Saturday, February 26, 2011

Escape to Egypt (Matthew 2:13-14)

This is a "contemplation" on Matthew 2:13-14, the story of the nighttime escape of Joseph, Mary and Jesus to Egypt. I have tried to remain true to the text, but have tried to picture what it might have been like.

He woke suddenly and alert.

The lamp was still burning and Mary was sitting in the corner sewing by its flickering light and humming quietly, the child beside her.

It hadn't been a bad dream. He'd had those before - waking with a gasp and sweat on his forehead - but still, though he felt he should be frightened, he wasn't. Perhaps he was getting used to angels.

No, you don't get used to angels appearing in your dreams.

It was certainly frightening the first time, though, when the angel told him not to be afraid to take Mary as his wife. Strange that he just knew it was not some bizarre nighttime halucination, but an angel, a real angel. Maybe it was the reality of the experience, the clarity of the dream, that convinced him. It was astonishing, but not weird and disjointed, like so many dreams.

And this dream was the same way. It was as clear as a friend talking to him across his carpenter's bench. No, not a friend, more like the governor! It was frightening, like standing in front of a high official.

And this time the angel didn't give him comforting words, to do as his heart desired - to wed Mary. This time it was an order. Not exactly threatening, but in a tone that could not be mistaken, with an insistence that would not let him wait until morning.

"Get up," the angel said, "take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt."

It wasn't fear he felt, just urgency.

Joseph got up.

"What is it? Mary asked.

"We need to leave. Now."

"Now? But why?"

"I'll explain later. We need to pack and leave right away."

There was clothing, water skins, a bit of food, and, of course, the gifts the Magi had left for Jesus - gold, incense and myrrh. They would be useful for a trip to Egypt.

Mary wrapped Jesus in a blanket, and they slipped quietly out of the house. Joseph left a coin on the table for the landlord. It would more than pay for their rent.

He held the rope and led the donkey, with Mary and Jesus, through the town, the donkey's little feet clicking against the occasional stone.

The angel had warned that Herod meant to kill the child, so Joseph watched for soldiers, his heart beating wildly when he saw two guards talking. But they barely glanced as Joseph led the donkey past them.

At the edge of town he heard what he wanted before he saw it, the braying and chuffing of camels - a caravan, and, as he had hoped, a caravan to Egypt.

The magi's gold was useful. For a few gold coins, a packet of myrrh, and the donkey, Joseph purchased a trip.

He helped Mary and Jesus onto a kneeling camel.
"Joseph, where are we going?" Mary was insistent.

"Egypt," he said, climbing atop his own camel.

"Egypt? But why?"

He did not want to speak aloud. If he was overheard perhaps the caravan leader would turn them in to Herod for a reward, or perhaps he would be afraid of Herod and not want them in his caravan. So he held up his hand to Mary and looked at her, as if to say, "Be patient."

Roped head to tail, Joseph's camel to the back of Mary's, and hers to the camel in front of her, the train headed into the desert as the eastern sky turned pink, and then golden.

The sun rose and the shadows shortened and the camels plodded farther into the desert and Joseph's heart ceased its hammering, and Mary leaned back when she could, to talk, and when he thought nobody was watching he would lean forward and whisper bits of what the angel had said, and sometimes she heard but mostly she couldn't.

But that was all right. When they stopped for the night, then, near a flickering fire in the wilds of Sinai, he would whisper the story to her, and they would plan what to do in Egypt, and wait for the day when the angel would come again and tell them it was safe to return to Israel.