Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” Matthew 2:13
So soon after Simeon’s prophecy did Mary come to understand just what life as the mother of Jesus would be like! We know from Luke’s gospel that Mary and Joseph “returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth” (Lk. 2:39) after having presented him in the temple for naming and circumcision. But rather than settle down into a quiet life of raising their baby boy surrounded by the support of family and friends, Mary and Joseph instead would need to gather their child and their few belongings and set out on a long and difficult journey.
It was a matter of life and death.
Even as an infant, Jesus was despised, and the angel told them to go to Egypt so that they would be outside of the jurisdiction of the jealous King Herod.
The distance from Nazareth to Egypt is about 400 miles, and it would have taken the young family up to thirty days. Thirty days of traveling through harsh terrain with a brand new baby! St. Bonaventure wonders, “How did they get their food? Where did they stop for the night?” And St. Alphonsus Liguori goes on to say, “They probably were satisfied with a hard piece of bread, either brought along by Joseph or begged as alms. The only place that they could have slept along the road (especially through two hundred miles of desert where there were no houses or inns) was on the sand or under a tree, in the open air and exposed to the dangers of robbers and wild animals with which Egypt abounded.” (from The Glories of Mary) Once they arrived in Egypt, they would have lived a life of poverty and hard work to support themselves and care for their child, but they endured these hardships for eight years out of love for him.
If I were the one writing the Holy Family’s story, in my limited human understanding, I might have thought it best to make their lives as easy as possible, knowing the difficulty that would be coming at the end in Christ’s Passion. “Since you are going to have to endure so much,” I might think, “I will make your lives before then pleasant so that it is easier for you to endure what lies ahead.”
But, thankfully, God’s ways are not our ways, and as St. James tells us, it is not ease and comfort that help us to persevere, but trials and the testing of our faith. This is why he encourages us to “consider it all joy” whenever we face these things. (James 1:2)
It is interesting to recall that, thousands of years earlier, when God called Moses to lead the Israelites out of Egypt to the promised land, they would have experienced a similarly difficult journey through the desert. Just as God provided the manna, the water, and the quail for them on their journey, he surely provided enough for the Holy Family during this time, but the Israelites responded to his supernatural provision, protection, and guidance with grumbling and complaining, quarreling and testing the Lord, saying, “Is the Lord in our midst or not?” (Ex. 17:7)
Have you experienced a time in your life when you were brought into the wilderness – a place so far out of your comfort zone that you needed to rely completely on him every step of the way? It may have been through the loss of a job that left you wondering how your bills were going to be paid or how you were going to feed your family. Perhaps you are experiencing the discomfort that comes from taking a stand for your faith, or weariness along the path that is your vocation – like you can barely put one foot in front of the other. Can’t you imagine the Holy Family experiencing these things along their journey? Often the Lord brings these kinds of experiences to us, and it can be tempting to grumble and complain, as the Israelites did, when we are faced with such hardships. We may view our sufferings as an affliction or wonder to ourselves, “Is the Lord with me or not?”
But it is precisely these types of experiences that force us to rely on God and to trust in his care for us. When our illusion of control is shattered, we must relinquish that control to the only One who held it all along. It is only then that we can “lean not on our own understanding” (Proverbs 3:5), but lean fully on him and allow him to uphold us.
We are not in the wilderness alone.
Following Mary’s Example
What are we to do when we encounter the kind of suffering in our lives that calls us out of our comfort and thrusts us into the unknown?
Let’s look at what Mary did:
She prioritized her love of Christ above all else. Even when she was forced to give up her physical comforts, even when it meant difficulty and hardship, Mary’s love of Christ came first. She clung to him and maintained great faith that God would provide for their needs if she obeyed him.
This earth is not our home; we are only pilgrims here. We should not cling to earthly comforts for security, for they are fleeting. As Jesus reminds us, “Do not store up for yourselves treasure on earth, where moth and decay destroy, and thieves break in and steal. But store up treasures in heaven…for where your treasure is, there also will your heart be.” (Matthew 6:19) Mary’s treasure was Jesus; nothing else mattered.
She embraced her suffering. Joseph and Mary did not hesitate to endure the difficulty of travel and living in Egypt because they knew it was what God was calling them to do. They got up right away and began their journey. Sometimes God calls us to experience something that will bring suffering in our lives as well. Our Lady of Kibeho said, “No one reaches heaven without suffering.”
Our Lord said, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” (Matthew 16:24) We must all be willing to suffer for Christ’s sake, trusting that God’s will for us is perfect. So many graces come through suffering. Let’s not run from it but embrace it with faith in God’s plan for our lives, as Our Lady did.
- Has God called you into a desert place? Has there been a time when your comforts – physical or emotional – were stripped away?
- What did he teach you about himself during this time? Did you feel closer to him or farther away? Did you experience his provision?
- In hindsight, can you see growth in yourself for having gone through this difficult time?
God, I thank you that when I am in the desert, I am not there alone. Help me to remember that you are with me and you love me. Let me not be like the Israelites, doubting your presence and your goodness. Please help me to see that you are my provider and that you are working all things together for my good – even difficult things.
Our Lady of Sorrows, please give us the grace to endure our sufferings with the faith that you demonstrated. Pray for us to be willing to relinquish our earthly comforts, to take up our own crosses out of love for your precious Son, and so to be united with him in heaven someday.
This is the second post in a series on the Seven Sorrows of Mary. To read the first post, click here.