|Adoration of the Shepherds by Gerard van Honthorst|
The wise men came " from the countries of the East," perhaps from Assyria or Chaldea, but more probably from Media or Persia. A meteor, miraculously formed and appearing like a star, 3 was manifested to them, in all probability about the time of the birth of Jesus. Ancient traditions, or knowledge of the prophecies spread in the East by the Jews of the captivity, and above all the grace of God, had enabled them to interpret the heavenly sign; and, already prepared to worship the Ruler whom God had made to arise out of Judah, they set out on their way, and quite naturally, it was to the capital they went to seek the new King. " Where," said they, " is He that is born King of the Jews? For we have seen His star in the east, and are come to worship Him."
" When Herod the king had heard these things, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him." He gathered together, if not all the Sanhedrim, at least " all the chief priests and scribes of the people," that is to say the official guardians of the knowledge of the Scriptures, and " demanded of them where Christ should be born. And they said unto him, In Bethlehem of Judaea: for thus it is written by the prophet, And thou Bethlehem, in the land of Juda, art not the least among the princes of Juda: for out of thee shall come a Governor, that shall rule my people Israel. 4
" Then Herod, when he had privily called the wise men, inquired of them diligently what time the star appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem, and said, Go and search diligently for the young child; and when ye have found Him, bring me word again, that I may come and worship Him also.
" When they had heard the king, they departed ; and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east," and which had since disappeared, suddenly reappeared before their eyes. Moving at the pleasure of the divine will through the lower strata of space, the meteor " went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was." Its reappearance brought the sweetest consolation and assurance to the travellers. "When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy." The ignorance and indifference which they had found at Jerusalem on the subject of the birth of the " King of the Jews," had, doubtless, affected them painfully; but the star, smiling from heaven, quickly dispersed that sorrowful impression. God was always with them, and continued to guide them ; they had not deceived themselves in coming to Bethlehem to seek the Messiah.
Therefore the poverty of the dwelling over which the star rested did not make them hesitate, "and when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary His mother, and fell down, and worshipped Him."
Mary was the throne of this new-born King to whom the princes of the East paid worship. She had presided at the first manifestation of her Son, given to the Israelites, who were the first called, and to the poor, who were the most ready to come. She presided now at this second manifestation, in which Jesus showed Himself to the wise, to the great people of the world, and to the Gentiles; a manifestation which, like the first, and even in a greater degree perhaps, bore in it the type of the far-off future. For the wise, the rich, princes, and kings are called to the kingdom of God, and, if they are not the first to enter, they will come nevertheless in great numbers; the nations will quickly reap the inheritance rejected by Israel, and will thus form the principal body of the Christian Church. All those who come will find, as on this day the wise men found, God made man, in the arms of His mother. And on this day Mary presented Him and revealed Him to these first-fruits of the Gentiles.
Whether they spoke a Semitic language akin to the Hebrew of that time, whether they had the assistance of an interpreter, or whether on that day the gift of tongues was given to Mary, as later it was given to the apostles, it is generally supposed that the strangers held converse with the Virgin mother, and that she planted in their souls the germs of Christian faith and holiness. Did not the spiritual character of their worship of the new-born Christ come from the teaching of Mary ? Their prostration was, in fact, not merely the prostration which was customary at the courts of eastern monarchs; it was, according to common opinion, the recognition of His divinity.
Finally, they called their attendants to bring in their precious coffers, " and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto Him gifts; gold, and frankincense, and myrrh." They presented to the incarnate God incense, which, among the Jews and among ancient nations generally, was the perfume of the temple and of the altar; by gold and myrrh they intended to honour the royal power which they had recognised from the first, and which, in truth, the Babe of Bethlehem possessed. Another symbolism, probably unknown to the wise men, but perhaps intended by God, was that myrrh foretold the death and burial of the Redeemer.
We do not know whether the princely visitors remained at Bethlehem only a day or a little longer.
But they stayed there at least one night. For it was in " a dream " that they were warned of God that they should not return to Herod. Therefore they avoided returning to Jerusalem, and going direct to the crossing of the Jordan, " they departed into their own country another way."
When the wise men " were departed," 5 and doubtless, very soon after their departure," behold, the angel of the Lord appeareth to Joseph in a dream, saying, Arise, and take the young child and His mother, and flee into Egypt, and be thou there until I bring thee word: for Herod will seek the young child to destroy Him. When he arose, he took the young child and His mother by night, and departed into Egypt."
