ON departing from Jerusalem the Holy Family left behind it a state of excitement that was full of danger. In the Temple, men could not but be moved by the incident that had occurred; Simeon and Anna related what they had seen to the people, and public report soon brought it to the ear of Herod himself.
The aged king was then probably dying in his palace in Jericho. He recollected that the Magi had not appeared on returning from Bethlehem, and, for the want of details as to the results of their journey, he gave himself up to all sorts of suppositions. The Organization of a vast conspiracy, at the time when his reign was about to end, did not seem to him improbable. His bitter experience of political life had made this fear a familiar one. By himself, a child was not redoubtable; but the people, who would surround his cradle with superstitious prejudice and patriotic hopes, might create a real danger. This thought beset him and awoke the bloody instincts of a soul ever the more eager for crime the nearer it approached eternity. The unhappy man had massacred his priests and the great men of his kingdom with impunity; he had drowned his soninlaw, slaughtered his own sons Alexander, Aristobulus, Antipater; his uncles, his brotherinlaw, his friends, his motherinlaw, Alexandra; he had strangled his wife, the beautiful Mariamne, whom he had loved nevertheless with wild passion; and all this blood, though torturing his conscience, seemed to make him more ferocious yet. History tells that toward the end of his life he thought of imprisoning in the amphitheater of Jericho the heads of the most noble families of his kingdom, and of having them killed on the day of his death: "Thus," said be, "there will be tears at my funeral." It was natural, then, that, in the presence of any danger, imaginary or real, he should have recourse to extreme and most bloody measures. If the people dare to salute a newborn child as King of Israel, nothing is easier than to impose silence upon them by drowning all their foolish hopes in blood. If the Messiah is born, He shall die, and that His death may be certain, every child in and around Bethlehem, two years of age and under shall be slaughtered. To put to death only that one indicated by public rumor, would not annihilate the pretensions of patriotic agitators. These might yet be transferred to any child of the generation just begun in that part of Judea. But if all are massacred without exception, the popular excitement will subside of itself, for Herod will say to the Jews: "Either your Messiah is not come, or, if He is come, He has died at His birth." Thus reasoned this aged monarch, and immediately he gave the order to put his horrible plan of campaign into execution.
God, however has no difficulty in dealing with the wicked and their criminal projects. After the presentation in the Temple, Joseph had led the Holy Family back to Bethlehem,1 where, as we have said, he desired, perhaps, to fix his home. The laborer who carries his whole fortune in his arms, readily settles down where he finds it possible to secure his daily bread. The story of the shepherds and the visit of the Magi must have lent importance to the Holy Family. Everything seemed to give promise of labor and modest ease at, Bethlehem, and it is not improbable that the Holy Family possessed some acres of land, the insignificant heirloom of a royal fortune long since scattered.
Herod's envoys, then, were to surprise the Child and include Him in the general massacre. God warned Joseph in his sleep. The faithful servant retained, even in his dreams, consciousness of the responsibilities he had accepted. Thus does the sentinel, knowing no repose, watch before the tent of his sleeping king, and, at the first sign of danger, seize in his arms and bear away the prince in safety. "Arise," said the Angel of the Lord to Joseph, "and take the Child and his mother, and fly into Egypt, and be there until I shall tell thee. For it will come to pass that Herod will seek the Child to destroy Him."
Immediately, without waiting for daylight, Joseph arose and turned his steps toward Egypt with the Mother and the Child .2
The Egyptian frontier was only two days' journey from Bethlehem. In a week one could reach the very heart of this rich country, which had been at all times the natural refuge of those whom persecution or adversity drove out of Palestine. Thither the Judeans had fled from the wrath of Nabuchodonosor; thither had gone Onias, the son of the High Priest of that name, with many of his compatriots, to escape the vengeance of Antiochus. During the wars of Hyrcanus and Aristobulus, the Judeans again had taken refuge there. A magnificent temple erected at Leontopolis by their predecessors, under Ptolemy Philometor, reminded them of the Temple of Jerusalem. Finally they established themselves in that land, and, at the beginning of the Christian era, we find a considerable colony of Judeans flourishing, not only in Alexandria, where they formed a third of the population, but also in the district of Heliopolis, where they were divided into groups according to their professions.
Joseph probably joined one of these tradescorporations, particularly prosperous at Babylon or old Cairo, in order to find work and food immediately. On the other hand it has been supposed, with some reason, that the gifts of the Magi had fully sufficed for the expenses of the journey. According to the legend, they more than sufficed, "for the palmtrees all along the way suddenly brought forth their fruit, and miraculously bent down their branches to nourish the august travelers, while the dragons and the leopards came to adore the Divine Child, and the roses of Jericho bloomed beneath His steps." According to other wonderful tales, at the moment when He first set foot on the soil of Egypt, the statues of the false gods fell down from their pedestals and were broken. But the Gospel, stern as truth, says nothing with regard to these strange prodigies, and leaves us the right to think that they existed only in the diseased imagination of certain apocryphal writers who were eager to invent where history was silent.
