The world’s most celebrated refugees – the Holy Family

A POINT OF AWARENESS - Preciosa S. Soliven - The Philippine Star

If one refers to the true history of our Lord Jesus Christ, the events after His Nativity were not all accompanied by boisterous celebration. Although man has the tendency to lengthen Christmas, we must be reminded that our Lord God, who became man and stepped down on earth, has a different version of joy in life. 

In the ’80s, my husband and I were official guests of Egypt Air. One of our requests was to visit the residential area of the Holy Family. According to our guide, the Heliopolis district, near the Cairo International Airport where we were billeted, was where Joseph and Mary fled with Jesus.

The Child Jesus blesses the City of the Sun

When the Holy Family entered the pagan land of Egypt, the Infant Jesus in the arms of His mother raised His eyes and hands to the eternal Father and asked for the salvation of its inhabitants. As they arrived at the town of Heliopolis or City of the Sun, He used His divine power to drive the demons from the idols in the temples. 

Heliopolis is the “city” sacred to the god Ra, lord of the sun, and to Horus, god of the sky – the falcon-headed god (son of Osiris, god of the underworld, and Isis, mother of the earth) who slew the evil Seth in combat, and was consumed in fire only to rise again from his own ashes. Some of the sarcophagi of the ancient Pharaohs were fashioned in the shape of Horus and his falcon head – for he is the symbol of resurrection and life after death in which the Egyptians of antiquity devoutly believed. 

The Street of Mary’s Tree

Not far from the famed Youssof Kamal Palace is a street named Shagaret Miriam (The Street of Mary’s Tree). In this area is the sycamore tree, gnarled with age but still green, protected by a high pink wall, in the shade of which the Holy Family rested at the end of their Flight into Egypt. The little grove of sycamores was reputedly planted by Queen Cleopatra VII – the last of the line of Pharaohs descended from Ptolemy, a general of Alexander the Great. Legend says that to tend her gardens of sycamore and fragrant balsam, Cleopatra “imported” a colony of Hebrew gardeners. It was only logical, therefore, for Joseph and Mary to seek refuge among this settlement of Jews.  Today, the lone sycamore tree is enclosed in a small courtyard. Children of middle-class Egyptian families were busy playing when the caretaker unlocked the gate. The century-old tree had fallen on its side but was still alive. The caretaker pointed to a small old stone tub which he says was used by Mary to bathe Jesus. 

The French Jesuits, years ago, built a lovely little church a few meters away from this garden. This is where we went. It had been pouring rain all day – a novelty for desert-rimmed Cairo, and desert sand had turned into desert mud.  When we entered the courtyard of the Church of the Holy Family, however, despite the drizzle, birds greeted us with happy snatches of song as they flitted through the branches. It was as though the noise and turmoil of the crowded streets outside had faded away, while here was an oasis of peace and tranquility. Over the entrance to the church were inscribed the words: “Sanctae Familiae in Aegypto Exsult” (The flight of the Holy Family into Egypt).

The first years of the child Jesus’ life in Egypt

St. Joseph found a poor and humble three-room house at a small distance from the town. Upon entering this new home, the Mother of God knelt on the ground and kissed it with profound humility, thanking the Lord for giving them this place of rest after their long and hard journey. She dedicated all that she was to do there to the glory of God, while she offered to take upon herself all the trials and labors of their exile. Then, she set about cleaning the rooms. 

During the next three days the Holy Family was so completely destitute that they had to live on whatever St. Joseph could beg for them. Then, he succeeded in obtaining work in his trade as a carpenter. But, he was not well treated by the person who employed him. Looking upon him as a foreigner and a refugee, they paid him whatever they pleased. Sometimes after a whole day’s work he was not able to bring any money home. As the house was without furniture, he soon made a couch for Mary and a cradle for Jesus, as well as some low tables and stools. Of the three rooms, they assigned one to the Mother and Child, and the other two to St. Joseph as his bedroom and workshop. 

The Holy Family adjusted themselves to their poverty calmly and even joyfully. However, Mary decided to help in earning their living. She therefore began to do needlework for some good women in the Jewish colony, and soon her reputation for skill and quality of work spread, so that she was never in want of employment. However, she always refused to do any frivolous fashion pieces – this attitude aroused criticism among some of her customers. While she sewed, the Infant Jesus lay quietly in His cradle beside her.

Jesus sets a routine

for his mother

Due to the many hours which she now spent at this work, she had to devote more of the night hours to prayer and contemplation. Her divine Son was greatly pleased with her zeal and acceptance of poverty, and wishing to lessen her labor, one day. He said to her: “My Mother, I wish to make a rule for your daily life and work. For nightfall you will take some sleep and rest. From midnight until dawn, We will praise the Eternal Father together. Then prepare the necessary food for yourself and Joseph. Afterwards give Me food and hold Me in your arms until noon, when you will place Me in the arms of your husband to give him some refreshment in his labors. Then retire and return to your work until it is time to prepare the evening meal. Pray continually to the Eternal Father for sinners.” 

Mary and Joseph had the Infant Jesus with them as they took their meals. Whenever St. Joseph wished to caress the Divine Child, he humbly asked Mary’s permission. Taking the little Jesus in his arms, he was so filled with tender joy and love that he forgot all his hardships and even considered them easy and sweet. Both Mary and Joseph often received such heart-warming consolations from Jesus that they gladly accepted all trials for love of Him.

A child no longer

When Pope John Paul II visited the Philippines in the ’80s, it was also the festival month of Santo Niño. One of the members of his party asked me, “Why do Filipinos make a cult of the Baby Jesus? Don’t you think this influences the psychology of Filipinos in the sense that they get emotionally attached to the infancy of Our Lord. For a developing country, the adult Lord Christ is a more appropriate inspiration.”  I wholeheartedly agree with this point of awareness. 

(Reference: Brown, Raphael. The Life of Mary as Seen by the Mystics. USA: The Bruce Publishing Company, 1951

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