After the Wise Men left Bethlehem, the Angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and instructed him to flee to Egypt with the newborn Babe, Jesus Christ, and His Mother, the Most Pure Virgin Mary. The Angel told Joseph to remain in that country until he received the command to return, for Herod intended to “seek the young Child, to destroy Him.” Saint Joseph arose, and “took the young Child and His Mother by night, and departed into Egypt,” but before leaving the country, he fulfilled in the Temple of Solomon everything commanded by the Law of the Lord; for the days of the purification of the immaculate and blameless Mother of God were drawing to an end. In the Temple of Jerusalem, the Lord was met by the elder Symeon and Anna the prophetess. After accomplishing everything required, Joseph and Mary went to their house in Nazareth, as Saint Luke says: “And when they had performed all things according to the Law of the Lord, they returned unto Galilee, to their own city Nazareth.” From this it is evident that they did not go directly from Bethlehem to Egypt, but first to the Lord’s Temple, then to Nazareth, and only afterwards to Egypt. In his explanation of the Holy Gospel According to Saint Matthew,” Saint Theophylact writes: “How is it that Luke says that after the Lord was born, forty days (40) passed, and ten He was held in Symeon’s arms, and went to Nazareth; while Saint Matthew tells us that the Lord went to Nazareth after returning from Egypt? Understand that Luke speaks about things on which Matthew is silent. Luke says that after the birth, the forty days passed; then the Lord went to Nazareth. Matthew tells us what happened afterwards: that He fled to Egypt then returned from there to Nazareth. They do not contradict one another. Luke informs us of the journey from Bethlehem to Nazareth, Matthew of the return from Egypt to Nazareth, which took place later.”
When they arrived in Nazareth after attending to their obligations in the Temple of the Lord, Joseph and Mary made arrangements for the safekeeping of their house. Then, taking everything necessary for the journey, they slipped away by night, without the neighbors knowing where they were bound. They had with them James, Joseph’s eldest son, later called the Brother of God, as a helper. On the twenty-third of October, we chant the following hymns to Saint James from The Menaion, confirming this: “The Lord chose thee to be His brother in the flesh, O wise one, His disciple, and an eyewitness to divine mysteries. Thou didst flee with Jesus to Egypt in the company o His Mother and Joseph; with whom pray thou that we be saved.” The Lord fled to Egypt to show that He had truly assumed flesh and become man, and was not a spirit or a phantom. Saint Ephraim asks in his Homily on the Transfiguration: “If Christ did not truly assume flesh, with Whom did Joseph flee into Egypt?” A second reason for the flight into Egypt was to demonstrate that we should retreat when faced with anger, and not proudly contend with others. According to Saint John Chrysostom, “When the Lord fled, He taught us to give place wrath. If the Almighty chose to escape His enemies rather than to confront them, much more should we, the proud, retreat from danger.” Besides this (teaches the holy Pope Leo), it was needful that preparations for the mystery of the holiest sacrifice of all be made in that land where the Paschal lamb was first slaughtered and the Cross foreshadowed. Finally, it was necessary that Isaiah’s prophecy be fulfilled: “Behold, the Lord sitteth upon a light cloud, and shall come to Egypt: and the idols of Egypt shall be shaken at His presence.” Saint Ambrose understands “the cloud” to be the immaculate Virgin, who carried to Egypt in her arms the Lord, Whose presence caused the downfall of that country’s idols. Truly, the Virgin is “a light cloud”, for she is not weighted down by carnal knowledge, or fleshly yearnings, or sin of any kind.
While Saint Joseph, the Most Pure Virgin, and the Divine Infant were journeying to Egypt, robbers stopped them in the desert, with the intention of stealing the ass that carried their meager belongings, and a times, the Mother and the Child. One of the thieves, noticing how beautiful was the Babe, marveled, exclaiming, “If God were to assume flesh, He could not be fairer than this Child!” Whereupon, he forbade his companions to harm the travelers.
At this the Most Pure Theotokos assured the robber, “One day this Infant will reward you richly for having protected Him.” That thief was the very same one crucified with Christ, to whom the Lord said, “Today shalt thou be with Me in paradise.” With his death, the Mother of God’s prophecy was fulfilled, and the robber received his rich reward.
