"Get Up and Escape into Egypt"

From the book, JOSEPH OF NAZARETH, Federico Suarez, 
with Imprimatur and Nihil Obstat


When St. Matthew gives in his Gospel his account of the adoration of the Magi, he leaves out the name of Joseph: "And so, going into the dwelling, they found the Child there with His mother Mary and fell down to worship Him" [Matt 2:11]. The omission does not necessarily imply that Joseph was not there; what it certainly does mean is that Jesus was with His mother, that she was holding Him in her arms. Since the main emphasis in this part of St. Matthew's narrative is on the arrival and the adoration of the Magi, it would have been superfluous to mention anyone else who happened to be in the house at the time. There may well have been, apart from Joseph, a crowd of neighbors. The arrival from a distant country of such celebrities, coming to visit a young mother in a poor little house, not to mention their conspicuously outlandish retinue, could scarcely have passed without notice. We may say with confidence that Joseph is not mentioned as taking part in this event simply because he had no role to play. The very opposite is true in the case of what happens next.

King Herod had shown himself courteously well disposed towards the Magi. When they reached Jerusalem they seem to have no difficulty in being admitted to his presence. Ingenuously asking Herod where they could find the One born to be king of the Jews, they understandably caused consternation. Herod, thrown into confusion, went to the length of summoning the priests and scribes to inquire from them what they made of the Magi's question. When they advised him about its possible significance and pointed out that the village of Bethlehem had always been designated as the future cradle of the Messiah, Herod had the Magi called to him. He saw them off on their way to the place indicated, not without first, however, having carefully verified the time of the star's first sighting. Nevertheless, in exchange for the trouble he had taken, he asked them only one thing: that as soon as they found the Child, they would return to Jerusalem and tell him about it so that he too---as he said----might go and worship him. This, naturally, was not true, but the Magi could not have known that.

But God knew. He took care that an Angel should warn them to return to their own country and their homes by a different route, without going back to Herod. And there was a warning for Joseph too. As usual the Gospel narrative is so sparing of words that, at first sight, it gives no idea of the consternation he must have felt. It says: "After they had left, the Angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, 'Get up, take the Child and His mother with you, and escape into Egypt, and stay there till I tell you because Herod intends to search for the Child and do away with Him'. So Joseph got up and taking the Child and His mother with him, left that night for Egypt, where he stayed until Herod was dead. This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken through the prophet: 'I called my son out of Egypt' "
[Matt 2:13-15].

A Sign of the Cross

Once again the Angel had come to Joseph in a dream. This time, however, he had not come to reveal a message of reassurance and joy, but to warn him of an imminent danger; not to relieve him of an almost intolerable burden, but to load one onto his shoulders. On the first occasion the Angel's visit had banished all his anxiety; this second time, the disturbing nature of the news suddenly brought days of happiness to an end. It may be noticed that Joseph's reaction was the same on both occasions. As soon as he had been made aware of the mystery of the Incarnation, "Joseph awoke from sleep" says St. Matthew, "and did as the Angel of the Lord had bidden him" [Matt 1:24]. St. Matthew again, this second time, with reference to the menace of Herod, tells us that "Joseph got up and taking the Child and His mother with him, left that night for Egypt" [Matt 2:14]. He did exactly what the Angel had told him.

The latest apparition was the sign of the cross upon a happy day, a day that had been perhaps too happy. It had indeed been a memorable one. The young Mother had contemplated with amazement how some great men had made a long journey, guided by God, in order to honor her little Child; she had seen how those important men had prostrated themselves to adore the Son of her womb, and had offered Him costly gifts. Joseph, discreetly in the background as always, had watched the scene with legitimate pride, perhaps thanking God for those marks of honor which, in some strange way, made up for the abandonment and poverty surrounding the birth. At the end of the day the Magi had taken their departure. Mary and he could draw breath and relax, their souls filled with serene joy, and overflowing with gratitude to God for the honor accorded to their humble state.

All at once, suddenly, without warning, without any preliminary indication at all or the faintest glimmer of a conjecture which might have prepared them, however inadequately, to face what was coming, this shattering revelation of an immediate and grave danger brought alarm and distress into a household where all had been peace and serenity until that moment. For the revelation was accompanied by a command which required action from them almost before they realized what was happening. Anybody who has had a similar experience will know what it is to be jolted from sleep by bad news or some awful message of catastrophe: such a person knows the feeling of depression and of being prey to nameless fears. Anyone who has been through this will have experienced the sudden confusion and the immobilizing anxiety invariably accompanying such a state. The mind gropes in an impenetrable fog although it continues to register forebodings all too clearly. It is a state of mind characterized by a sensation of dismay, by a heaviness of heart and a feeling of unreality accompanied by the fearful certainty that what is happening is no dream; a simultaneous physical distress is not uncommon nor is a sort of imposed inertia, an inability to rise to the occasion promptly.

