Flight into Egypt
Chapter 2 of the Gospel of Matthew relates the events of the Holy Family’s flight from Bethlehem into Egypt. The account of the journey represents for us a historical fact, linked to the persecution by Herod the Great who sought to have Jesus killed.
On this occasion, after an angel appeared to him in a dream, Joseph − the earthly father, he who had protected the existence of the Child Jesus − fled with Mary to Egypt where they took refuge for six months, according to tradition, near Mount Qusquam, welcomed by the local inhabitants.
In a certain sense the land of Egypt, which gave shelter to Jesus in his early childhood along with his mother Mary and father Joseph, can also be considered Holy Land, as a place of passage and presence of Our Lord. Only after a further appearance of the angel to Joseph in a dream, in which he gave news of Herod’s death, did the Holy Family return once again to the land of Israel.
Massacre of the Innocents
Between the two parts of the narrative of the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt, several verses describe the cruelty of King Herod who, in order to be sure of killing Jesus, decided to exterminate all children in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under.
This event can be seen as a prelude to the persecutions and martyrdoms in the early Christian centuries. Through this massacre Herod sought to eliminate all possibility of a threat to his absolute rule, and the Messiah represented such a threat.
Matthew presents the story of the Massacre of the Innocents as part of a salvific plan of God and interprets it in a prophetic sense as fulfilling Scripture. Indeed, the Evangelist refers to the prophet Jeremiah’s description (Jer 31:15) of Rachel’s lament about the fate of the Jewish people, dragged away to their Babylonian exile: “A voice was heard in Ramah, sobbing and loud lamentation; Rachel weeping for her children, and she would not be consoled, since they were no more” (Matt 2:18).
The children exterminated in Bethlehem represent for Matthew the people of Israel. The pain experienced by their mothers is the pain of the people who failed to recognize the King Messiah.