When the Holy Family Came to Africa
Today, February 5, the faithful of Cape Town and Port Elizabeth recall their diocesan patronal feast: the Flight into Egypt. Günther Simmermacher looks at the story of the Holy Family coming to Africa.
The Holy Family’s Flight into Egypt, to escape the murderous designs of King Herod, has particular relevance in the present age when nations around the globe are affected by the refugee crisis.
Especially Christian nations seem to resent the influx of refugees from predominantly Muslim countries. In that context, we do well to remember that the Holy Family also were refugees; that Jesus himself was a refugee.
Biblical scholars may argue over the reliability of the account of Herod’s massacre of the Innocents and the need of the Holy Family to escape his henchmen. Their argument is that Matthew’s gospel — the only one to mention it — was conveying an allegory with Moses which the Jewish audience he was aiming at would understand as fulfilling the prophecy of Hosea (1:10).
Historians tend to dismiss the murder of the Holy Innocents for lack of evidence. Surely, they argue, there would have been some kind of extra-biblical mention of such an extraordinary event in the well recorded life of King Herod.
Even Josephus Flavius, the Jewish historian of the first century who entertained an undisguised hatred for Herod, fails to mention it. And surely the Romans would have acted on a mass slaughter of infants, since that sort of thing breeds sedition and unrest among the people.
More likely, a historian might point out, Matthew borrowed from Herod’s documented assassinations of three sons (one of them just months before his own death) and his beloved wife when he thought they posed a threat to his rule.
And yet, Bethlehem was a little village. The number of first-born infant boys there would have been small; perhaps too insignificant to be headline news in Judea. Would a king who is willing to preserve his power by killing his own sons not stop short of murdering a few infants in a small village?
But even if the absence of a Herodian threat from which to escape does not rule out the Flight into Egypt, we still have to navigate Luke’s report that the Holy Family went to Jerusalem to present Jesus in the Temple before going home to Nazareth (2:22).
The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple took place 40 days after his birth (hence the February 2 feast day). This might have preceded the arrival of the Magi, and their inadvertent tip-off to Herod about this new king.
For all the objections the scholar may care to raise, the Holy Family’s migration to Egypt is plausible. Perhaps they went as refugees, as Matthew says. Perhaps they went for other reasons.
Since Egypt, like Judea and the territories north of it, was occupied by the Romans, it was easy to travel across borders, and migration between the two regions had been taking place for many centuries. The cities around what is now Cairo — such as Memphis and Heliopolis — had significant Jewish communities.
For the Coptic Church, as the Egyptian Christian community is known, the Flight into Egypt is a pivotal event. For Copts, there is no doubt that the Holy Family came as refugees.
More than that, in the Coptic narrative, the Holy Family remained on the run, from Herod’s agents and from pagans who saw the power of the special infant, until it was safe to go home after the king’s death.
Apocryphal writings have constructed many pious stories to accompany the Holy Family’s Egyptian journey. They record trees bowing before the infant and animals paying homage to him, pagan idols tumbling at the approach of the baby Jesus, spiders weaving a thick web to conceal Mary and the infant in a tree, and a chance encounter with the Good Thief who’d die on the cross next to Jesus in Jerusalem.
Less fantastical, an extra-biblical story has the future disciple Salome accompanying the Holy Family as a nurse. In Mark’s gospel, Salome is among women who witness the crucifixion and one of the three women who went to Jesus’ tomb to anoint his body with spices, only to find the stone had been rolled away.
In some traditions, Salome is a relative — either a cousin or a sister — of Mary, the mother of Jesus. So it’s quite possible that she was with the Holy Family in Egypt.
At the best of times, it would have been an arduous journey — going most likely on the Via Maris trade route, via Gaza through the coastal region of the Sinai desert — especially with a baby on board.
And being on the run, the Holy Family wouldn’t have gone as part of a caravan, as was normal, but alone and taking detours across the wilderness to evade detection.
The Coptic Church has mapped out an itinerary of places where the Holy Family took refuge, starting in Farma in the Sinai desert.
Monasteries and churches mark, or marked, most of the 25 stations which the fourth-century Coptic Pope Theophilus claimed Mary dictated to him in a dream. These, it is believed, tended to confirm, rather than create, existing oral traditions.
Many of these places are in Cairo, but before the Holy Family even came there, they travelled west into the desert, taking refuge in Wadi Natroun where four ancient monasteries continue to operate today. One of them, now known as the Syrian monastery, marks the place where the Holy Family stayed.
From there they headed to Matariyah and Ain Shams (the ancient Heliopolis), both now suburbs of Cairo. At the former there is a tree named after Mary under which, according to lore, the Holy Family rested.
The most important site of the Flight into Egypt is that of the church of Abu Serga in Old Cairo. The fourth-century church, formally the church of Ss Sergius and Bacchus, marks the place where the Holy Family stayed when they arrived in the city.
It is near the Ben Ezra synagogue, first built in the 11th century on the grounds of a former Coptic church, which tradition marks as the spot where Baby Moses was found.
The Holy Family’s reputed home is in the Abu Serga church’s crypt, 10m below the ground. This means that when the levels of the Nile are high, the crypt can get flooded.
Abu Serga is one of two places in the precinct of the mighty Roman Babylon fortress where the Holy Family was hiding; the other is the church of Babylon El-Darag (Babylon of the Steps), officially dedicated to the Holy Virgin.
It is tantalising to imagine the Holy Family sneaking in a visit to the pyramids of Giza, which were known then already as being among the Seven Wonders of the World. When Jesus was born, the pyramids were already more than 2500 years old. It is a humbling thought that there are 500 more years between the construction of the pyramids and the life of Christ than there are between Christ and us today.
In the Cairo suburb of Maadi, the church of al-Adaweya (the church of the Ferry Crossing) marks the traditional spot from where the Holy Family sailed south, up the Nile.
At the southern tip of their journey, near the modern city of Asiut, the Muharraq monastery was built around a large cave where Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus are believed to have lived for six months and ten days. Its church of al-‘Adhra (or Virgin), right at that cave, is said to date back to the first century.
More than a million Copts gather at the monastery every August for the “Festival of the Virgin”. During one of these events, in 2000, the Virgin Mary is reported to have appeared there; the Coptic Church accepts the apparitions as real.
About half of the 400000 people of Asiut, which is 400km south of Cairo, are Christians. That did not prevent an arson attack on the ancient monastery in 2013 by radicals aligned to the deposed Muslim Brotherhood. The attack was a reminder of the monastery’s name, Deir el-Muharraq, which means Burned Monastery — a testimony to many past attacks by anti-Christian invaders over its long history.
It is at this place that the Holy Family’s exile came to an end, with the angel appearing to Joseph with the words: “Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead” (Mt 2:20)
And with that, the Holy Family made its way home, travelling down the Nile, through the Sinai, then into Gaza.
But their Herod-related troubles weren’t over. Matthew seems to suggest that the family planned settling in Judea — maybe returning to Bethlehem or living in Jerusalem — but when Joseph heard that King Herod’s cruel son, Herod Archelaus, was ruling that region, he decided to return to Nazareth.
And so they settled down at the place where in Luke’s gospel the story of the incarnation began with the Archangel Gabriel’s visit to the Virgin Mary.