The Flight to Egypt: The Shadow Side of Christmas
By DARRYL TIPPENS
“It is important to remember the deep, in some ways anguished seriousness of Advent.”
—Thomas Merton, Seasons of Celebrations
A friend of mine endured a hair-raising escape from Tehran, Iran, one night in 1979. As the city fell to the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, Yasmin (let us call her) received an urgent call from the American embassy telling her to leave immediately—to go straight to the airport with her baby. She was told not to delay, not even to wait for her husband who was away at the time. (He would later be spirited out of the country separately).
After Yasmin landed in New York, she opened her suitcase in her hotel room. To her surprise, among the array of clothes she had quickly packed, there lay the lid to her cooking pot. The call that night had so rattled her that she had mindlessly thrown the lid in the suitcase. Yasmin later learned that she and her husband were on the Revolutionary Guard’s death list. Had she not left when she did, she might have been executed as some of her friends were.
A long time ago another young family with a baby in the Middle East got an urgent message one night, warning them to leave the country at once. Like my friend Yasmin, Jesus, Joseph, and Mary escaped the murderous rage of another ruling power. I wonder what Mary and Joseph packed the night they hurried out of Bethlehem. Did their bags include any kitchen items like Yasmin’s lid?
The flight of the holy family from Bethlehem doesn’t easily fit into any Christmas pageant I’ve ever seen. No doubt that’s because the escape to Egypt is jarring and dissonant when set over against the season’s usual happy themes. But the Christ Child’s escape from a mass murderer is a necessary part of the story.
The twinkling lights, the tinseled tree, the crèche, the gifts-giving, and the wise men are all fine; but the “shadow side” of the story is also important. A savior isn’t much of a savior if there is nothing bad to be saved from.
We don’t know how long or precisely where the family landed in Egypt; however, today in Cairo, Egypt, you can visit the Saint Virgin Mary Coptic Orthodox Church, one of the oldest churches in Egypt. It was built, according to a very old tradition, on the spot where Jesus and his family resided in safety until King Herod passed.
Saint Virgin Mary Coptic Orthodox Church in Cairo, Egypt. Submitted photos
A few weeks ago I visited this venerable site of pilgrimage. It’s a kind of cellar or cave—a dark, stuffy, and dreary home for the Savior of the World, it seems to me. But surely this gloomy place is like many places through the centuries where desperate refugees from terror have dwelled. Sometimes there is safety and redemption even in dark places.
According to Google maps, it takes about nine hours to drive from Bethlehem to the old Coptic church in Cairo—an easy trip in an automobile on a paved highway. I wonder how long it would have taken to walk those 450 miles to Egypt with a newborn and a new mom.
When Jesus’ family fled that night, I wonder: how much gear did they pack? Did they take the lid to their cooking pot like Yasmin? And what about the gold, frankincense, and myrrh? Did they have to hock some of it along the way to pay for their emergency trip? Was Mary as rattled as Yasmin the night they fled?
As we observe Advent and Christmas, there is much to consider: the joy and danger of the occasion, the hope and fear, the promise and hardship. Christmas is not one thing, it turns out, but many things. It is good to leave room for the array of moods and meanings baked into the season. Steven Charleston, a Native American elder and retired Episcopal bishop, wisely observed:
“Every holiday is like a coin: there are two sides. On the bright side, there are all of the usual celebrations and laughter. On the shadow side, there are all those for whom the holiday brings reminders of past hurts and losses. If you are on the joyful side then turn that light to shine as a beacon for as many others as you can, reaching out to welcome, comfort and support them during this season of their struggle. If you are on the shadow side then abide as deeply in the Spirit as you can, remembering the past, but living in the love that surrounds you now, knowing you are safe in arms that will never let you go.”
Darryl Tippens is retired University Distinguished Scholar at Abilene Christian University