Herod, in fact, soon learned—for Bethlehem is less than two hours' distance from Jerusalem—that he could not depend on the eastern princes for relief from his anxious jealousy. " Then Herod, when he saw that he was mocked of the wise men, was exceeding wroth, and sent forth, and slew all the children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the coasts thereof, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had diligently inquired of the wise men." Every one in the little town would be able to tell the emissaries of the king before which house the brilliant caravan had stopped, and to add the precise time when the inhabitants of that house had disappeared. But one may well suspect the people of Bethlehem of prevarication, or at least of connivance in hiding the formidable rival of Herod ; and the children designated by the royal command, possibly half-a-hundred in number, were put to death. " Then was fulfilled," in a new fashion, "that which was spoken by Jeremy the prophet, saying, In Rama was there a voice heard, lamentation, and weeping, and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children, and would not be comforted, because they are not." 6 Of old, the wife of Jacob had mourned for her children when, God at that time chastening His people, the captives had been assembled in Rama, in preparation for exile to far-off Assyria. To-day, from her cavernous tomb on the road to Bethlehem, she could weep afresh over the children of Israel so cruelly massacred, and, above all, weep over the unfaithfulness of the rulers of that nation ; for already they had denied the Messiah, they had put Him to flight, and they were advancing towards an apostasy graver than the idolatry of their ancient kings, towards chastisement more terrible than invasions from Assyria and Chaldea.
Nevertheless, as always happens, the hate of the tyrant was turned into a work of divine love. Though Jesus, when He appeared, drew down persecution upon those who surrounded Him, He brought them in return for it an eternal reward. The first victims sacrificed for Him, the Innocents, were welcomed by the angels, and descended into Limbus only to await there in peace the glorious crowns of martyrs.
During this time, the holy family were travelling upon the way to exile. The divine command, communicated to Joseph, had met with perfect obedience from that servant of the Lord and from Jesus who passively submitted. Joseph had taken a few indispensable things, and Mary carried her most precious burden; perhaps—we conjecture rather than know it—they had an ass with them to relieve their fatigue somewhat; and the same night that the angel had appeared to them they set out on their way. In four days, perhaps, for they hastened their journey, they could reach Rhinocorura and the " River of Egypt," 7 the famous frontier of biblical history, beyond which Herod could not pursue them.
According to the accepted local traditions, they went on their journey as far as Heliopolis. This was the ancient town of On, the country of Asenath, the wife of the patriarch Joseph. Its sacred name Pi-Ra," city of the Sun," became Heliopolis in Hellenised Egypt. Its site is now marked by an obelisk and some ruins level with the ground near the village of Matariyeh about five miles to the north-east of Cairo. In the " balsam garden " at Matariyeh is shown a sycamore, two centuries and a half old, the trunk of which is open and leaning over as if to cast the shadow of its branches. It is called the " tree of the Virgin," and grows in the place of other " trees of the Virgin," more ancient still; and the legend goes, that the holy family rested under the one which nineteen centuries ago grew on the same spot. Some forty yards from the sycamore is a spring which ancient pilgrims used to visit, but its waters are now so choked with infiltrations of the Nile that it is difficult to distinguish it. It is said by the Copts that it was Jesus who caused this spring to gush forth. Also at Old Cairo, a little to the south of Cairo, people visit in the Coptic Church a crypt which may, at a certain period of their journey, have served as a shelter for the exiles. 8
It was in the neighbourhood of Heliopolis that, in the time of Antiochus Epiphanes, the high priest Onias IV. took refuge. Interpreting according to his own personal views the Law and Isaiah, he built, a few miles to the north of the City of the Sun, a temple, which gave great offence to the people of Jerusalem. After the dispersion, the Jews, scattered throughout Egypt, were especially numerous at Heliopolis and in the region round about. It is then not at all improbable that Mary and Joseph may have travelled a hundred and fifty miles or more, reckoning from Rhinocolura, to settle in a province so much frequented by their compatriots.
The presence there of Jewish communities mitigated, without entirely dispersing, the sadness of the sojourn in a pagan land, and gave to the newcomers greater facilities for finding work. The gold of the wise men, which had been sent to th'em by Providence on the evening of their departure, had been absorbed by the journey and the expenses necessary in settling in a new home ; it is also supposed by many that the holy parents of Jesus did not hoard up their little store of gold, and that they did not hesitate to distribute to the poorest that which they could spare from their own necessities. For their living and for the bringing up of their divine child, they had their daily labour. Joseph laboured at his rough work as a carpenter; and Mary as well, probably sought some gain by the work which she did so cleverly. Sometimes, seated near the cradle of Jesus, she sewed, spun, or embroidered ; and sometimes, gliding in modest meditation through the streets of the idolatrous and corrupt town, she went, a humble worker, to seek or take back her work.
