Fuga in Aegyptum. The flight into Egypt of the Holy Family belongs to one of the most disturbing stories in the Scriptures, the slaughter of the Holy Innocents. That it should be part of the Christmas mystery and of the Epiphany, too, indicates the deeper meaning of God’s engagement with our humanity. “Out of Egypt have I called my Son”. It is a most challenging story.
The flight into Egypt belongs to the exodus, a going forth, the idea of a journey. It is part of the break-out from Bethlehem, not the journey to but the journey from Bethlehem. Like the Magi, it, too, is a journey of the understanding and as such needs to be pondered and weighed. It speaks to some of our current confusions and contradictions.
The flight into Egypt is emphatically not a flight from the world either in the manner of the technocratic adventures of the rich elite such as Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos, or in the manner of a flight from the body, what Mary Harrington calls bio-libertarianism, an aspect of identity politics in our times.
Some argue that such elite space ventures pave the way for space travel for us all just as the airplane has transformed our sense of the world and ourselves; perhaps, but we can hardly overlook how modern travel comes with enormous costs environmentally, socially, and economically. Not all can afford to travel. It is impossible to think about the current COVID-19 pandemic apart from the increased forms of mobility in our global world, for instance. In terms of the flight from the body, it is enough to say that while we are biological and embodied beings, constrained to some extent or another by place and culture, we are not just that. We are more though not less than our embodied being. As such there are social constructs that belong to the varieties of expression about ourselves as persons. But it doesn’t mean that we are simply what we claim to be or think we are in our minds. The danger in all of these instances is that we reduce the world and our bodies to objects to be manipulated. It is a flight from reality.
The flight into Egypt is not a flight from the world but from the evil of the world in terms of the abuse and misuse of power itself. Herod seeks to annihilate a child-king whom he thinks is a potential rival to his throne. He embarks upon a policy of infanticide – such are the cruelties and the savagery of the overreach of authority – killing all the little ones “at Bethlem in his fury” as the carol, Puer Nobis Nascitur, puts it. The story is a retelling of the story in the Book of Exodus of Pharaoh, at once god and king in the Egyptian view, who initiated a policy of infanticide to control the Hebrews. Out of that comes the birth of Moses and the Exodus, the deliverance of Israel from slavery in Egypt. “Out of Egypt have I called my Son”. The Exodus is a journey of the understanding which locates human freedom in the Law of God. Israel is in this view not just freed from oppression but freed to a principle which articulates and embodies human dignity and freedom.
The flight into Egypt is a salvation story within the salvation story of human redemption. It speaks to the realities of our embodied existence in the ways our lives are bound up with one another and with suffering. The Holy Innocents symbolize all the little ones of the world who get in the way of the powerful and are simply regarded as inconvenient, expendable, in short, as nothing. In other words, their humanity is denied. It is as if they never were.
Yet the readings make it clear that their lives are not without meaning and purpose, as shocking as such spectacles of violence clearly are both then and now. The Book of Revelation identifies these innocent children, innocent because they are unable to harm, as named and known by God. They are made an essential part of the drama of human redemption, identified and drawn into the pageant of the story of Christ.
Thus, the story highlights human evil in terms of the abuse and overreach of power, on the one hand, and the overcoming of human evil in the story of Christ, on the other hand. Epiphany season makes manifest who Christ is in his essential divinity but that is made known through his humanity and in his engagement with the realities of our world. This is shown in the lovely story of the boy Jesus at the age of twelve being found in the temple in Jerusalem in the midst of the doctors of the Law, a story partly captured in the Buckle window in the Chapel. It speaks to the educational project about who and what we are in the larger context of our lives in the human community and in the midst of its competing claims and assertions. More importantly, it opens us out to the will and purpose of God for our humanity which stands in such contrast to the machinations and pretensions of human power.
“I must be about my Father’s business”, Jesus tells Mary. It marks a moment of epiphany about the meaning of his coming. What is being made known is the divine will and purpose for our humanity, our wholeness as persons is found in the person of Jesus Christ, God with God, and God with us. This is wonderfully concentrated for us in a powerful passage from Paul’s Letter to the Romans. It speaks directly to the ambiguities and confusions, the contradictions and uncertainties of our times. “Be not conformed to the world but be transformed by the renewing of your minds”. That transformation is not a flight from the world or the body as something evil and alien; it is about its redemption.
The flight into Egypt has captured the imagination of the artists who have elaborated on the rather sparse details of the biblical account. One apocryphal story is about the Holy Family coming into a city in which there are a great number of idols – images as statues – all of which fall down before the presence of Christ. Idolatry confuses reality and image, Creator and creation. Here is the overcoming of the idols of our minds.
But I cannot think of the Holy Innocents without thinking of the myriad of innocent victims of our times such as the unnamed indigenous children who died and were buried in unmarked graves at Residential Schools in various parts of Canada. The Feast of Holy Innocents has a disturbing contemporary quality to it. It speaks to the disorders of our times politically, economically, and socially but bids us think more deeply about our lives together, our being called out of ourselves and into care and respect towards one another. We place those little ones with God as named and known in Christ.
(Rev’d) David Curry
Chaplain, Head of English & ToK Teacher,
Chair of the Department of Religion and Philosophy