I’m going to skip over the pregnancy and birth aspects of Mary’s story because they get plenty of coverage during Advent. Let’s consider what happened after the birth.
First of all, they became political refugees. Joseph, Mary, and the child—possibly around two years old by then—fled to Egypt to escape the wrath of Herod, who would have killed the baby to maintain his own power and position. Kind of a lot for a young woman to take in, don’t you think? First of all, she has had a fairly obscure life up until now—certainly King Herod didn’t know she existed, and if he’d happened upon her would have looked right past this Hebrew working-class female. Herod got to be king because he paid attention to the people who had the power to help him. Mary was a girl, which put her completely off the map. She was also the daughter of people who lived under occupation, which gave her little if any power. But now, because she’d given to a birth to a child considered some manner of king in Judaism’s future, Mary and Joseph were very much on the map.
There’s a Hosanna Lutheran Church in Houston, Texas that includes on its website a “Life of Jesus,” which is a sort of virtual tour of his life. I discovered it when I did an online search about the flight to Egypt. The site includes a lot of photos from the Holy Land, so you might want to check it out for yourself. Here’s a bit of the text regarding the flight to Egypt:
Governed directly by Rome since the death of Cleopatra, Egypt had long been recognized as a place of refuge. Numerous Jewish communities were found there, especially in Alexandria, which had the largest concentration of Jews outside Palestine. Because both Egypt and Palestine were part of the Roman Empire, travel between them was easy and relatively safe. . . .
Matthew’s Gospel relates no details of the journey of Mary and Joseph to Egypt to save the life of their infant son. Undoubtedly they took the regular caravan route south from Bethlehem to Hebron (modern Road 60), then sharply northwest to Gaza. From Gaza they would have followed the coastal highway down to Pelusium, the gateway to Egypt. Traveling an average of twenty miles a day, they would have reached Egypt in about ten days. (An alternate route, through the Negev and the Sinai Desert, an area of never-ending wilderness and heat, would have been extremely dangerous).
So they made a journey, but by which route? The main route would have been safer but probably patrolled heavily by Romans, who were looking for the baby. Did they take the wilderness route? Maybe they traveled alone, just the three of them, because they didn’t know who they could trust. Maybe they figured that, poor as they were, and with a small child, even bandits would look past them. Then again, it might have been easy to get lost in a caravan crowd and follow the safer route. And, although I haven’t the time nor the space to explore it here, there is much Egyptian lore about this journey of the Holy Family—traditions and legends about where they stopped or lived. I have a book on my shelf now about it, and if it’s good, you’ll hear more about it later.
They lived in a foreign land for a few years, then made another journey back to Galilee. They had to settle all over again. And we don’t know much about their life in Nazareth. We don’t know what the neighbors thought of this couple that got married pretty fast because it turned out that she was already pregnant. Nowadays hardly anybody says a word about these situations, but people got stoned to death back then for such offenses. We don’t know what stories filtered back to the hometown about the birth, or the shepherds hearing angels, or the astrologers showing up to pay homage. We don’t know the atmosphere this small family returned to. We don’t know which family members had died or which babies had been born while Mary and Joseph were away. For all we know, Mary returned not to parents but to their graves. It’s all a mystery, but it’s worth pondering. It’s a good thing for us to wonder about Mary’s actual life, her physical, day-to-day existence, way back then, in that place called Palestine.
- What do you imagine being Mary’s greatest fears in those early days of being Jesus’ mother?
- How do you envision her relationship with Joseph in the midst of their flight to Egypt and their life there?
- If you had been Mary, how would you have comforted and encouraged yourself and Joseph during those Egypt days and years?