The History Of The Blessed Virgin, Translated From The French By The Very Rev. F. C. Husenbeth, D.D., V.G. Part 36.

Chapter 13.

The Purification. Part 2.
The presence of the Messias, who inflamed the heart of the disciples at Emmaus, even before they had recognised their Master in the breaking of bread, beamed upon the soul of the Aaronites, as the ray of spring glistens on the eternal snows of Ararat. That solemn moment, which suspended the sacred concerts round the throne of God, and fixed the eyes of the heavenly host on a single point of the universe, that moment announced by Aggeus, when the glory of the second temple effaced that of the first, passed unperceived before the darkened eyes of the priests and doctors. None of them recognised " the pure and never sullied oblation" which Malachy had predicted. The desired of nations, He whose way had been prepared by angels, the great Redeemer so long promised and expected, was there bodily present, in his holy house, and no one thought to welcome him with palms, crying out upon the battlements of the temple and the roofs of Jerusalem, " Hosanna to the Son of David!" They knew well, says the gospel, how to prognosticate the approach of rain by the clouds which gathered in the west; they knew well how to foresee heat when the south wind blew; but these men, so skilful in drawing presages from the different aspects of the sky, did not see " that the fig-tree of Solomon was about to put forth its figs," 1 and the child of the people did not lead them to presage the God. 0 poverty, how excellent a disguise art thou, even for the divine nature! The true Christ was in the midst of his own; but he was poor, and his own received him not: therefore have they remained without a Saviour; for no Melech-Hamaschiak has come to justify their incredulous contempt for the divine Son of the Virgin, and they are on this account reduced to say, with cold and despairing rage, " Perish those who calculate the time of the Messias !" 2

Meanwhile the infant God, who had recognised as he passed through the streets of Jerusalem the sites of our redemption, counted his executioners in silence in this grave and glittering assemblage; among the choirs who sung to the harp hymns of praise to the Eternal, Christ distinguished the arrogant and malevolent voices which should cry out later on, " Crucify him ! crucify him!"

Race of Aaron, where art thou now ? The avenging breath of the Crucified has scattered thee like chaff in every part of the globe; absorbed in those masses which thou despisedest, the companions of thy exile no longer know thee! But at that time, little troubled about that future which was lowering over their heads, the Hebrew priests offered to the God who rejected them the chosen victims of the great and of the common people. One of them took the doves from Joseph, mounted the general ascent of the altar of holocausts, and offered to the Lord this poor and simple sacrifice.

"And after they had performed all things according to the law of the Lord," says St. Luke, "they returned into Galilee to their own city, Nazareth." 3

Where shall they take the frugal repast, to recruit their strength ? 4

Tradition is silent as to a great part of this affecting and perilous journey. No doubt the holy travellers made long and painful marches across the mountains, taking advantage of the earliest hours of daylight, and often waiting, too, for the rising of the moon to proceed on their way. As long as they were passing through Galilee, the deep caverns which are sunk in it, caverns of unknown windings, where it is easy to hide from all observation, afforded them a place to stop and repose : but these dens with hollow sides had their dangers too; for numerous and predatory bands, who had long defied all the forces of the kingdom, and who were emboldened to reappear by the sickness of Herod, 5 chose them by preference for their places of security. The fear of penetrating unconsciously into one of these resorts of assassins must have made Joseph hesitate more than once at the sheltering openings of these isolated caverns.

At length, after a thousand inconveniences of every kind, the Holy Family had reached the environs of Jerusalem. Here precautions and uneasiness were multiplied by reason of the imminence of danger; the fugitives no longer dared to come near towns, nor even populous villages, where numbers of spies and informers had their eye upon strangers: 6 they followed the bed of torrents, dived into deserted roads, or the damp shade of woods, not daring to go far out of the way to renew their exhausted provisions, and suffering at once from fear, cold, and hunger They had passed by Anathoth, and were moving in the direction of Ramla, to descend into the plains of Syria. Anxious to get out of a dangerous neighbourhood, they had borrowed some hours of the night, when they saw some armed men issue forth from a dark ravine, who stopped their passage. He who appeared to be the chief of this troop of bandits came forward from the hostile group to inspect the travellers. Joseph and Mary had stopped, and looked at each other with alarm: Jesus was asleep. The robber, who had come to take blood and gold, looked with astonishment at this old man, unarmed, just like a patriarch of olden times; at this young woman, covered with a veil, who seemed anxious to hide her child from him in her heart, so closely did she press him painfully to her breast. " They are poor," said the robber to himself, " and travel by night, like fugitives!" He too, perhaps, had a son in the cradle; perhaps the atmosphere of meekness and mercy which surrounded Jesus and Mary acted upon this ferocious soul: he lowered the point of his lance, and holding out a friendly hand to Joseph, he offered him a lodging for the night in his fortress, suspended upon the corner of a rock, like the nests of birds of prey. This offer, honestly made, was accepted with holy confidence, and the roof of the robber afforded hospitality, on this occasion, as well as the tent of the Arab. 7 The next day, towards noon, the Holy family stopped at the extremity of a vast forest of palm-trees, nopals, and wild fig-trees, which extends at a short distance from Ramla; 8 a carpet of everlasting flowers, narcissuses, and anemones received the Sovereign of heaven and earth; the heats of summer ruled in the plain, and the warbling of birds, the perfume of plants, the tufted shade of fig-trees, and the distant bubbling of a spring, acted as a charm on the sleep of Christ. After a short rest, the moments of which were counted, the travellers proceeded on their journey. Their motive for moving towards Bethlehem is unknown; tradition has preserved the memory of their passing by it, and the Christians have erected an altar in the cave where Mary concealed her infant, 9 while Joseph went up to the town, either to inquire for the departure of a caravan, or to exchange the slow travelling beast which had carried the Blessed Virgin for a camel. Whatever was the motive which led Joseph and Mary to the crater of a volcano, there is no doubt that they stayed there but a few hours, and that they made haste to reach a maritime town of the Philisthines, to join the first caravan going to Egypt.

