Flight to Egypt - Part 1
"An angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. 'Get up,' he said, 'take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt." (Matthew 2:13a).
Governed directly by Rome since the death of Cleopatra, Egypt had long been recognized as a place of refuge. Numerous Jewish communities were found there, especially in Alexandria, which had the largest concentration of Jews outside Palestine. Because both Egypt and Palestine were part of the Roman Empire, travel between them was easy and relatively safe.
The flight into Egypt is a true love story in which Joseph does everything he can to keep Mary and the baby Jesus safe. Dreams are play a prominent role in the story, just as they were for the Old Testament Joseph, this Joseph's namesake. On one side the tiny family seems surrounded by the evil Herod family, and by a crowd of angels on the other. The expensive gifts of the Magi provided enough money for the family to travel on and God oversaw their journey to Egypt, then returned them safely to Palestine.
Matthew's Gospel relates no details of the journey of Mary and Joseph to Egypt to save the life of their infant son. Undoubtedly they took the regular caravan route south from Bethlehem to Hebron (modern Road 60), then sharply northwest to Gaza. From Gaza they would have followed the coastal highway down to Pelusium, the gateway to Egypt. Traveling an average of twenty miles a day, they would have reached Egypt in about ten days. (An alternate route, through the Negev and the Sinai Desert, an area of never-ending wilderness and heat, would have been extremely dangerous).
In the footsteps of Jesus...
From the corner of Manger Square, we walk eastward along the narrow Milk Grotto Street, past houses and a Greek monastery, to a Franciscan chapel built around a grotto where, according to a tradition going back at least to the earliest years of Christianity, Mary and Joseph stopped while fleeing Herod's soldiers on their way to Egypt.
Milk Grotto (above, exterior and interior)
The irregularly shaped grotto is hollowed out of the soft white rock. It was converted into a lavishly decorated chapel called by local Christians "Magharet Sitti Mariam" (Grotto of the Lady Mary), but more commonly known as the Milk Grotto. A church was built here at least before the 5th century AD, and mosaic fragments on the terrace of the grotto, with geometric motifs and crosses, are thought to belong to this time. According to legend, while Mary breast-fed the infant Jesus a few drops of milk fell on the stone turning it white. The cave is a place of veneration for both Christians and Muslims who believe scrapings from the stones boost the quality of a mother's breast milk and enhance fertility.