• A narrative of the Most Pure Virgin’s Mary flight into Egypt with the newborn Divine Child

    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)

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  • On the Nativity of Christ our Savior

    By St. John Chrysostom

    A feast is approaching which is the most solemn and awe- inspiring of all feasts. If one were to call it the metropolis of all feasts, one wouldn’t be wrong. What is it? The birth of Christ according to the flesh.

    In this feast the Epiphany, holy Pascha, the Ascension and Pentecost have their beginning and their purpose. For if Christ hadn’t been born according to the flesh, he wouldn’t have been baptized, which is Epiphany. He wouldn’t have been crucified, which is Pascha. He wouldn’t have sent the Spirit, which is Pentecost. So, from this event, as from some spring, different rivers flow – these feasts of ours are born. But not only on this account would it be right to give precedence to this day, but also because what happened on it is much more awe-inspiring than all other days. I say this because the fact that Christ died after becoming human was the consequence of that: even if he didn’t commit sin, still he assumed a mortal body. And that too was an amazing fact: that, although God, he was willing to become human and to condescend to take so much on himself that not even the imagination can embrace. It’s this that is most awe- inspiring, and completely perplexing. Even Paul said in amazement: “Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of our piety” (1 Tim. 3:16). How great? “God was manifest in the flesh” (1 Tim. 3:16). And again, he says elsewhere: “For surely, it’s not with angels that God is concerned, but with the descendants of Abraham. Therefore, he had to be made like his brethren in every respect” (Heb. 2:16-17).

    On this account especially, I embrace and love this day, and put my ardent love on show to make you share in my affection for it. On this account I beg and entreat all of you to be present with much zeal and enthusiasm, each having vacated your own house, so that we may see our Master lying in the manger, dressed in swaddling-clothes – that awe-inspiring and miraculous sight. What kind of defense could we have, what kind of excuse, when he came down from heaven for our sake while we can’t even leave the house to go to him? Or when the Magi, who were barbarians and foreigners, hurried from Persia to see him lying in the manger? But you, a Christian, can’t be bothered to travel even a short distance in order to enjoy this blessed sight? For if we’re present in faith, we’ll certainly see him lying in the manger: this table fulfills the role of the manger.

    Indeed, here lies the body of the Lord, not wrapped in swaddling- clothes as formerly, but attired completely with the Holy Spirit. Those who are initiated know what I’m saying. The Magi merely worshiped him, whereas you, if you approach to communicate with a clear conscience, we permit to consume him and go back home. Approach, then, bringing gifts – not gifts like the Magi brought but ones that are much more solemn. They brought gold; you must bring temperance and virtue. They brought incense; you must bring pure prayers which are spiritual incense. They brought myrrh; you must bring humility and a humble heart and love. If you approach with these gifts, with great confidence you’ll enjoy this holy table. For my part, I’m saying this now because I know quite well that on that day many of you will come forward and fall on this spiritual sacrifice. So that we don’t do this to the detriment or condemnation of our soul but for our salvation, I’m calling you to witness beforehand, and I’m begging you to approach the holy mysteries after you’ve cleansed yourselves in every respect.

    Please don’t let anybody say to me: “I’m full of shame, I have a conscience crammed with sins, I’m carrying a very heavy burden.” If you’re sober, and pray and keep vigil, the appointed period of five days is sufficient to trim away your many sins. Don’t look at how short the time is, but consider the point that the Master is loving. The Ninevites were able to beat off God’s considerable anger in three days, and the time-constraint was no hindrance, but their readiness of spirit captured the Master’s generosity and was able to affect everything (cf. Jon. 3). The prostitute, too, coming to Christ in a brief critical moment washed away all her offenses (cf. Lk. 7). When the Jews made the accusation that Christ had admitted her and had given her so much confidence, he silenced them, and freed her from all evils, and, having approved her enthusiasm, he sent her away. What’s the message? That she came with an ardent mind and a burning soul and a fervent faith, and she touched those holy and sacred feet, when she had let down her hair, let tears flood from her eyes, and poured out the perfume.

    The objects by which she bewitched people, she used to prepare the drugs of repentance. The objects by which she excited the gaze of the licentious, she used to weep tears. The locks of hair by which she tripped up many people so they fell into sin, she used to wipe Christ’s feet. The perfume by which she enticed, she used to anoint his feet. And you too therefore must placate God in turn by using the objects by which you provoked him. Did you provoke him by stealing money? Win him over by giving away what you stole to those who’ve been unjustly treated, and give other things in addition; say in the words of Zacchaeus: “I give back four times everything I’ve stolen” (cf. Lk. 19:8). Have you provoked him with your tongue and your abuse, by insulting many people? Propitiate him in turn with your tongue, by sending up pure prayers, by blessing those who abuse you, by praising those who speak badly of you, by thanking those who wrong you. These actions don’t require days or the passing of many years, but only right purpose, and they can be accomplished in one day. Keep aloof from wickedness, embrace virtue, desist from evil; promise to commit these sins no longer, and this will be sufficient for your defense. I testify and guarantee that, if each of us that has sinned keeps aloof from their former evil ways and promises God truthfully that they won’t touch them anymore, God will require nothing else for a substantial defense. I say this because he is generous and merciful, and just as a woman in labor longs to give birth, so he too longs to dispense his mercy – it’s our sins that interfere with this.

