CHAPTER XVII. THE HOLY FAMILY AT NAZARETH
THE Holy Family were about to depart from the hamlet in Egypt which had sheltered them. Though living in obscurity, they had won the love of all, so that each felt that he was losing something inexpressibly dear.
"Who will console us as Joseph has done? Who will give us the confidence that he has inspired? Who will speak so positively from the experience which a life spent in virtue gives ?"
"Who will comfort us like Mary? Her very tones assuaged our griefs. She suffered with us, and we were happy in her tender compassion. Now will our sorrows descend on us once more with crushing weight."
"And this lovely, this consoling, this serious Child, whose very presence sheds joy into our souls—who can replace Him?" ejaculated the mothers, the young maidens, the children, whose emotions outstripped their understanding. They had felt, in the presence of Jesus, that calm and great quiet which is to be found in the temple of God, close to the sanctuary. They could not give their reasons, but they knew that they loved Him with their whole hearts. A Child He was, true, but amiable and tender, possessing a gentle kindness to which no other child could aspire. Childhood, in its ignorance and inexperience, is often hard-hearted, often cruel. But in His precious soul this Child already felt the sympathy of suffering. Every misfortune called forth His compassion, and if tears flowed in His presence, His divine hand wiped them away.
The friends and neighbors of this most Holy Family, losing three so well-beloved, felt intense and poignant sorrow. When the day of the departure arrived, every one wished to accompany them on their journey.
Some traveled with them for three entire days, even to the Well of Reward in the oasis, at which Joseph and Mary had halted before their arrival. They rested here for a little while and it was here that, with great reluctance, they separated.
"May happiness attend you wherever you go," said their friends, striving to control their emotion.
"May God protect and care for you and yours," returned the holy travelers, "and may you never forget His precepts."
"Forget!" echoed one. "H we forget those precepts which you have taught us, may our hands forget their duty."
And, in the words of Scripture, a second added:
"Let my tongue cleave to my jaws if I do not remember thee." (Psalms cxxxvi, 5, 6.)
The young girls who had come with them gathered flowers from the fountain, and having twisted them into fragrant garlands, placed them on the head and at the feet of the holy Child. This simple homage pleased Him, and smiling, He said:
"In spirit I shall always remain with you."
They did not realize the sublime meaning of these words, but their souls were unaccountably moved, and on the homeward way they could discuss nothing but the Child, His manner, His charm.
"How His voice affected us! Did not your heart burn within you?"
"Did you notice His countenance? It shone like a star! Oh, I felt my heart throbbing in my breast as if it would break."
There was silence, each thinking of what the Lord's words had meant to them. At last the eldest one spoke:
"We must ever bear these holy people in our minds. Let us try to recollect their kindnesses among us, and do as they have done. If we do not profit by their example we shall surely be guilty of sin," he said.
Meanwhile, after long marches and harassing fatigue caused by the overpowering heat, Joseph and Mary, with the holy Child, arrived in their own country. They had had no news from their relatives.
"What has become of my sister?" Joseph asked himself many times. "Is she still at Nazareth? It seems so long since we have seen each other. Her Children will greet us with joy. . . . Our old servant —is he living? . . . And the garden I have cultivated with my own hands ... in what condition shall I find all these?"
The nearer home they approached, the more disturbed Joseph became, filled as he was with anxiety for the welfare of the two precious beings entrusted to his care. From the top of the last hill they perceived Nazareth and its fertile plains, the mountains by which it is surrounded, and the sea into which the now setting sun seemed to be plunging. They were near the end of their long journey. In his heart Joseph mutely saluted the place in which he hoped to find quiet and repose. Surely they might rest here in safety!
They descended the mountain in silence. A return such as this after so prolonged an absence, brings thoughts that are distracting. The soul is alert to discover the traces of time long since passed by, and man is so little adapted for time that he can not measure it without a certain amount of fear. A voice within urges him ever forward, he beholds the goal, and flies toward it joyfully—but should he hesitate for a backward glance, he is frightened by the space that intervenes. So it appeared now to Joseph. The goal is near at hand, indeed, the haven of security. But they have been so long absent that doubt arises. In what condition will he find their home?
