Meditations On The Life Of The Blessed Virgin For Every Day Of the Month, Suitable for all seasons and especially the month of May.
THE FLIGHT INTO EGYPT.
The holy Gospel tells us that after Joseph and Mary "had performed all things according to the law of the Lord, they returned into Galilee, to their city Nazareth." (St. Luke ii. 39.) Mary entered once more the dwelling in which she had so often prayed and hoped, and which, in the strength of Faith and obedience, she had left for the fatigues of a journey to Bethlehem. What recollections crowded upon her as she crossed the threshold. What joys and what sorrows did she bring back with the Divine Son whom she pressed upon her heart, and whose bitter passion she foresaw! While reposing in the silence of Nazareth, she must have hoped that this sanctuary of her prayers might shelter in peace at least the Childhood of Jesus. But there was no secure resting-place for Him on the earth He had come to save. Even the humble roof of Nazareth was denied to the Master of the world.
When the magi, guided by the mysterious star, reached Jerusalem, they asked the astonished inhabitants of this capital of Judea, where was the King of the Jews : " for we have seen His star in the East, and are come to adore Him. And King Herod, hearing this, was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. And assembling together all the chief priests, and the scribes of the people, he inquired of them where Christ should be born. But they said to him, In Bethlehem of Juda.
Then Herod, privately calling the wise men, learned diligently of them the time of the star which appeared to them, and sending them into Bethlehem, said, Go, and diligently inquire after the Child, and when you have found Him, bring me word again, that I also may come and adore Him."
Now Herod was not one of those pure hearts who, receiving the good news with joy, had hastened to worship the Saviour. He was a man of a corrupt and cruel heart, who governed the Jews by the authority of the Roman emperor, a governor hated by all, and made suspicious by this well-deserved hatred. When he heard that these foreign princes had crossed mountains and deserts to come and worship a new King of the Jews, he trembled on his insecure throne. The prophecies which promised to the people of Israel a King and a Saviour, who should put an end to all their troubles, were known to him also j and the remembrance of this promise, and the continual thought of the miracles which confirmed It, haunted him in the midst of his power. It is in vain that the wicked man denies God, and shuts his. ears to His word. He may often appear quiet and happy in his disobedience; he may appear to succeed in all his undertakings, and ignorant people are tempted to doubt the justice of God when they see him happy whilst the good so often suffer. But this justice of God, which they presume to doubt, is felt by the wicked man himself, in the depths of his conscience. We imagine that he is happy: if we consider him attentively, his laugh sounds hollow, his restless glance seems to be seeking in each face the scorn which he knows he deserves ; if lie forgets himself an instant, a sudden sharp pain strikes his heart, and brings him back to the sad truth; for it is no light thing to live in the hatred of God and of men. Human happiness is only lasting and true when it is the earthly reward of a good life. God gives it to His servants when it pleases Him, and when He knows that they are strong enough to continue faithful to Him in prosperity; it is the earnest of happiness in heaven, the first payment given to the labourer, which was called in old English, God's penny (See Percy's Relics of Ancient Poetry. The phrase is still used in France.) "Seek ye therefore first the kingdom of God, and His justice, and all these things shall be added to you." (St. Matt. vi. 33.) True happiness, even in this world, is found in these words of our Saviour. But never let us call that man happy who has sought after earthly happiness before that of heaven. Let us call him unhappy who has sacrificed eternity to time. If all the prosperity of earth should follow him as far as the grave, it will go no farther; he feels and knows this ; and this certainty, which he cannot get rid of, gnaws at his heart, like those invisible worms, which destroy the interior, leaving the surface untouched. He feels every moment that all that he has so much wished for, and which he thought to gain by a number of guilty actions, is trembling and giving way under him. He has sought for help on earth alone, and what he has gained through so much watching, trouble, and remorse, gives way beneath him like a staff breaking under the weight of a sick man, and he feels the abyss under his feet. In the midst of such tortures he puts on an outward appearance of merriment, and is an object of envy to the foolish. Not all the tears of the righteous are so bitter as one of these false joys of .the wicked; for these blessed tears bring with them heavenly hopes, and whilst our poor human nature is suffering and weeping, our souls see before them the speedy end of their exile, and their eternal reward in God. The just man knows in the midst of his sorrows that a passing suffering will bring him endless happiness. On the other hand, when the wicked man feels earthly happiness slipping from his hands, he attaches himself to it with desperation; the enjoyment has been so short, and the labour to obtain it so long, and after this brief enjoyment, mingled with disappointments and remorse, he knows that he has nothing to hope, and all to fear.
This is what Herod felt when public rumour announced to him the arrival of these foreign princes come to worship the King of the Jews. Who was this Child, born at Bethlehem, in that very city of David from which the Jews expected their Saviour? Could He be a descendant of the last Kings of Israel, escaped by some miracle from his hatred? Was some terrible rebellion about to burst out against him, and would the Jews, trembling under the yoke rise at the first call of that Christ so long expected ? " No," said the tyrant to himself, "this dangerous child must not live: the hope of Israel must be stifled in the cradle."
