Flee to Egypt

June: A time to remember the Flight of the Holy Family to Egypt.
by Dr. Virginia M. Kimball | Source: ESBVM.org

Traditionally, the month of June is when Christians in Egypt remember the flight of the Holy Family as recorded in the Gospel of Luke.  More specifically, the feast day of the Holy Family’s flight to Egypt in the Coptic Christian tradition is June 1. But June is a month that may encourage Christians to open hearts of faith and listen to an ancient account of the plight of Mary and Joseph, moving secretly through the homes of faithful Jews in northern Egypt and along the Nile to hide the holy Child from Herod’s evil wish to destroy him.

The angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, "Rise, take the child and his mother, flee to Egypt, and stay there until I tell you. Herod is going to search for the child to destroy him." Joseph rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed for Egypt. He stayed there until the death of Herod, that what the Lord had said through the prophet might be fulfilled, "Out of Egypt I called my son." [Matthew 2: 13-15, NAB]

Sometimes we may idealize the Holy Family and think that life was always placid and calm, but far from it.  The ancient Coptic tradition tells us that the flight took the Holy Family on a long and treacherous journey up the Nile River, accounts that harbor in the memory of many ancient monasteries in the sands of the Egyptian desert and along the Nile.  Many of the accounts may be legend, but biblical connections and stories of miracles abound.  At the turn of the millennium, the Coptic Church published a detailed account of the Holy Family’s journey.

According to tradition, Jesus Christ grew up in Palestine. The only other country he ever entered – even though he was but a baby and a young child -- was Egypt. During their flight from the anger and violence of Herod, the Holy Family journeyed to Egypt, and probably stayed there for about three-and-half years, moving through villages and settlements in Upper and Lower Egypt. Many ascribe the prophet Hosea’s words quoted in Matthew to refer to Jesus being a small Child called from Egypt to save God’s people. "When Israel was a child I loved him, out of Egypt I called my son. [Hosea 11:1 NAB]

The tradition also regards the words of Isaiah as indicating that Jesus was called from Egypt.  In Isaiah there are words that match an ancient tradition that statues of false gods fell as the Holy Family passed through the area. “Oracle on Egypt: See, the LORD is riding on a swift cloud on his way to Egypt; The idols of Egypt tremble before him, the hearts of the Egyptians melt within them.” [Isaiah 19:1 NAB]

Isaiah refers to the building of an altar to the LORD in the middle of the land of Egypt,  and at the country’s farthest extremity, a pillar built to remember the LORD. On that day there shall be an altar to the LORD in the land of Egypt, and a sacred pillar to the LORD near the boundary. It shall be a sign and a witness to the LORD of hosts in the land of Egypt, when they cry out to the LORD against their oppressors, and he sends them a savior to defend and deliver them.

The LORD shall make himself known to Egypt, and the Egyptians shall know the LORD in that day. [Isaiah 19: 19-21]
Also, Isaiah records that God was happy at Egypt’s welcome of the Holy Family: “"Blessed be my people Egypt, and the work of my hands Assyria, and my inheritance, Israel." [Isaiah 19:25 NAB]

All this tradition dates back to Pope Theophilus, Patriarch of Alexandria (384-412 AD) who received the story in a vision of the Virgin Mary, then being written it down in a manuscript call the Mimar. . There are other accounts kept piously in the many ancient Coptic monasteries of Egypt, corroborated also in second and third century Greek and Jewish writings. 

Part of this tradition of the Holy Family’s flight to Egypt is a location where the Virgin Mary stopped to rest, where now the Coptic church of Zeitoun, near Cairo, stands.  It is here that the Virgin Mary appeared in 1968.  In addition, there are accounts that the Virgin Mary has also appeared in Upper Egypt (far south along the Nile) from August  2000 to January 2001 at a location called Assiut.

Although few Americans will be taking a trip up the Nile this June, these ancient memories serve to enliven our faith and help us to understand the many trials of the Holy Family’s flight to Egypt. 

Content provided by the Ecumenical Society of the Blessed Virgin Mary – USA [www.esbvm.org

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