The History Of The Blessed Virgin, Translated From The French By The Very Rev. F. C. Husenbeth, D.D., V.G. Part 37.

Chapter 13.

The Purification. Part 3.
Another optical illusion, which is often repeated in this dry and burning region, made travellers at a distance assume gigantic proportions. Arab horsemen, covered with their flowing cloaks striped brown and white, and armed with the djombie —a dagger with a curved blade, which all the dwellers of the desert wear in their girdles—appeared afar off as tall as towers, and seemed to be moving in the air. The Virgin started, and pressed Jesus more closely to her heart; but the placid countenance of Joseph calmed her fears, although she could not understand the phenomenon which gave rise to them. 1

At the approach of evening, the song of the camel-drivers ceased, 2 the leader of the caravan unfurled the flag which gives notice of the halt, and all the travellers assembled round this signal of order. An animated scene soon followed this halting-time. They unloaded the camels, who were kneeling at the feet of their masters, their burdens were piled up pyramidally; they set up a row of round stakes, to which the beasts of burden were to be tethered ; the rich travellers pitched their tents, and the leader of the caravan placed sentinels to give notice of the approach of the Bedouins, those pirates of the desert, who were, and are still, robbers like Ismael, and hospitable like Abraham. Every merchant, after taking his repast of dates and milk, composed himself to sleep in his tent of mohair till the rising of the moon. The slaves and the poor travellers, in which number were the Son of God, his divine Mother, and Joseph, sat upon a rush mat, spread upon the ground, without any roof but the sky, and felt the icy breeze of the night 3 upon their limbs, languid with heat, and worn out with fatigue. At times was heard a cry of alarm: it was the Arabs of the desert, prowling about the slumbering caravan ; disconcerted by the vigilance of the guards of the camp, they announced their departure by a volley of arrows, accompanied by the groans of the wounded. Then the Virgin, who had made a rampart with her body for her adored Son, raised up to heaven her eyes moist with tears, and her forehead pale with fear; she knew but too well that her Jesus was mortal as well as the least of the children of men !

When the moon diffused her white light over that shadowless and noiseless desert, where the breezes of the solitude found not a blade of grass to raise a sigh, they struck their tents, and the painful march began again, with all the inconveniences, sufferings, and terrors experienced the day before.

At length, they arrived at the extremity of this region of illusions and silence. Egypt, that ancient nursery of every light, and every species of idolatry, presented itself to the travellers, with its obelisks of rose granite, its temples with tops of polished steel, its colossal pyramids, its villages resembling islands, and its providential river, bordered with reeds, and covered with vessels. This country appeared richer, more populous, and more commercial than Judea ; but it was the land of exile! on the other side of the desert was their own country! The hearts of the exiles of Israel had remained there.

After a journey of a hundred and forty leagues, 5 the fugitives reached Heliopolis, where their nation had founded a colony. In that city arose the temple of Jehovah, which Onias had built upon the plan of the holy house. The ornaments of this Egyptian temple were almost equal to those of the other; only, as a sign of inferiority, a massive lamp of gold, suspended from the ceiling supplied the place of the famous candlestick with seven branches at Jerusalem. At the gate of this city, the population of which was in great measure composed of Egyptians and idolatrous Arabs, was a majestic tree, of the mimosa species, to which the Arabs of the Yemen, established on the banks of the Nile, paid a kind of worship. 6 At the approach of the Holy Family, the fetiche tree slowly bent down its shady branches, as if to offer the salam to the young Master of nature, whom Mary carried in her arms ; 7 and, if we may believe the historian Palladius, at the moment when the divine travellers passed under the granite arches of the gate of Heliopolis, all the idols of a neighbouring temple fell on their faces to the ground. 8

Joseph and Mary only passed through the City of the Sun, and repaired to Matarieh, a beautiful village shaded by sycamores, where the only fountain of sweet water in Egypt is found. There, in a dwelling like a bee-hive, where the doves built their nests, the fugitive family reposed in peace, far away from Herod.