No doubt it was very hard. Perplexing, too, which is even worse. However difficult a situation is, it may still be possible to see our way forward, especially if we know what is going on. But a defect of understanding, an absence of information, in such cases always produces confusion. When for any reason we are unable to understand, when we fail to grasp clearly the true nature of a situation or an event because its meaning escapes us, then the state of interior confusion has such an inhibiting effect that it can prevent us from taking decisions. Not to know the why and wherefore of what has happened to us 'out of the blue' often causes such a degree of uncertainty and indecision that it sometimes becomes almost impossible for us to make up our mind how to act.

Perhaps this is why the Angel told Joseph what he should do, as on that former occasion. This time, however, it was for a different motive. On the first occasion God's revelation brought about the resolution of a terrible doubt which had rendered Joseph powerless to take a decision or to act. Enlightenment reached him after a long and painful mental struggle. In this instance, on the contrary, the matter in hand had to be expedited with dispatch, so that the time that would otherwise have been given over to devising a solution would not be wasted, since every second counted in the face of Herod's threat. It was not the time for questions, nor for wringing hands or giving way to useless grief.

The Gospel is expressive when it relates Joseph's reaction as the Angel finishes communicating the command to him. "He rose up, therefore, while it was still night, and took the Child and His mother with him" [Knox]. Another version has it: " And he rose and took the Child and His mother by night [and departed to Egypt] . . ." [RSV]. In either case it is the same: there was no delay between his receipt of the warning and Joseph's starting to implement his instructions. Here we are shown another aspect of Joseph's character: In no way was he a person intimidated by events or hesitant in meeting life's challenges. "He faced up to problems, he dealt with difficult situations and showed responsibility and initiative in whatever he was asked to do" [Mgr. Escrivá]. This time Joseph did not take time to reflect.

Reflection is good, and is normally necessary for the achieving of certainty. But the reflecting should come before taking a decision, when possible options are being pondered and studied. Once things become clear, however, once a decision has been made, pondering and temporizing are over. It is no longer time for thinking things out, but for action. Reconsidering a decision taken after reasonable reflection [unless of course new factors come into play] is something very close to doubt and vacillation, both of which are paralyzing in their effect. When it is someone else who, because of his position of authority or greater knowledge, has to undertake the preliminary reflection, and then decides on the most appropriate action for the adequate solution of a given problem, all that remains to be discussed is the minimum of information required for the instructions to be understood, for the goal to be grasped, for one to obey and to act. It is no longer the time for pausing to ruminate on whether the ultimately chosen solution was the best possible one, or what the validity of its grounds can be, or if these grounds are sufficiently solid. "The best sort of obedience is this," says St. John Chrysostom: "not to start searching around in quest of reasons for doing what we are asked to do, but simply to do it."

There is no doubt that had he been given to seeking the whys and wherefores of the situation he found himself in, Joseph could have raised for himself some very disturbing questions. Only a short time had elapsed since the circumcision. How could he forget that the Child had been given the name Jesus. And did not Jesus mean 'Savior'? As the Angel had said, He was to save His people. But how could He 'save His people' if He was powerless to thwart Herod's plot against Him? Was such a precipitate retreat really necessary? Were there no other ways to avert the danger?

In general, when the moment arrives for them to obey, those whose trust in their own intelligence is excessive habitually raise such questions. They try to resist accepting what they do not perfectly understand, even when asked by someone who is in a position to know better. Joseph, on the other hand, had no hesitation in accepting advice. He was not the sort of man who goes through life convinced that he has little to learn from anyone else. But if he was, on the contrary, a man ready to accommodate himself to the plan of God, in no way does this make him a weak-minded individual. "His docility," writes Mgr. Escrivá, "is not a passive submission to the course of events." To be 'docile' is not to be handicapped by a lack of energy or by a purely inert conformism. Rather is it the very opposite: it signifies a disposition to do, to be ready to make into a reality everything that presents itself as the will of God. Even less was Joseph one of those who see obedience simply as a surrendering of the will, as if nothing more is to be expected of them than is required of an inactive instrument. Like all of us, Joseph was capable of thinking. But that he was more than ordinarily capable he clearly demonstrated when he was wrestling with the incomprehensible fact of Mary's condition. He was capable of making decisions, even when they were personally hurtful and bound to be damaging to his own interests; we saw this when he was willing to get out of the way so as not to allow Our Lady to be compromised. What he did not have were those defects that frequently prevent people from doing what they ought to do---the kind of defects that incline many to adopt, promptly, courses of action leading to what pleases them, to take the easy way out, or---perhaps to opt for what is least difficult.