After arriving in Egypt, the travelers found themselves in the Thebaid, approaching Hermopolis. Near the gates of the city, there was a very beautiful tree called “Persea,” which, on account of its imposing height, the idolatrous people worshipped as a god, offering it sacrifices. When the immaculate Mother of God and the Divine Infant drew near this tree, it began to tremble violently, and the demons who dwelt within it fled. Then the tree bent over so far its top touched the ground, thus professing it Creator the adoration that was His due, and showing its respect for His Mother, the Most Pure Virgin. The holy travelers stopped to rest beneath it, sheltering themselves from the sun in its abundant shade. The tree thereafter remained bent, as a testimony to Christ-God’s flight into Egypt, and its leaves acquired the power to heal all diseases. Later, the Lord, with Mary and Joseph, entered the city, and the first heathen temple they approached, with the idols in the building, came crashing down. This temple is mentioned in The Lausiac History, in which it is written, “We also saw in Hermopolis the house of idols, wherein all the idols that were in it fell to the floor upon their faces when our Redeemer entered.” Likewise, when Christ and His Most Pure Mother went into a temple in the town of Siren, the three hundred and sixty-five statues in it toppled over. Throughout Egypt, wherever the Lord went, the idols fell and were smashed, forcing the demons to leave. Thus the prophecy uttered by Jeremiah to the pagan priests when he was in Egypt, and recorded by Saint Epiphanius in his Life of the prophet, was fulfilled: “When a virgin mother comes here with a child that was laid in a manger, the idols shall come tumbling down, and the gods made by men’s hands shall be destroyed.” On account of this prophecy it became customary among the Egyptians to fashion and revere images of a virgin resting on a bed, and next to her a child wrapped in swaddling, lying in a manger. When king Ptolemy asked the heathen priests why this was done, they told him of the mystery revealed to their ancestors centuries before the fulfillment of the prediction.
After visiting Hermopolis, the holy travelers, searching for a place to stay, neared the hamlet called Natarea located between Heliopolis and Babylon. Entering the village to buy provisions, Joseph left the Most Pure Virgin and Christ the Lord behind, under a fig tree. The tree split open from top to bottom, and its branches bend down to shelter the heads of the Divine wanderers, while its roots separated to form a cavity in the ground, in which the immaculate Virgin and her Child rested. To this day it is revered by both Christians and Saracens, who, to honor the Virgin and Child, put burning lamps in the fissure, according to the report of reliable eyewitnesses. Joseph and the Theotokos decided to remain in that village, and took up their dwelling in a little house not far from the tree. While they were living there, the power of the Divine Infant worked another miracle. Close to the wondrous tree, a spring of running water appeared, from which the Most Holy Virgin drew to satisfy the needs of the family. There the Mother of God found a place in which to wash her Child. The spring still flows today, and its water is very cold, and pure. Being the only spring in that part of Egypt, it is well-known throughout the land. The Most Pure Mother of God and Christ remained for some time in Egypt, but it is uncertain exactly how long. Saint Epiphanius asserts that it was for two years, Nicephoros for three, George Kedrinos for five. Others, such as Ammonius of Alexandria, believe it was for seven years. In any case, they did not leave until Herod’s death, as the Gospel says: “They were there until the death of Herod.” After the massacre of the children (14,000 infants, “Holy Innocents”) in Bethlehem, the wretched king perished miserably, and the Angel appeared again to Joseph in a dream, commanding him to return to the land of Israel, since they were “dead which sought the young Child’s life.” Saint Joseph departed with the Child and His Mother for Judea, the largest and most important division of Israel, “but when he heard that Archelaus did reign in Judea in the room of his father Herod, he was afraid to go thither.” Herod the Great had three sons: Archelaus; Herod Antipas; and Philip, the youngest. After he died, they all went to Rome, each with the hope of inheriting his father’s kingdom. Caesar refused to appoint any of them king, and instead divided the realm into four parts, designating the brothers tetrarchs. Archelaus, as the eldest, was assigned Judea; Herod Antipas, Galilee; Philip, Trachonitis; and Abiline was given to Lysanias the Younger. Lysanias’ father, who bore the same name as his son, was once Herod’s friend, but subsequently the king grew envious of him and put him to death. As Caesar was dismissing the brothers, he promised to grant the royal title to Archelaus, if he succeeded in governing well the domain entrusted to him. It turned out, however, that the son was no better than the father, torturing and executing many. No sooner did he arrive in Jerusalem than he slew three thousand people. Likewise, on one of the great Jewish feasts, he slaughtered a multitude of citizens immediately in front of the entrance of the Temple. Eventually he was denounced before Caesar for his cruelty, removed from power, and exiled. When Saint Joseph, therefore, was visited by the same Angel that had appeared to him before and was informed that the wicked Archelaus was ruler in Judea, he went to Galilee, where Herod Antipas ruled less brutally. Saint Joseph returned to his house in Nazareth and remained there with the Divine Child and the immaculate Virgin. Thus the saying concerning Christ the Lord “spoken by the prophets” was fulfilled, for they had foretold that He “would be called a Nazarene”. Unto Him be glory forever. Amen. (Source: The Great Collection of the Lives of the Saints)