This cruel prince, after waiting in vain for the Magi in his palace at Jericho, his favourite residence, learned at length that they had repassed the frontiers of his kingdom, and that, without giving him an account of their mission, they were gone back to the country of the Persians. Pale already from the slow fever which consumed him, the King of the Jews became still paler with wrath. He was deceived at the very moment when he was delighted at the thought of his unequalled cleverness in deceiving others—deceived by these uncircumcised men, who, contrary to all expectation, had found out his tortuous and wily policy! If the Magi had not discovered the child to whom the star had conducted them, they would have told him so on their return.—They had then discovered his secret retirement, and this was somewhere in Bethlehem or its environs, since they had not carried their search any farther.—How was this dangerous child now to be distinguished from common children ?— There was but one last expedient left, one extreme measure to destroy him: this was to include him in one general massacre.—But the people!—At this thought the aged king mused for a moment; then a wild and scornful smile passed over his lips. The people dare nothing, said Herod to himself, against kings who dare everything!

" And sending, he killed all the men-children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the borders thereof, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had diligently inquired of the wise men." 9

According to a number of grave authors, 10 who have tradition and probability on their side, the Holy Family remained seven years in Egypt. There are still found traces of their dwelling there: the spring where Mary used to wash the infant's linen; 11 the hill covered with bushes, where she dried it in the sun; the sycamore, in the shade of which she loved to sit with her Son upon her knees, 12 are still there after the lapse of eighteen centuries. The pilgrims of Europe and Asia knew the way to them, and the descendants of the nation of Pharaoh treat them with honour. To every spot some original legend of the olden time is attached, like the moss on the damp wall of a religious ruin. 13

At Nazareth, Mary had led an humble and laborious life, but at Heliopolis she beheld misery in all its aspects. It was necessary to find means of support,—a difficult thing out of one's own country, and among a people parcelled out in national and hereditary corporations, who were by no means fond of strangers. As they were poor, observes St. Basil, it is evident that they most have submitted to painful labour to procure the necessaries of life.—Alas! had they always even these ? " Oftentimes," says Ludolph of Saxony, " did the child Jesus ask his mother for bread, when she could give him nothing but her tears! "

Meanwhile, Herod had died of a horrible and nameless disease, after seeing himself devoured alive by the worms of the tomb. Dwelling to his last breath upon the joy that the people would feel at the news of his decease, he had with tears requested his sister Salome, a wicked woman, to have the flower of the Jewish nobility shot to death with arrows, whom he had imprisoned with this intention, that people might weep at his funeral whether they would or not. 14 He was carried to his castle of Herodion in a golden litter, covered with scarlet and precious stones. His sons and his army followed his bier with downcast looks, while the people, having the happiness of deliverance before their eyes, cast upon him as many maledictions as a cloud showers down drops of rain.

Admonished in a dream, by the angel of the Lord, of the death of the tyrant, Joseph returned with Mary and the child into the land of Israel; " but hearing that Archelaus reigned in Judea in the room of Herod, his father, he was afraid to go thither: and being warned in sleep, he turned aside into the quarters of Galilee."

1 "I had occasion," says Niebuhr, "to remark a phenomenon which struck me as very singular; but which, in time, became familiar to me. An Arab mounted on a camel, whom I saw coming from a distance, appeared to me as tall as a tower, and seemed to move in the air; yet he was marching on the sand like ourselves. This optical illusion proceeds from a stronger refraction of the atmosphere, in these arid regions loaded with vapours of a different nature from those which fill the air of temperate countries."— (Voyage en Arabie, t. i. p. 208.)

2 It is an almost universal custom in the East to enliven one another on the march, or at work, by singing. A Mussulman pilgrim has given a very picturesque description of the nocturnal march of a caravan of Mecca, by the light of lanterns fixed upon the camels, and to the measured singing of the camel-drivers.—(Voyage d'Abdoul Kerim.) The camel-drivers still sing songs peculiar to themselves in Syria and Egypt.—(Correspondance d'Orient, t. vi.)

3 Although the days are scorching in the desert at this season, the nights are very cold.—(Voln.; Sav.)

4 On the dome of the sanctuary of the principal temple of Hiliopolis was observed an immense mirror of polished steel, which reflected the rays of the luminary of heaven. There was a similar one on the top of the lighthouse of Alexandria, and the images of ships were reflected in it long before they appeared in the horizon.— (Correspondance d'Orient, t. v. ; Lettres de Savary.)