But how to find Him ? By what signs was He to be recognised? Who could help him in this search, if not these strangers, who had been brought from their distant country by a mysterious instinct?
Herod, therefore, hid his criminal designs, and spoke to the magi with assumed gentleness. "And when you have found Him, bring me word again, that I also may come and adore Him."
But God was on the watch, and His wisdom laughs to scorn the vain calculations of the wicked. Warned in a dream, the magi left Bethlehem without passing through Jerusalem, and returned to their country by another road.
All this time the Infant Jesus and His Mother were in the grotto at Nazareth, hidden by their poverty. An Angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in his sleep, saying: "Arise, and take the Child and His Mother, and fly into Egypt: and be there until I shall tell thee; for it will come to pass that Herod will seek the Child to destroy Him." (St. Matt. ii. 13.)
At these words the aged saint arose, his heart full of sadness, but firmly trusting in God. He called Mary. The gentle virgin, as calm in grief as she had been humble in joy, raised her eyes towards heaven to ask for courage, and put in order her poor house, which she so much loved, and which she was forced to abandon. Leaning over the cradle of her Son, she contemplated His sleep, and said: " Beloved Child, given for the salvation of the world, already are persecutions beginning against Thee. This is the first wound of the sword of sorrow." Joseph led before the door the humble beast which was to bear Jesus and His Mother. They. must start. Farewell once more, poor grotto of Nazareth, peaceful dwelling, sanctuary in which God heard the prayers of His handmaid, hearth at which the Master of the world was sheltered. Take courage, Blessed Mother, take thy sleeping Son from His cradle, wrap Him in thy veil, and warm Him against thy heart, for the night is cold, and the Infant God has no refuge but His Mother's arms. The young of the turtle dove have a nest in which their mother can keep them warm under her wings. Mary's Child has no longer where to lay His Head!
The door was shut behind the exiles. The patient ass bore the Blessed Virgin, with her Divine Son in her arms; Joseph guided the gentle animal by the bridle, and supported himself with his staff. The night covered their departure. They set out, and Joseph and Mary gave one last look through the darkness at their poor dwelling, which they feared never to see again. The first rays of the morning found them already far on on the road to the desert.
Pious legends have been attached by our forefathers to the places visited by the fugitives in this toilsome journey. The Christians who, seven hundred years ago, went with so lively a Faith to deliver Jerusalem and the tomb of our Saviour from the hands of the infidels, sought with filial care the traces of their passage, of which the tradition is preserved by the shepherds of the east. The ruins of ancient sanctuaries, raised formerly by the Christians who had remained in Palestine, pointed out these sacred places to the Catholic soldiers who were brought by war to these same shores seventy years ago. The pilgrims of our own time find them still. One of the first of these legends is that of the penitent thief. It tells us that the holy travellers, after having crossed the mountainous country of Galilee, often hiding in caverns, and following the course of the torrents, directed their steps towards Racula, to descend into the plains of Syria. It was night-fall, and Mary was pressing to her breast the sleeping Infant Jesus, when a band of robbers came to attack them. However, at the sight of this poor and aged man, and of this young and trembling Mother, the chief of the robbers stopped. Some ray of mercy from the Heart of Jesus touched his guilty heart. He signed to his companions to withdraw, and approaching the travellers with reverence, conducted them to his abode, a kind of fortress, the ruins of which are shewn to this day by the Arab shepherds. Thirty-three years later, this same criminal, crucified by the side of the Saviour of the world, silenced the gross imprecations of the companion of his crimes and of his punishment, and turning his head towards the dying Saviour, he said to Him: "Lord, remember me when Thou shalt come into Thy kingdom. And Jesus said to him: Amen, I say to thee, this day thou shalt be with Me in paradise." (St. Luke xxiii. 43-44.) The grace of repentance is sometimes the reward of a good action. Let us, therefore, never despise a sinner, foe he may one day be above us, near Jesus in paradise.
At one day's journey from this shelter of the thieves, which still bears the name of Latroun, (from the ancient name for thief,) the ruins of an ancient sanctuary mark the place where, according to tradition, the travellers rested, Mary and Joseph quenched their thirst, and the Infant Jesus slept under the shade of palm trees and sycamores. It was one of those isles of verdure in the midst of the sandy desert, in which Providence has caused a fountain to spring up, and which the Arabs call an oasis. After resting here a short time, the fugitives continued their journey in anxiety and fear. They drew near to Bethlehem, and though not yet knowing the cruel orders of Herod, they knew that the life of the Divine Child was threatened by them. Seeking lonely paths, and hiding under the shades of night, they revisited the abandoned stable; they saw once more the birthplace of Jesus. Near the Grotto of the Nativity^ in a still darker hollow, the ancient Christians have raised an altar. It was there, according to their pious belief, that the Blessed Virgin Mary stopped to suckle the Infant Jesus; and in this poor shelter, known under the name of the Grotto of Milk, the Arab mothers bring their new-born babes, to ask of Mary health for them and for, themselves.
