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After the visit of the wise men, things went down hill fast for the holy family. This is a very dark page from their lives.
An angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, saying, "Arise, take the young Child and His mother, flee to Egypt, and stay there until I bring you word; for Herod will seek to destroy Him."
When Herod saw he was deceived by the wise men, he was exceedingly angry. He sent forth and put to death all the male children who were in Bethlehem and in all its districts, from two years old and under, according to the time he had determined from the wise men.
Then was fulfilled what was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet, saying: "A voice was heard in Ramah, lamentation, weeping and great mourning. Rachel weeping for her children, refusing to be comforted, because they are no more."
When Herod was dead, an angel appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, saying, "Arise, take the young Child and His mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the young Child's life are dead."
But when Joseph heard that Archelaus was reigning over Judea instead of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And being warned by God in a dream, he turned aside into the region of Galilee. And he came and dwelt in a city called Nazareth, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophets, "He shall be called a Nazarene." Matthew 2:13-23 NKJV condensed
Flight to Egypt
It seems the wise men had stirred up a hornets nest. In retrospect and despite their expensive gifts, we all might wish they had never come. Because the consequence of their search for the newborn Messiah/King opened the eyes of Herod the Great to something he didn't like. And would not permit. Herod, the deceiver, did not like to be deceived. His anger exploded.
Nothing is so dangerous as supreme power combined with evil intentions. The angel came to Joseph in a dream with instructions to flee to Egypt and stay there until further notified. To flee means to escape undetected. Joseph and Mary would have to figure that out--how to conceal the baby, how to look innocent and blend in, maybe how to travel in the dark, what to do when they feel threatened or if the baby cries, and how to endure the suspense of not knowing what lies ahead.
Unable to find the little king Jesus, Herod did the unthinkable. He ordered the killing of all male children under the age of twoin Bethlehem and the surrounding areas! Thus the holy family became fugitives in a foreign land and the families of Bethlehem witnessed a very great tragedy, the slaughter of their infant sons.
Rachel was the beloved wife of the ancient patriarch Jacob, whom God had renamed Israel. Symbolically, her voice spoke from her nearby grave as she mourned with the people of Bethlehem. Rachel, who had died in childbirth, beat her breast and wept, refusing comfort, because her children were lost to this world.
What are we to do with tragedies like this! Innocent babies put to the sword by a raging ruler. Families torn apart by grief and the injustice of it all. Death, so cold and final. The smiles and babble of their little ones gone forever. Nothing can be said to ease the pain. Amid such brutality, how can faith in the goodness of God survive?
The holy family, on the road to Egypt, would surely hear about the killings. It will be an added burden they must carry. Jesus, welcome to the real world! Yes, the real world where might makes right, people are cruel, and life is so cheap you can murder a few thousand and it doesn't even matter. Joseph and Mary must have wondered how this could happen? They may have asked themselves," Are we to blame?"
Sadly, atrocities such as Herod's are not period specific. We, too, are familiar with images of holocaust, genocide, ethnic cleansing, suicide bombers, mass gravesites and massacres . Power still corrupts. Human nature has not changed all that much, just the weapon of choice and the rationale.
We in America speak of post 9/11. Mary and Joseph had a "post" also--post the slaughter of the infants. These were the formative years of Jesus, the "age of innocence". That period of time between birth and age 5 when nurture and environment are very important in developing the way a child will perceive and respond to life. Jesus spent those critical years in a stable, then at a house in Bethlehem, later on the road fleeing for his life, and as a refugee in a foreign country. Such was life in this family where mother Mary was favored by God and blessed among women! His father was a carpenter; I suppose Joseph could apply his trade anywhere.
During those years, king Herod remained strong. He could show no sign of weakness because he had made too many political enemies. Then suddenly, the reign of Herod the Great came to an end; he died. People cheered the news of Herod's passing, and Joseph had another one of his dreams.
The holy family could go home now. But where was home? We first met Mary in Luke's gospel, and she was living in the Galilean town of Nazareth. When Joseph married her, they were required to go to his hometown of Bethlehem to register for the census. Now, after an absence of about five years, it sounds like Bethlehem in Judea would have been their first choice. But according to Matthew's gospel, fear of Herod's successor sent them back to Galilee and the town of Nazareth. And so Jesus became a Nazarene, a word synonymous with scorn. The reputation of Nazareth is summed up in the phrase, "What good could ever come out of Nazareth"!
Use the following questions for small groups, journaling, further study or reflection.
Icebreaker: How many hands does it take to count the number of places you've lived? Name the cities, states, and countries you called home.
Herod was a dominate character in the story of the wise men's visit. It's ironic that such a destructive man could also be constructive in other ways. He built beautiful buildings, even reconstructing the Jewish temple. How do you explain the contradictory dimensions of his life? Is it unusual for people to be a complex mix of both good and evil?
Scars. We all carry wounds from past experiences. Put yourself in the shoes of Joseph and Mary. What kind of scars would you be carrying with you back to Nazareth? Do you think they should feel any guilt for the slaughter of the infants?What are some events which changed your life? Maybe a war, an illness or death, a failure or broken relationship, a political decision, or a family dispute. How have these events helped to shape the person you are today? Are you carrying scars from the past? If so, how are they evident?
Chart the highs and lows of the holy family. What is at the top? What is on the bottom? Where would you place their return to Nazareth?Describe how your life has been a journey that includes both peaks and valleys.
How do you think the difficulties from Jesus' early years influenced his life, his ministry or his teachings? Jesus told people to depend on their heavenly Father, take one day at a time and not worry. He taught gentleness and mercy. How do you think he learned these things? In your own life, how did your pre-school years affect the person you are today?
Joseph was repeatedly guided by dreams. How and why do you think that worked for Joseph? Did you ever dream about something weighing heavily on your mind?
How does faith survive a tragedy? Give an example from your life when faith triumphed over evil or loss?
How would Mary and Joseph explain the events of his early childhoodto Jesus? How might their story have sounded?