If we rely on the learned calculations of chronologists, who allow of no interval in this long journey, the holy pair must have found a caravan on the point of starting, on the coast of Syria. This is the more probable, as the vernal equinox was at hand, and every one would be anxious to anticipate the season when the simoom exercises its empire over the desert, and makes its sea of sand as treacherous as the waves themselves. 10 Excepting the mortal apprehension of the enraged pursuit of Herod, the second part of the journey of the Holy Family did not yield to the first in fatigue or suffering or even in danger. On quitting Gaza, the ruined towers of which resounded with the dying sound of the waves, the travellers beheld nothing before them but immense solitudes of sand, of a dreary aspect and frightful barrenness, ploughed up by the hot wind of the desert, and oppressed by a fiery sky. No vegetation, except a few thin patches of heath, growing here and there on the lonely plain; no water except the brackish spring where the Virgin and Joseph, who were weary, who were poor, and whom no one cared for, could not quench their thirst till after the rich merchants, their slaves, and camels had exhausted it, and there remained of this poor muddy water barely enough to fill the hollow of one's hand. The farther they went from the frontiers of Syria, the more did they feel thirst, and the springs were more scarce. At times, they discerned at a distance, in the middle of a boundless plain, a large blue clear lake, like the lake of Genesareth; the sky was reflected in its limpid waters, in which a solitary date-palm beheld its own image. A cry of joy hailed this discovery; they urged on the speed of the camels, and Mary raised her drooping head, like a rose of Jericho which foretells rain. 11 They were close upon this blessed lake, and already slaking their thirst in imagination; but, oh wretched fate ! a mocking demon transported the lake some leagues farther on, and left nothing in its place but parched-up sand ! 12

St. Luc, c. 12, v. 55 et. 56. et c. xxii. v. 29, 30.

2 Basn., liv. vi. c. 26. Talmud, 349.

3 We have followed the opinion of St Luke, St. John Chrysostom, and some other authorities, in making the Holy Family leave for Nazareth after the Purification. This is the only way to reconcile St. Matthew—who says nothing of the marvellous events of the Presentation in the temple—with St. Luke, who is silent on the massacre of the Innocents, and the flight into Egypt. " What then shall we say ? " says St. John Chrysostom, " that St. Luke calls this the time, describing that which preceded the descent into Egypt. For he did not lead them thither before the Purification, lest the law should be in any way infringed; but he waited till the Purification should be accomplished, and they should have returned to Nazareth, and then they were to go down into Egypt."—(Horn. ix. in St Matt)

4 S. Bonav., De Vita Christi.

5 These large armies, often two or three thousand strong, were commanded by experienced chiefs, who gave Herod and the Romans full occupation. Some had a political aim, and made, party war; others were only a mere collection of assassins, who carried long daggers under their cloaks, and killed those whom they wished to get rid of, even in the streets of Jerusalem.—(De Bello, lib. ii. c. 5.)

6 Herod, who brought espionage to perfection in the East, covered the great roads with spies in every part of Judea.—(Josephus, Ant. Jud., lib. zv. o. 13.)

7 The site -where the local tradition has placed this scene, and where the ruins of the fortress of the banditti are still visible, continues to be very ill-famed. During the crusades, the Franks, to whom this tradition was familiar, had exalted the banditti chief to a feudal lord. "It is rare, however," says F. Nau, with amusing gravity, "that a lord of note becomes a highway robber." The crusaders were better versed in history than F. Nau. To this history, which seems authentic, has been added an embellishment, for which we cannot answer, asserting that the hospitable robber was the good thief in person.

8 The spot fixed by tradition as one of the resting-places of the Holy Family is very charming; the ruins of a monastery are still seen there.—(Itineraire de Paris a Jerusalem, t. ii.)

9 This cave is called the Grotto of the Virgins  Milk, because it is supposed that some drops of milk of the Mother of God fell upon the rock, while she suckled the infant Jesus.

10 " The Arabs call the hot wind of the desert simoom, or poison: the impression it makes may be compared to that received from the mouth of a large oven when the bread is drawn. These winds prevail most frequently during the fifty days which comprise the equinoxes." (Volney, Voyage en Syrie.)

11 This rose, the cup of which opens and shuts according to the variations of the atmosphere, is consulted as a barometer by the Arabs.—(The Viscount Marcellus, in his Voyage en Orient, t ii.)

12 This is the phenomenon known by the name of mirage. During the expedition which the French made in Egypt in 1798, the soldiers, traversing the arid deserts of that burning country, parched with thirst, were often deceived by this cruel illusion. Every prominent object which offered itself to their eyes in the midst of these seas of sand, appeared to them surrounded with water: thus a hillock, which they perceived at a distance, seemed to them to rise out of the midst of a lake. Dying with want they ran towards it; but, when they arrived at the place itself, they discovered their mistake: the lake had fled, and appeared yet farther off to theirs eager eyes.—(See de Fellens, du Mirage. Art. 6.)