Lectio Divina

The Holy Family of
Jesus, Mary and Joseph (A)

The flight into Egypt and the return to Nazareth
Matthew 2:13-23


a) Opening prayer:

God, our Creator and Father, you decreed that your Son, generated before the dawn of the world, should be like us in all things through his incarnation in the womb of the Virgin Mary by the working of the Holy Spirit. Send that same life-giving Spirit upon us, so that we may become ever more docile to your sanctifying action, allowing ourselves to be gently transformed by the same Spirit into the image and likeness of Jesus Christ your Son, our brother, saviour and redeemer.

b) A reading from the Gospel of Matthew:

Matthew 2: 13-2313 After they had left, suddenly the angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, 'Get up, take the child and his mother with you, and escape into Egypt, and stay there until I tell you, because Herod intends to search for the child and do away with him.' 14 So Joseph got up and, taking the child and his mother with him, left that night for Egypt, 15 where he stayed until Herod was dead. This was to fulfil what the Lord had spoken through the prophet: I called my son out of Egypt. 16 Herod was furious on realising that he had been fooled by the wise men, and in Bethlehem and its surrounding district he had all the male children killed who were two years old or less, reckoning by the date he had been careful to ask the wise men. 17 Then were fulfilled the words spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: 18 A voice is heard in Ramah, lamenting and weeping bitterly: it is Rachel weeping for her children, refusing to be comforted because they are no more. 19 After Herod's death, suddenly the angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt 20 and said, 'Get up, take the child and his mother with you and go back to the land of Israel, for those who wanted to kill the child are dead.' 21 So Joseph got up and, taking the child and his mother with him, went back to the land of Israel. 22 But when he learnt that Archelaus had succeeded his father Herod as ruler of Judaea he was afraid to go there, and being warned in a dream he withdrew to the region of Galilee. 23 There he settled in a town called Nazareth. In this way the words spoken through the prophets were to be fulfilled: He will be called a Nazarene.

c) A moment of silence:

so that the Word of God may penetrated into our hearts and enlighten our life.


a) A key to the reading:

Matthew’s Gospel has been called “the Gospel of the Kingdom”. Matthew invites us to reflect on the coming of the kingdom of heaven. Some have seen in the structure of his Gospel narration a drama in seven acts that deal with the coming of this Kingdom. The drama begins with the preparation for the coming of the Kingdom in the person of the boy Messiah and ends with the coming of the Kingdom in the suffering and triumph of the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, Son of God. 

The Gospel passage presented to us for reflection, is part of the so-called first act where Matthew introduces to us the person of Jesus as the fulfilment of the Scriptures. Matthew’s is the Gospel that often quotes the Old Testament to show that in Christ the law and the prophets are fulfilled. Jesus, the fulfilment and perfection of the Scriptures, came into the world to re-establish the kingdom of heaven already proclaimed in the covenant made by God with his people. With the coming of Christ, this covenant is no longer reserved for the Jewish people alone but is extended to all peoples. Matthew addresses himself to a community of Christian Jews, persecuted by the synagogue, and invites it to be open to the gentiles. He is the wise scribe who knows how to draw from his treasury that which is old and new. His Gospel was first written in Aramaic and then translated into Greek.

Matthew 2:13-23 is part of the section that deals with the birth and childhood of “Jesus Christ son of David, son of Abraham” (Mt 1:1). Jesus is the son of his people, but he is also son of the whole of humanity. In his genealogy we find foreign influences (Mt 1:3-6). After Mary his mother, the first called to pay homage to the newborn Messiah are the Magi (Mt 2:11). With his light, the Messiah draws the wise to himself and offers them salvation (Mt 2:1-12). The Magi receive this salvation, unlike Herod and the troubled citizens of Jerusalem (Mt 2:3). From the very time of his birth Jesus is persecuted by the leaders of his people and at the same time relives the painful experiences of his people. 

From the very time of his birth, Jesus relives the painful experience of his people in exile, humbled again and again. The Gospel shows us this by telling us of the flight into Egypt and the murder of the innocents. The drama of these events unfolds before us in the following details:
i) The angel who appears in a dream to Joseph after the Magi leave, and the flight into Egypt (Mt 2:13-15).
ii) Herod who becomes aware of the deceit of the Magi and kills all the children in Bethlehem (Mt 2:16-18).
iii) The death of Herod and the “clandestine” return of the Holy Family not to Bethlehem but to Galilee (Mt 2:19-23).

