized violence to protest social injustice.

[1] Schnackenburg, Rudolph. The Gospel of Matthew. p26.