It was nightfall ere the travelers approached their own abode. The inhabitants of the village, tired by the labors of the day, had long since gone to rest. The narrow streets and narrower lanes were deserted. Changes had taken place since their departure, and these changes, though small, confused them. They would, perhaps, have wandered about for some time had not the instinct of faithful Eleabthona guided them. After several turns she stopped of her own accord before a ruined cottage.
Neither Joseph nor Mary recognized it by the light of the stars. The grass had grown upon its threshold; the beautiful vine which formerly shaded it had run in riotous profusion over its crumbling walls.
"Is this our home?" said Joseph, incredulously.
"It is indeed our home, ,, returned Mary. "Eleabthona's instinct is more certain than our sight."
Joseph knocked and called in vain. No one answered. No one was there to answer. The old servant was dead. The younger one, having waited in vain for the return of her employers, had felt herself free from all responsibility. She had married, therefore, and departed with her husband four years before into a distant part of the country.
Mary and Joseph stood looking at each other, undecided what to do. Eleabthona, on whose back the Child slept, began to crop the grass that grew upon the threshold. In pulling a long twig toward her, the roots of which were entwined in the stones, she shook the doorpost and caused it to fall suddenly. The door opened of itself, and Joseph and Mary entered.
But the inside was even more desolate.
The roof had fallen, and the abundant rains of the preceding season had penetrated through every part. Rank weeds and brambles covered the floor. The vine had thrown its slender branches in every direction and entwined itself wherever it could, finding a partial support in the sycamore-tree in the garden, which, in its turn, rested its thick foliage against the ruined walls. A number of birds had built their nests within; a stork and its young occupied what had formerly been the couch of Joseph. Ivy and long stragglers of periwinkle covered the walls with a green network.
On seeing this total confusion Joseph was greatly discouraged. The two holy travelers were physically tired, mentally depressed. A fallen rafter stretched near by and Mary sank slowly upon this, gazing about her in silence and then resting her glance upon her husband's countenance.
"What are we to do, my dear Mary?" asked Joseph. "We can not remain here, in this impoverished dwelling—"
"I have not seen the just forsaken, nor his seed seeking bread," ( Psalms xxxvi, 25.) answered Mary. "Is not the Lord at hand to succor us? Sooner would He change the stones into bread before us than leave us in distress."
Jesus had alighted from the docile animal, and had followed His parents. In the darkness His countenance shone with a beautiful glow and Mary turned her eyes upon Him who was her hope and joy. Putting His hand on Joseph's arm, He spoke the words that afterward came again from His divine lips:
"Behold the birds of the air, for they neither sow, nor do they reap, nor gather into barns: and your heavenly Father feedeth them. Are not you of much more value than they?" (St. Matthew vi, 26.)
Joseph remembered the desert and was silent. For himself, this chosen and holy man had no fear. But for the two entrusted to his care he would have laid down his life, or borne any affliction.
"Consider the lilies how they grow: they labor not, neither do they spin. But I say to you not even Solomon in all his glory was clothed like one of these. Your Father knoweth that you have need of these things." (St. Luke xii, 27, 30.)
Mary and Joseph exchanged glances; then falling on his knees, Joseph raised his eyes to heaven.
"O God of my fathers, if I have seemed troubled, or in doubt, or in uneasiness, Thou who knowest all and seest the hearts of men, know that 1 am not troubled nor doubting nor uneasy for mine own sake.
Rather is it because of the trust which has been bestowed upon me, that I would do all things as Thou wouldst desire me to do them."
A sweet smile played about the lips of Jesus as His foster-father breathed these words. Then, gently raising him to his seat upon the fallen stone, He knelt in turn, and with arms outstretched to heaven, began His silent prayer.
"This Child is the benediction of Israel," murmured Joseph.
"The peace of the Lord be with us," said Jesus. "Should those who love Him doubt Him? Love— and all will be given you."
Then Joseph, strengthened by the prayer of Jesus, found courage to begin the work of reconstruction and in a short while restored the house to something like its former condition.