The theme of kings killing those whom they fear is common in the history of every royal dynasty. Apart from this scene of Herod seeking out the child Jesus to kill him, in Bible literature in the Old Testament we find similar stories. In the first book of Samuel, Saul who has been rejected by the Lord feared David and sought to kill him (1 Sam 15; 18; 19; 20). Michal and Jonathan help David to flee (1 Sam 19; 20). Again in the first book of Kings, king Solomon in his old age, unfaithful to the God of his fathers and with a perverted heart, commits what is evil in the sight of the Lord (1 Kings 11: 3-13). For this, the Lord raises up an adversary against Solomon (1 Kings 11: 14), Hadad who during David’s reign flees and takes refuge in Egypt (1 Kings 11: 17). Another of Solomon’s adversaries is Jeroboam who takes refuge in Egypt to get away from the king who wanted to kill him (1 Kings 11: 40). Such were the dangers of a degenerate kingdom. In the second book of Kings, this time in the context of the siege of Jerusalem, “In the ninth year of his [Nebuchadnezzar] reign, in the tenth month, on the tenth day of the month” (2 Kings 25: 1) of the year 589, we read of the sacking of Jerusalem and of the second deportation of the people in the year 587 (2 Kings 25: 8-21). The people who “remained in the land of Judah” (2 Kings 25: 22) submit to Gedaliah who was appointed governor by Nebuchadnezzar. “ Ishmael […] and ten men with him […] murdered Gedaliah, as well as the Judaeans and the Chaldaeans who were with him”. Then from fear of the Chaldaeans, they fled into Egypt (2 Kings 25-26). In the book of the prophet Jeremiah, we also find the story of Uriah “another man, too, who used to prophesy in the name of Yahweh” (Jer 26: 20). Uriah flees into Egypt because king Jehoiakim sought to kill him. The king in fact did find him in Egypt and killed him (Jer 25: 20-24).

With these events as background to the flight of the Holy Family into Egypt, Matthew shows us Jesus, from his very childhood, as partaking of the fate of his people. Egypt, for Jesus, becomes the place of refuge, as it was for the patriarchs:
- Abraham who “went down into Egypt to stay there for the time, since the land was hard pressed by the famine” (Gen 12, 10).
- Joseph was threatened by his brothers who sought to kill him out of envy and was then sold to merchants who led him into Egypt and sold him to Potiphar (Gen 37: 12-36).
- Israel (Jacob) who goes to Egypt called by his son Joseph (Gen 46: 1-7).
- The family of Israel (Jacob) that goes to Egypt to establish themselves there (Gen 46–50; Es 1: 1-6).

Matthew turns the citation from Hosea 11:1 upside down: “I called my son out of Egypt”, and interprets it as if God called his son Jesus to flee into Egypt (Mt 2: 15). The original meaning of Hosea was, that the Lord called his son Israel to leave Egypt in order to start a nation. Jesus’ flight into Egypt and the killing of the innocents of Bethlehem remind us of the oppression of Israel in Egypt and the killing of all the new-born males (Es 1: 8- 22).

The prophecy applied to the murder of the innocents is taken from the book of consolation made up of chapters 30 and 31 of the book of Jeremiah. The lamentation is connected with the promise of the Lord who consoles Rachel, Jacob’s (Israel’s) spouse, mother of Joseph, who according to tradition was buried close to Bethlehem, and promises her that she will be rewarded for her sorrow, her children who are no longer will come back (Jer 31: 15 – 18).

When they come back from Egypt after the death of Herod, Joseph decides to live in Galilee in a city called Nazareth. Jesus will be called the Nazarene. Later also, his disciples will be known as Nazarenes (Acts 24: 5). Apart from indicating the name of a city, this name may also refer to the “shoot”, that is the «neçer» of Isaiah 11: 1. Or it may refer to the rest of Israel, the «naçur» (see Is 42: 6).

b) Questions for personal reflection:

i) What strikes you most in this passage from Matthew?
ii) What does the kingdom of heaven mean for you?
iii) How does the kingdom of heaven differ from earthly kingdoms?
iv) Matthew introduces us to the person of Jesus as one who becomes one with the fate of his people. Read the passages cited in the key to the reading so as to reflect and pray on the events of the people of God, with which Jesus identified himself. What are similar situations in our world? Ask yourself what you can do to better the conditions where you live and work, especially if they are at variance with the kingdom of heaven.


a) Personal prayer in silence.

b) Conclude the lectio divina with this prayer:

Merciful Father, grant that we may follow the examples of the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph so that we may always be strong in the trials of life until the day when we may share in your glory in heaven. Through Christ our Lord.


May the peace of Christ reign in your hearts. (Col 3: 15)


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Last revised: 18 December 2004