5 See Barad., t. i. c. 8.—The author of the Voyages de Jesus Christ reckons only a hundred leagues, but perhaps he takes no account of the windings of the roads.

6 The Arabs, who had gradually forgotten the God of Abraham, adored at that time a number of idols, each more monstrous than the other. "The date-tree," says Azraki, "was adored by the tribe of Khozua, and the Beni-Thekif worshipped a rock ; a large tree named zat arouat was adored by the Koreisch, &c." The Persians scornfully designated the Arabs by the title of " adorers of stones."

7 We are indebted to Sozomen for this event, which it requires some courage to reproduce in this age of mockery, and which, after all, is hardly a miracle. It is certain that there exists in Arabia a tree of the species of the sensitives and mimosas, which bends down its branches at the approach of man. Niebuhr, who is not suspected of credulity, found this tree in the Yemen, and the Arabs, who give it the name of tree of hospitality, hold it in such veneration that it is not lawful to pluck a leaf from it. If this mimosa, by a natural phenomenon, bends down its branches at the approach of man, much* more must it have had cause to lower them at the approach of the Son of God.

8 Palladius is not the only one who relates this miracle; the martyr Dorotheus, St. Anselm, St. Bonaventure, lira, Dionysius the Carthusian, Testatus, Ludolphus, Barradius, &c, attest it in like manner.

9 This gospel fact, which the school of Voltaire has called in question, is proved, not only by our sacred books, but also by the testimony of Jews and Pagans.—(Macrobius, lib. ari. c. 4, Do Saturnal.; Orig., Contra Celsum, lib. xi. c. 68; Toldos Huldr., pp. 12, 14, 20.)

10 See Trombel, in Vit. Deip.; Zachariam, in Diss, ad Hist. Eccl.; Anselm; Cantual; Euseb.; St. Thorn.

11 This fountain is still called the Fountain of Mary; an ancient tradition records that the Blessed Virgin bathed the infant Jesus in it. In the earliest times of Christianity, the faithful built a church in this place; later on, the Mussulmans constructed a mosque there, and the disciples of both creeds came to pray at the Fountain of Mary for the cure of their maladies; the fountain is still there; the pilgrimages continue, but no vestiges remain either of church or mosque.—(Savary, t. i. p. 122; Corresp. d'Or., t. vi. p. 3.)

12 "Not far from the mountain, I was taken into an enclosure planted with trees; a Mussulman who was our guide stopped us before a sycamore, and said to us, This is the tree of Jesus and Mary. Vanslab, rector of Fontainebleau, informs us that the old sycamore fell down from old age in 1058. The cordeliers of Cairo piously preserved in their sacristy the last remains of this tree; there remained in the garden only a stump, whence, no doubt, came the tree which we saw. General Kleber, after the victory of Heliopolis, would visit as a pilgrim the tree of the Holy Family: he had written his name on the bark of one of the branches: this name has since disappeared, effaced either by time or by some envious hand."—(Corresp. d'Or., t. vi. lettre 141.)

13 The following is one of those legends brought from the lands beyond the sea by one of our good old French barons, the Seigneur d'Englure: we give it with all the original grace of the good old time —" When our Lady, the Mother of God, had passed over the deserts, and when she came to this said place, she laid our Lord down upon the ground, and went about in search of water, but could find none; so she returned full of sorrow to her dear infant, who lay stretched upon the sand, who had dug into the ground with his heels, so that there sprung up a fountain of very good and sweet water. So our Lady was very glad of this, and thanked our Lord for it, and our Lady laid her dear infant down again, and washed the little clothes of our Lord in the water of this fountain, and then spread them out on the ground to dry; and from the water which ran off" these little clothes, as it dried up, there grew from each drop a shrub, which shrubs yield balsam, &c."

14 Josephus, Ant. Jud., lib. xrii. c. 8.—The memory of Herod remained in such execration among the princes of the people and the priests, that they instituted a feast, which was celebrated on the 2oth of September, out of joy that he was dead. " There is a feast on the 7th of Chisleu," says the Jewish calendar," on account of the death of Herod; for he had hated the wise, and we rejoice before the Lord when the wicked depart out of this world."—(Basn., t. i. liv. ii. c. 8.)