January 4, 2015
I can’t have been asleep more than an hour or so when he shook me awake. “Mary, get up. We have to go.”
“Go where?” I asked him.
“We just have to go!” he replied. “Don’t ask questions; there isn’t time. I’ll explain when we’re on the road.” I could see the fear in his eyes, so I didn’t ask any more, just threw a few things for the baby in the center of a blanket, rolled it up, and tied it with a scrap of fabric from my sewing basket.
Honestly, as the cobwebs cleared out of my head, I knew I wouldn’t really have to ask. All of us in Bethlehem had been on edge from the moment those Persian stargazers came to town. No one had ever seen anything like them, with their exotic clothing and their charts of the night sky, which they consulted frequently and exclaimed over in their foreign tongue. Then they knocked on our door and dropped to their knees in front of our little boy, and gave him gifts that were more expensive than anyone in Bethlehem had ever seen, and we were shocked.
It was when they told the story of how they’d stopped to ask directions at King Herod’s palace that we knew something horrible was about to happen. We lived close enough to Jerusalem to have heard plenty of stories about Herod over the years. We knew how he’d executed his sons and even his beloved wife, out of fear that they would take his throne away from him. There was even a saying: “It would be better to be Herod’s pig than Herod’s son.” That was because Herod, who was himself a foreigner, made a show of keeping the Jewish laws about what we did and did not eat (and pork is one thing we don’t eat), while at the same time murdering any person he thought might stand in his way.
In the last few months, dark rumors had come from Jerusalem. Herod, who had always been capricious and cruel, was ill with some kind of disease that was affecting his mind, making him even more paranoid and even more violent than he’d been before. And the Magi, those Persian stargazers, had stopped to ask Herod’s household about the new King of the Jews! Naturally everyone at the palace and everyone in Jerusalem was terrified about what Herod might do next; and that fear rippled out to us in Bethlehem.
I really wasn’t all that surprised when Joseph woke me up and said we needed to leave, right now. As we headed out the door, Joseph stopped and picked up the little chest where we’d put the gifts the Magi had brought us. They weren’t very practical gifts to bring a baby, but they were symbols of what the Magi thought Jesus would be—a king and a priest—except for the myrrh, which is actually an embalming spice. But it took several days to get from Bethlehem to Alexandria, where we knew there were fellow Jews who would help us, and Joseph was able to use the gold and sell the other things, to provide food and shelter along the way.
We had been on the road for a couple days when the news reached us about what had happened after we left Bethlehem. I fell to my knees, right there on the road, when I heard. Every single baby and toddler in Bethlehem—every single one!—slaughtered by Herod’s soldiers, trying to do away with the one the Magi had come seeking, a new king who would restore David’s throne. Trying to do away with my little boy!
I couldn’t breathe as I thought of all the mothers of Bethlehem, frantically trying to hide terrified children, singing them desperate lullabies—“lullay, thou little tiny child…” —to try to get them quiet so they might not be found. Those babies would have been Jesus’ playmates, classmates, friends—as their mothers were my friends; we met every day at the well and at the market, watched each other’s children, shared ideas for how to deal with colic or the best way to get swaddling clothes clean. I couldn’t bear it…couldn’t bear the thought that they all cried for their lost children when I still had mine, because an angel of God had come to Joseph in a dream to warn him.
Why didn’t that angel go to the rest of Bethlehem? Didn’t God love those children, too?
Joseph tried to comfort me, but I wouldn’t be comforted, just like Rachel in Jeremiah’s prophecy. It just didn’t seem right to be grateful that our child was alive, without remembering all those who weren’t.
Jesus had been napping when the rider told us the news, but he woke up soon after. “Mama, why you cry?” he asked in his baby voice. I thanked God he was too little to understand, and I held him tight as Joseph urged me to get up so we could keep moving. We weren’t yet far enough from Jerusalem that we were entirely safe. So we got up and trudged on.
Contrary to the pictures, we were on foot; we couldn’t afford a donkey before, and Joseph thought it might attract unwanted attention if we were to use the fancy Persian gold to buy one, at least while we were still in Judea.
When we finally made it to Alexandria, we found the synagogue and the rabbi and his wife helped us find a place to stay. We were lucky because there was a good-sized Jewish community there, people who looked like us, and sounded like us, and believed in the same God we did. Not all refugees have that option when they have to leave their homes because of war, or disaster, or disease. But I knew the stories of our people, so I couldn’t help but notice the irony that we, people who were shaped by God bringing us out of Egypt, found safety in Egypt.
We lived there in Alexandria for a couple of years. Joseph found another builder and went to work with him. I got to know the women there and made some new friends. And Jesus began to learn the Torah with the other little boys there. We were still poor, but we got by, even managed to buy a cow and a donkey.
Then, one day, as we finished our evening prayers and tucked our son into bed, Joseph said, “A messenger came by today.”
The messenger had the news that old Herod had finally died, and a son who’d managed to escape his paranoid wrath had taken his place on the throne in Jerusalem. So Joseph asked me, “How would you feel about going home?”
He said that the night before he’d had a dream in which the same angel who’d told him to get us out of Bethlehem came and said it was safe to return; and then the next day the messenger came with the news that Herod was dead.
This time we had time to plan, time to save up, time to pack and sell the cow and our house and have a rummage sale. We had time to say good-by to our friends and promise to write. And there would be no rider on the road with the news that our friends’ children had all been slaughtered in the king’s murderous rage.
“Mama, where are we going?” Jesus asked as we closed the door of our house in Alexandria for the last time.
“We’re going home,” I told him; but he didn’t understand.
“This is home,” he said.
“Yes, it’s been home for us; but we came here from somewhere else, and we’re going back there.”
I couldn’t give him an answer for that; Joseph and I had decided we wouldn’t tell him about our journey from Bethlehem to Egypt until he was quite a bit older.
But it wasn’t very long before he started to have bad dreams. In the dreams he said he was running, and he heard me crying, but he didn’t know how to make me feel better. “What does it mean?” he asked me.
I had thought he was too little to remember any of it, but somehow, he had—but they were confusing memories and he couldn’t make any sense of them. So Joseph and I sat him down and told him the story.
“But Mama, Papa, why didn’t the angel help all those other babies? Why did they die?” And that night our compassionate, sensitive little boy cried himself to sleep.
From that time on, no matter what he was doing, the realization that he was saved while others weren’t never left his mind. As he worked with his father in the shop, he asked questions about how Joseph knew where to go, how he knew the angel who told them to leave Bethlehem was from God. He and I talked more about how it felt to be afraid and on the run, and to have to make our home among strangers—we had to do it twice, for we never did go back to Bethlehem, because the angel came to Joseph again once we were on the road to tell us that Herod’s son was even worse than Herod had been. As he studied his Torah he realized that God expects us to care for refugees and others in need, and also to stand up to people like Herod, who used their power to hurt others.
I could see that these stories made Jesus even more determined to love and help people, and to teach others to do the same. But it took him a long time to understand that there was something God had for him to do, which no one else could do. Others could heal the sick and love the unlovable; others could welcome the stranger and feed the hungry; and he urged those who came to follow him to do these things. But there was no one else on earth who could take away the sin of the world, who could finally go to a cross and, by dying there, give all of us a new life.