Our Lady of the Flight into Egypt 2017
Deacon Les Ruhrmund
One of the things that struck me when I looked at the First reading and the Gospel was that a central figure in the events recalled in both readings was a man with the name Joseph; and interestingly that both of their fathers shared the name Jacob.
I thought I’d explore the role of the two Josephs in our faith.
Joseph is not actually mentioned in the first reading which tells us about the arrival of his father Jacob in Egypt with the whole family and all their belongings, escaping from a devastating famine in Canaan. But it is Joseph who had instigated and made possible their migration.
You’ll remember that Joseph had been sold into slavery in Egypt as a teenager by his jealous brothers and that they had deceived their father Jacob telling him that his favourite son Joseph had been killed by wild animals producing his multi-coloured coat stained with blood as evidence. In the ensuing years Joseph had risen to a very powerful position of authority in Egypt and was able to offer and provide a new home, food and shelter for his elderly father, brothers and their families who were on the brink of starvation in the Promised Land.
They prospered and multiplied abundantly in Egypt over the next 400 odd years until their number was so great that Pharaoh feared that they might side with his enemies in time of war and so he enslaved them to build cities and roads. And that of courses sets the scene for Moses, the Passover and significantly the return of the Jewish people from Egypt to the Promised Land.
In the Gospel reading, Joseph is the central figure. Three times while sleeping he hears the voice of God through an angel and each time he reacts swiftly, decisively and faithfully.
A few weeks ago I did a short course at the UCT Summer School on two great Renaissance painters: Leonardo Da Vinci and Piero Della Francesca. The Church at that time was a major patron of the arts and many works of Renaissance art depicted religious images painted as altarpieces or as devotional objects. In many of the paintings featuring the Holy Family (the Nativity, Presentation at the Temple, Arrival of the Magi and the Flight into Egypt), Joseph is depicted as a comparatively marginal figure alongside Mary and Jesus if not entirely in the background; sometimes looking half asleep or bored or disinterested or disengaged. And we might assume I suppose that that is how his role in God’s plan for our redemption was viewed at that time; very much a secondary role.
But that has changed.
Today St Joseph is highly revered and his essential role as Mary’s husband and protector and Jesus’ human father, guardian and teacher are universally recognised. In 1870 Pope Pius IX proclaimed Saint Joseph as the patron of the Universal Church.
Saint Joseph is also the patron saint of families, fathers, expectant mothers, immigrants and working people in general. The 1st of May, internationally celebrated as Labour Day is celebrated in the Church as the Feast of St Joseph the Worker.
And Joseph is the patron saint of the dying. We believe that Joseph died with Mary and Jesus close to him and that’s the way we all should like to leave this life.
Matthew’s account of the Flight into Egypt reaffirms a lot that we already know about Joseph from earlier references in Scripture. We know that though he came from a royal lineage, a direct descendent of King David, he was poor. When he presented the infant Jesus in the Temple 40 days after his birth, Joseph was only able to offer the sacrifice of two turtledoves or pigeons; allowed only for those who could not afford to buy a lamb.
We know that he was a compassionate, pious and righteous man. In extreme faith he took Mary as his wife even though she was pregnant with a child that was not his. The social ramifications of that decision would have been humiliating but he believed what the angel had told him about Mary’s pregnancy and acted accordingly. Perhaps even saving Mary’s life.
It takes a strong man or woman to put the will of God before the will of society. There’s a lesson there for each one of us.
Joseph had a remarkable relationship with God and Mary trusted him completely and I think it would be fair to assume the same of Jesus when he was growing up as a boy and then as a young adult with Joseph as his adoring father.
When Joseph woke from the dream telling him to get up and leave immediately and flee to Egypt he must have been very anxious and fearful. The journey would be roughly the equivalent of walking from Cape Town to Jeffrey’s Bay. And that section along the way that we know as the Garden Route would have been harsh desert. Not a journey for the faint hearted. Not a desirable journey for a Mother with an infant. An extremely challenging journey probably taking them 30 days or more. They had little money and only heaven knows how they managed.
Mary put her trust in Joseph and committed her safety and that of her baby boy into Joseph’s hands as they fled to Egypt and then some years later journeyed back to Israel.
God revealed his will to Joseph while he was at rest; while he slept.
Pope Francis has a great love for St Joseph and on his desk in his study he has a large image of Saint Joseph ….sleeping. As it happens, the inaugural Mass for the Pontificate of Pope Francis took place on March 19, Saint Joseph’s Day and one of the first things Pope Francis did after his inauguration was include Joseph, Mary’s spouse, in the Eucharistic Prayer of the Mass..
Speaking about St Joseph a couple of years ago while on a visit to the Philippines Pope Francis said: “Even when he is asleep, he is taking care of the Church! Joseph’s rest revealed God’s will to him. In our moment of rest in the Lord, as we pause from our many daily obligations and activities, God is also speaking to us. But like Saint Joseph, once we have heard God’s voice, we must rise from our slumber; we must get up and act.”
Our Lady of the Flight into Egypt, pray for us.