The holy family lived there " until the death of Herod: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, Out of Egypt have I called My Son." 9 The words of Hosea could be literally applied to Israel, but the inspirer, the Holy Ghost, had also spoken them in the mystic sense, of Christ, whose life was typically represented by the history of the chosen people, and only by whose love this people could participate in the title of " son."
" When Herod was dead, behold, an angel of the Lord appeareth in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, saying, Arise, and take the young child and His mother, and go into the land of Israel: for they are dead which sought the young child's life." According to the calculation commonly accepted, Herod died in the year 750 of the Roman Empire, and four years before our era, about the time of the Feast of the Passover. Perhaps he was not the only one who was seeking the life of the divine child; and the plural used in the words of the angel permits us to think that God awaited the death, not only of the king, but of one or of several other influential persons. Further, at the time when Joseph returned, the succession to the kingdom seems to have been decided, and that was only done several months after Herod's death. It is therefore possible that the angel did not come immediately after his death to recall the fugitives; but, in view of the expression in the Gospel, one can only surmise that he may have waited a considerable time. On account of the uncertainty which exists as to the precise date of the return and that of the departure, it is difficult to say exactly how long the exile in Egypt lasted. May it not have been three years according to the manner of Hebrew reckoning, that is to say, a complete year, and two fractions of a year ? Perhaps this would be a means of explaining the ancient evidences which give a period of three years. But we may also question whether the whole journey may not have lasted at least a year. The only possibility which remains to account for a prolonged sojourn in Egypt, would be an error in the accepted date of the death of Herod; a possibility very slight however, for the date 750, four years before our era, seems on the whole to be soundly established. 10
Joseph "arose, and took the young child and His mother, and came into the land of Israel." As he had departed from Bethlehem, he proposed to return to it. But on the journey thither "he heard that Archelaus did reign in Judaea in the room of his father Herod." The reports, gathered in Egypt and on the borders, were correct; Archelaus had for his portion, Judea, with Idumea and Samaria, and already he had shewn some instances of cruelty which indicated that the young prince was walking in the footsteps of Herod. Therefore, the head of the holy family " was afraid to go " into his territory, and asked God in prayer what he should do. " Being warned of God in a dream, he turned aside into the parts of Galilee." Herod Antipas, who was ruler of this province, governed less tyrannically; and, in spite of his vices and crimes, it was in his kingdom that, thirty years later, the preaching of Jesus was received with most tolerance.
For fear of Archelaus, Joseph was obliged to avoid the most direct route, which went through Jerusalem and Samaria, and had to journey by the shore of the Mediterranean Sea, by Gaza, and Caesarea in Palestine. This route took them past Carmel, and local tradition says that the travellers may have rested in the cave called " The School of the Prophets," one of the most venerated places in the holy mountain. Finally they returned to dwell " in a city called Nazareth : that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophets, " He shall be called a Nazarene." This somewhat vague expression probably refers to a prophecy which had been orally handed down, rather than to a scriptural text.
From SAINT MARY THE VIRGIN BY RENE-MARIE DE LA BROISE
TRANSLATED BY HAROLD GIDNEY
1 St Matthew ii. 1-12 ; passage commented on in the following pages.
2 At least according to the calculation followed here. Those who place the birth of the child Jesus a year sooner (25th December of the year 7) must place the Epiphany on 6th of January of the year 5. In any case and according to any calculation, the latest 6th of January possible is that which preceded by about three months the death of Herod.
3 The only scientific opinion admissible (see Knabenbauer upon this passage, and Dictionnaire ae la Bible, art. Etoile des Mages), which is also that of St Thomas, p. 3, q. xxxvi., a. 7.
4 Micah v. 2.
5 St Matthew ii. 13-23 ; passage commented on in the following pages.
6 Jeremiah xxxi. 15.
7 The Wady el Arish of today.
8 Cf. Pere Jullien's L'arbre de la Vierge a Matarich, fourth edition, 1904.
9 Hosea xi. I.
10 For several centuries this date has been accepted by chronologists, who have closely studied the question (see, for example, Pere Godefroid Henschen in his chronology of the Life of Christ, Acta Sanctorum, Propylӕum Maii, ed. Palme, p. 7). It has sometimes been disputed. Twenty years ago, Fl. Riess wrote to prove that Herod died in 753, one year before our era; but he has not been followed.