Meanwhile, around Bethlehem, Herod's commands were receiving a terrible fulfillment. In this town of three thousand inhabitants, there might have been twenty or thirty male children under two years of age; the assassin's fury spared not one of them. We cannot say whether they were butchered all together in one frightful slaughter, or one after the other, in silence, or by what means; but it is not unlikely that Herod skillfully concealed the hand that gave the deathstroke to these innocents. At all events, although history has neglected to make a note of this barbarous act3 in a reign already replete with blood, the mothers' hearts felt no less the awful grief spread abroad by the violence of the murderers. Rachel, who was buried on the road to Ephrata, seemed to weep again within her tomb, and to join her lamentations to those of the mothers who grieved without desire of consolation, because their sons were no more. She, Jacob's spouse of old, must have lamented above all for the sad subjection of her people, who endured in silence the sanguinary despotism of the aged tyrant. If Jeremias could say to the Israelites, as they were led to captivity past the tomb of Rachel: "Hearken to the groans of your mother;4 she who was dying in the pains of childbirth now suffers anew," had not the Evangelist the right to exclaim that the illustrious mother of Israel shall weep yet more on beholding her people, in their own country, under a servitude more galling still than that of Babylon?
All these crimes did not check the ravages of the awful disease that had seized upon the despot. An ulcer was devouring his stomach; his intestines, in their corruption, were a moving mass; the infectious odor spread through all the palace. The unfortunate man sought to put an end to his life; but he was prevented, as if the finger of God would carve on every portion of his body the punishment of his crimes. He breathed only with great pain; a perpetual fever caused him to experience the torment of insatiable thirst, and at the same time nothing could satisfy his hunger. He endured all the physical woes of the damned, and probably, too, all their moral woes. Finally, five days after having put his son Antipater to death, he died at the age of seventy years, in the thirtyfourth year of his reign.5
Then came the Angel of God at once6 to tell Joseph that he could return to his country, for they who sought the life of the Child were dead. Joseph, therefore, went up out of Egypt and set out once more for Palestine. At the frontier he learned that Archelaus was reigning in Judea, and he feared to go farther. A worthy son of his father, this prince had just had three thousand of his subjects slaughtered in the Temple. On the other hand, everything favored the return of the Holy Family into Galilee, the province which had fallen to the lot of Herod Antipas. This prince, who at the beginning was peaceable and good for political reasons, and occupied himself in beautifying his estates in order to attract foreigners, appeared to desire the greatest possible alleviation of the fortunes of his people. Joseph, therefore, gave up his project of establishing himself at Bethlehem, and went to Nazareth, which. was to become the own city of the Messiah.
Thus did God, by these successive journeys, deliver the Child of the miracle not only from the hatred of His enemies, but also from the premature worship and untimely devotion of His friends. Herod's persecution had borne Him away, like a blast of wind, far from the scene of the wonderful manifestations of God. After His departure, the shepherds must have forgotten the chant of the angels, and, believing souls, scandalized, perhaps, by this hurried flight, wondered if He were truly God who could fear the wrath of a mortal king. Faith ever dies more quickly than it is born. Were the heavenly signs they thought they had seen nothing more than the illusions of a moment? Simeon and Anna were dead, and none had inherited their ardent faith. Bethlehem and Judea had no longer any recollection of Jesus. Nazareth, an obscure town, whence nothing good was expected to come forth, received Him. There He dwelt up to the time of His solemn manifestation..
1 St. Luke, who seems not to have known of the flight into Egypt, says that they returned to Nazareth. The omission he has made here does not contradict in any way the account given by St. Matthew. He declares that, after being born at Bethlehem, Jesus had His home fixed at Nazareth; but he does not exclude the incidents that might intervene between His birth at Bethlehem and His installation at Nazareth. Such omissions are not errors. They prove, however, that these two Evangelists, whatever Resch may say in his very curious book, Das Kindheits Evangelium nach Lucas und Matthæus (Henrichs, 1897), did not draw from a common source, and even that they were unknown to each other. Otherwise we would have to conclude that the one gave but little credit to the other.
2 We learn the principal stages of this journey from legends; at Hebron and at Gaza are shown places where the Holy Family passed the night. (See Kitto, Life of Christ, 139.) The Holy Family took up its residence at Metariych, near Heliopolis. The old sycamoretree that sheltered the travelers is still pointed out, and branches of it are presented to credulous pilgrims.
3 Macrobius, in the fourth century of our era, is the only author who seems to have read in more ancient documents any historical evidence of this massacre. He relates (Saturnal., ii, 4) that Augustus, on learning that Herod had included his own son in an execution of young children carried out by his orders in Syria, exclaimed: "It is better to be Herod's pig than his son." The play upon the words un and uion would lead us to believe, in spite of the historical error as to the death of Antipater, that the pun was authentic.
4 Jer. Xxxi, 15.
5 Cf. Josephus, Antiq., xvii, 6, 5, et seq.
6 If our chronology is correct, the stay in Egypt was very short. Herod died three months after the birth of Jesus, and Joseph, warned by the Angel, returned from exile without delay. The brevity and the unimportance of the incident explain perhaps why it was not set down in the memoir or the traditional accounts of the Childhood utilized by St. Luke.
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