This year has been marked by awful violence in Syria. Again and again, our newspapers have been filled with images of children displaced by a conflict beyond their understanding. This rupture of familial relationships is one of the marks of tyranny, and it is a pain which the Holy Family knew well. Herod was the tyrant in their time, and thanks to his king-sized insecurities the little ones in the region of Bethlehem were under threat. As Moses had led Israel out of tyranny in Egypt, now Joseph had to lead his little family to safety in that very place.
There’s so much we can take from this Gospel story. It shows us just how much the Son of God identified with our humanity in all its frailty. It challenges us to see refugees and the homeless in light of the Holy Family in flight. It teaches us also that the gift of Christ in our lives is precious, and sometimes demands our vigilant protection; as an 8th-century Irish poem says, addressing Mary: ‘You spent your exile in Egypt, holy maiden, protecting gracious Christ: it was fitting to protect him’.
What strikes me, though, about this passage, is the obscure little signpost to Old Testament prophecy, which merits further meditation:
This was to fulfil what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, “Out of Egypt have I called my son”.
The evangelist is here applying a prophecy of Hosea to Christ, the Son of God, but it’s worth looking at the prophecy in its original setting:
When Israel was a child, I loved him,
and out of Egypt I called my son.
The more I called them,
the more they went from me; […]
Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk,
I took them up in my arms;
but they did know that I healed them.
I led them with cords of compassion,
with the bands of love,
and I became to them as one
who raises an infant to his cheeks.
and I bent down to them and fed them
The prophecy is first of all about God’s treatment of Israel, and is one of the most beautiful statements of His gentleness and compassion, even in the face of rejection. Generation after generation, God bent down to pick Israel up, and this repeated action reaches its climax in the Christmas mystery. In the Incarnation, the Word of God becomes one of us, and shows us how to respond to the love of the Father, whom Jesus called ‘Abba’.
What the reference to Hosea shows us is how the story of Christ ‘maps onto’ the story of Israel. In his person, Jesus sums up all of the history of Israel. As they were led out of Egypt into the Promised Land, so the Holy Family is led back to Nazareth. The mystery we celebrate at Christmas, then, did not appear out of the blue, but was the climax of the world’s longest love story.
As always, though, we should ask where we fit into the story. Jesus’ story mirrors that of Israel, and we are asked to mirror His. Where He goes we follow, so when we read of Christ being ‘led out of Egypt’, being led ‘with the bands of love’, we hear not a mere narrative, but an invitation. Our pride urges us to be independent ‘grown-ups’, but the feast of the Holy Family encourages us to become like little children, and to accept our Father’s invitation, calling us out of Egypt and into his everlasting arms.
Feast of the Holy Family (Year A)
Mt 2:13-15, 19-23