    Let’s pull down the wall, then, and right from that time begin the feast, renouncing all activities for these five days. “Farewell to the law courts, farewell to the council chambers – a plague on daily business, with its contracts and transactions. I want to save my soul.” “What does it profit a person if they gain the whole world and lose their own soul?” (Matt. 16:26). The Magi came away from Persia; you must come away from daily business and travel towards Jesus. The distance isn’t great, if we’re willing. The point is that you don’t have to cross the sea, or traverse mountain peaks, but if you sit at home, exhibiting piety and much compunction, you can see the wall being completely broken down, you can remove the obstacle, you can cut the length of the journey. “For I am a God at hand,” it says, “and not a God far off” (Jer. 23:23), and “The Lord is near to all who call on him in truth” (Ps. 145:18).

    But as it is, many of the faithful have arrived at such a degree of silliness and neglect that, although they are full of countless evils, and because they take no thought whatsoever for themselves, they approach this table on feast days in a random and frivolous fashion. They don’t know that the time of communion doesn’t consist of a feast and a celebration, but of a clear conscience and a life full of reproach. Just as the ordinary person who has nothing on their conscience ought to approach communion every day, so it’s unsafe for the person who is overpowered by sin and does not repent to approach even on a feast day. For approaching once, a year isn’t going to free us from reproach, if we approach unworthily; but it’s precisely this that damns us all the more, namely that when we approach on that one occasion, we’re not even then approaching with a clear conscience.

    That’s why I beg all of you not to touch the divine mysteries in a negligent manner because you have to celebrate the feast. If, however, you’re ever going to partake of this holy offering, you must purify yourselves for many days beforehand through repentance and prayer and almsgiving and devotion to spiritual matters, and not “return like a dog to its own vomit” (Prov. 26:11). Isn’t it absurd to take so much care over bodily concerns, so that many days before the feast approaches you get your best clothes out of their chests and get them ready, and you buy shoes, and enjoy a more lavish table, and over and above that you take thought for many provisions from all quarters, and in every respect you clean yourself up and make yourself look good? On the other hand, you take no account of your soul, which is neglected, dirty, squalid, wasted from hunger and still unclean. Isn’t it absurd that while you take your clean body to church, you overlook your soul, which is naked and disgraced? Yet whereas your fellow servant sees your body and no harm results no matter how it’s dressed, the Master sees your soul and will put in place a most serious punishment for its neglect.

    Don’t you know that this table is full of spiritual fire, and just as springs gush forth the force of water, so too does the table contain a certain mysterious flame? So, don’t approach it if you’re carrying stubble, wood or dry grass, in case you cause a bigger blaze and you burn your soul as it takes communion. But bring precious stones, gold, silver, in order to make the material purer, in order to go back home having derived a great deal of profit. If you’ve got something wicked in you, get rid of it, banish it from your soul. Is it the case that someone has an enemy, and is suffering grievous wrongs at their hands? Let them bring the enmity to an end, let them restrain their inflamed and swollen attitude, so that internally they experience no tumult or disturbance. I say this because in communicating you are going to welcome a king. But if it’s a king coming into your soul there must be abundant tranquility, abundant silence and a deep peace for your thoughts. But your suffering grievous wrongs, and you can’t stop being angry? Why, then, do you visit much greater wrongs and difficulties on yourself? Whatever the person does, your enemy won’t inflict on you the kind of harm you inflict on yourself by not being reconciled with them but rather trampling God’s laws under your feet. Did your enemy insult you? Is it on this account, tell me, that you then insult God? Refusing to be reconciled with the one who hurt you isn’t so much a sign of taking revenge on them as of insulting God, who laid down these laws.

    So, don’t look at your fellow servant, nor at the magnitude of the wrongs they have done, but when you have put God and the fear of God into your mind, consider the following point. The excessive wrenching that you feel internally when, after countless evil acts, you force yourself to be reconciled with the one who hurt you, will be commensurate with the increased esteem which you will enjoy in the eyes of God, who ordered this course of action. And just as here on earth you will welcome God with great honor, so too will he receive you in heaven with great glory, as he pays you back ten-thousandfold for your obedience. May all of us attain this through the grace and love for mankind of our Lord Jesus Christ, with whom to the Father, together with the Holy Spirit, be glory, honor, power and worship, for ever and ever. Amen.

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