Rest on the Flight into Egypt,
Painted by Luc Olivier Merson (1846-1920)
Painted in 1879,
Oil on canvas
© Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Feast of the Holy Family
After the wise men had left, 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.’ So Joseph got up and, taking the child and his mother with him, left that night for Egypt, 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.'
After Herod’s death, the angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt 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.’ So Joseph got up and, taking the child and his mother with him, went back to the land of Israel. 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 left for the region of Galilee. 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.’
Reflection on the painting
Today’s canvas is one of my favourite paintings. We see Joseph resting, exhausted on the Egyptian sands at the feet of the sphinx. He is flanked by an open fire and the little donkey which carried them there. The saddle has been removed, to give the animal a rest too, and we see it grazing on sparse desert grass. Mary and Jesus are resting on the sphinx, with a radiant light emanating from the child Jesus. He is staring at the stars in heaven. They were fleeing from the horror of the slaughter of the innocents which we discussed yesterday.
Especially Mary’s heart-breaking, sorrowful expression is powerful. She grieves for all the women and children who could not flee, for the innocents slaughtered by the cruel king. All those lost baby lives, those grieving families. Mary’s heart grieved for them, she who bears the weight of all the sorrows of the world.
Luc Olivier Merson, the French academic 19th-century painter of this picture, beautifully captures a poignant moment: the Holy Family have just left behind the synagogues and the Temple, the Promised Land, to live in exile, trusting that some day God will deliver them and bring them back home. They are now surrounded by paganism in the form of a sphinx. Mary carries with her the Light of the World, but his time has not yet come to do his work. This is the moment where Mary and Joseph keep the light of faith alive in the pagan lands of Egypt, ready to bring Jesus back to Israel for him to start his ministry some thirty years later.
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