Obstacles to Obedience

To obey is not easy. It raises all sorts of difficulties, the most harmful of which have their origin in pride. Indolence is another barrier to obedience, but, though crippling, it is not by any means the most insuperable obstacle. There is special malice in the lack of docility that springs from a mental attitude typical of intellectual pride. It is a kind of arrogance not uncommonly encountered in capable thinkers who, seeing things clearly---or so they maintain---reject automatically all authority and even all advice; people of great intelligence they make it their concern to dissuade from being convinced by the truth those who are at least attempting to consider the facts objectively. This is demonstrably the worst kind of prejudice and leads inevitably to irrationality. Maybe this is why it is often so difficult to persuade the intelligentsia that they are on the wrong tack---so sure are they of themselves that they are totally unable ever to yield their own judgment. It is of interest to note that not a few end by falling into the absurdity of pure voluntarism. They reject any possibility of submitting their thought processes to a reality which does not fit their own preconceived vision of things; they accept and hold stubbornly to a 'reality' created not by God but conceived by themselves. The clearest and best attested example of this kind of prejudice was shown by the Pharisees. They were apparently so unswerving in their esteem for the Law of Moses that not even when faced with the reality of plain and palpable fact were they willing to change their minds and their attitude. How did they stand when confronted with the miracles of Jesus? "This man casts out devils," they proclaimed, "only through Beelzebub, the prince of the devils" [Matt 12:24]. How did they react to the resurrection of Lazarus? "From that day," says the evangelist, "they resolved to kill Him" [John 11:53].

Fortunately, we know that prejudice of this kind is not always irremediable; nor is it found in everyone. The absence of docility can stem not so much from ill-will as from a reluctance to accept what is beyond one's complete understanding, although the truth may have been enunciated by someone who speaks authoritatively and does know what he is talking about. Thus Zachary resisted believing in the Angel's announcement when he was given to understand that his wife Elizabeth would bear a son, she being sterile and both of them being advanced in years. And it is not as if such good news was given to him in his dreams; it was while he was wide awake and in the course of fulfilling his duties in the temple.

We have then the fine example of a humble working man showing a mind both honestly open and more than commonly capable, adhering less to preconceived ideas than cleverer men and even than many good priests. For he "kept the commandments of God without wavering, even though the meaning of those commandments was sometimes obscure or their relation to the rest of the Divine plan was hidden from him" [Mgr. Escrivá]. What comes from God, and especially His inscrutable design for each one of us concerning our participation in the great mystery of the Redemption, has its own means of becoming known to man. But to be receptive to the Divine Intelligence or to the communications of the Holy Spirit requires a little more than an agile mind or an alert comprehension. There are some things which are revealed only to little children [Luke 10:21], things that remain hidden from the wise and powerful: perhaps it is that children---and the humble, who resemble them---are capable of obeying with true docility. Without ingenious and marginal convoluted reflections, without the entanglement of rhetoric that paralyzes the will but with, in abundance, that faculty which would enable them to align their will with the commandments of God, the humble of heart can live their part in the Divine plan of salvation. Men can so easily become hopelessly enmeshed in the labyrinth of their thoughts that they trip over them. When they try to examine what they have been asked to fulfill, the results may not be very inspiring. For "a curious and useless investigation" [as John Paul II has called it] into the mysterious reasons for God's wanting something of men, only leads to a waste of precious time [which could prove fatal, as it might have done in Joseph's case] and, perhaps too, to the Divine message's being stripped bare of its most profound meaning.

Obedience and Freedom

No one should feel that obedience---the natural or acquired disposition which allows man to respond immediately and with no apparent effort [and which is known as 'docility']----implies a loss or a limitation of one's own freedom. For us, Jesus made himself obedient even to death, and to death on a cross at that [Phil 2:8]. But no one who has walked, or is walking, or will walk upon this earth has been, is, or will be more gloriously free than He. The highest freedom, the one true, authentic and unique freedom which can truly merit its name is the one that can enable us to say yes each time God addresses Himself to us and says "Do you want to ... ? Will you . . . ?" It is then when neither caprice nor internal pressure from passions, neither inducement from individuals nor allurements of tempting circumstances prevent us from saying yes to God's request; when no weakness or waywardness of the will carries us to where we ought not to go, it is then that a man is really and truly free.

Today, when the cry of "freedom!" resounds everywhere, those who are free and conscious of genuine freedom are, unfortunately, few in number. Submission to sin, resignation to the forces of evil and to the lower and worst instincts of human nature is ingenuously referred to as a splendid liberation from taboos and from repression. This capitulation in the face of evil would not be so bad if, at least, its proponents were to have the courage to call things by their proper names. But it is a capitulation to the extent that they decide to change the names of things so as to justify themselves; as if altering words could ipso facto change the nature of things and evil cease to be so by the simple expedient of calling it good. It is bad to disobey the precepts of God and to deny his Law. But worse it is---if worse is possible---to declare hypocritically that the Commandments of God have been 'superseded' and replaced by the commandments of man, for no greater reason than that of not being able to stomach a moral order whose existence points up the chaotic disorder of our lives.

As for the rest, in the life of the Saintly family of Nazareth, "God, lover of men, mixed for them hardship with delight, a style he continues to use with all the Saints. He gives neither consolations nor grievings continuously. But he interweaves one with the other in the life of the just. And this he did with Joseph" [St. John Chrysostom].

We cannot enclose God within our narrow horizons and inside our limited capacity to know and understand. For to grasp infinity is impossible. In the last extreme, and given the comparative limitations of human reason [and in spite of its greatness] we will never completely come to fathom the mind of God, His ways or His intentions. They always transcend our capacities and our possibilities. Neither does a child have complete understanding of what his father does or commands. He confidently accepts and obeys. And this for us men is the only truly rational and intelligent attitude towards our Creator. It is also the only really effective one.