Leaving Bethlehem, the holy travellers entered that barren desert in which the people of God had wandered for forty years, before entering into the promised land. As they drew nearer to Egypt the climate became hotter, and it took the fugitives a long time to take this journey of near four hundred miles. How many times must Joseph and Mary have suffered from thirst! How many times did the Infant Jesus weep from weariness ! The following is one of the most beautiful of the legends brought over the seas by one of the ancient French Christians. "When our Lady, Mother of God, had passed the deserts, and had come to the before-mentioned place, she laid our Lord on the ground, and went to look for some water in the neighbourhood, but she could find none. She returned very sorrowful to f her beloved Child, who lay stretched on the sand. When He saw her grief, the Divine Infant struck the ground with His tiny foot, and immediately there sprang up a fountain of clear sweet water. Our Lady, full of joy, gave thanks to God, and once more laying down her Child, she washed His clothes in the water of this fountain, and laid them out on the ground to dry. And from the water which dropped from the linen as it dried sprang up little shrubs of healing balsam." (Le Seigneur d'Enghere, cite par l'Abbe Orsini, dans sa Vie de la Sainte Vierge.)
At last the ancient land of Egypt appeared before their eyes. The exiles entered that land in which the children of Israel had suffered so much, and from which the miracles of God's hand had delivered them, and into which the Son of this all-powerful God was now coming as a fugitive. All the idols were Still standing in this ancient country of pagan science. But when the travellers entered the great city of Heliopolis, and the Infant Jesus passed before their temples, the altars, it is said, trembled to their base, and the statues of the false gods were thrown down and broken into a thousand pieces. Little thought the passers-by as they saw Joseph, bent by the fatigues of the journey, the humble Mary, and the sweet face of the Babe, who lay smiling in her arms, that one of these poor strangers was He whose very approach made the devils tremble in their sanctuaries, and broke their images at the feet of their worshippers.
Tradition tells us that the Holy Family passed seven years in a village near Heliopolis, now called Matarich. There again the piety of ancient pilgrims have connected the name of Mary with the only fountain of sweet water which is found in this part of Egypt; as if Jesus, the source of life, and Mary, whom the Scriptures call the Fountain of Salvation, were to leave, even on earth, living waters to quench the thirst of all future generations. It was there, they say, that Mary bathed the Infant Jesus, and washed their poor garments. The Mussulmans shewed to the French soldiers, during the wars in Egypt, an old sycamore which they called the tree of Jesus and Mary; it is said to have sent out a new shoot from the trunk on which Mary came in the evening to rest with her Child in her arms; and after the battle of Heliopolis, the brave General Kleber ventured to write his victorious name on the bark of the venerable tree.
"How and on what"! asks St. Bonaventura, "were Jesus, Mary, and Joseph sustained during so long a stay? Were they forced to beg for food? It is recorded that Mary provided for her wants and those of her Son by her distaff and needle. The Queen of the world spun and worked with the needle through love of poverty. Poverty was always very dear to Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, and even till death were they faithful to it."
Let us now leave them in this foreign land, watching over the precious trust which God had confided to them, and supporting Him by their labours. If they suffered all the privations of exile, labour and poverty, they were still happy. Jesus is with them, and the peace of heaven reigns in their hearts, with resignation and hope. The misery is all on the side of the triumphant and impious Herod, who was pursued by remorse in the midst of his guilty prosperity. It is painful to leave this spectacle of holy suffering, to return to the crimes of the wicked man, to what he suffered without consolation, and to his death of despair.
O holy Virgin Mary, so patient and courageous, when the persecution of the wicked obliged thee to leave thy dwelling^ and the land of thy fathers, obtain for me the grace to leave all, like thee, for the love of Jesus. Make me understand that with Jesus, poverty and want itself is salutary and sweet, and that without Him, what appears to be happiness, is suffering and affliction. May I never hesitate to make a sacrifice which is required by duty. O dear Mother, the great grace of living with Jesus is often a cause of persecution in this world.
"Wherever Jesus enters, there enters with Him His crosses, and all the contradictions which ever accompany Him." (Bossuet, Elevations sur les Mysteres.)
Remain, Lord Jesus, remain in my soul, with Thy blessed cross, our salvation and our hope. And thou, holy Mother, shew me everything that can separate me from Him, that I may renounce it without hesitation, resigning myself beforehand to lose all rather than the presence of my Saviour.
To look upon nothing as a misfortune except that which separates us from God.