As we journey through these joyous and blessed 50 days of the resurrection of our Lord we come upon an often overlooked feast day in the Coptic Orthodox Church. The entry of The Lord into Egypt is celebrated annually and is one of the 7 minor feasts in the life of the Coptic Orthodox Church. On first glance this may seem like a relatively unimportant day or perhaps many of us simply relegate it to the realm of simply historical detail. The Gospel reading of the day and the liturgical texts direct us to realities in the Scriptural text we probably did not even notice before. Let us journey together to peer deeper into the mystery. The Church in her hymns for the day says a number of beautiful things,
“Yours is the glory and the honour, and the thanksgiving, O King and Creator, in Your great economy. Holy are You O Lover of man, for You have visited us in Your mercy, You took flesh and became man, and gave us salvation.”
“The Ancient of Days, whom the angels praise, today has come into Egypt, to save us His people.”
Doxology of The Feast
“O You who saved His people, in the beginning in the land of Egypt, save us O my Lord Jesus, from our ignorance.”
Immediately we notice the immensity of the day and the joy with which we are to celebrate. How are we supposed to understand these texts? It is not necessarily self-evident how the Lord’s descent into Egypt is a feast of salvation for us. These words may sound lovely but for us they may lack any real meaning at first read. Many of us may even think that this is simply a quirk of Egyptians commemorating the Lord’s heading to Egypt as a matter of some sort of nationalistic pride. Yet the hymns of the feast point us far higher than that. Let us dig into this feast and its readings and try to peer deeper into this often forgotten feast. The Church reads from the Gospel of Matthew on this feast day where the account is narrated:
“Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, saying, ‘Arise, take the young Child and His mother, flee to Egypt, and stay there until I bring you word; for Herod will seek the young Child to destroy Him.’
When he arose, he took the young Child and His mother by night and departed for Egypt, and was there until the death of Herod, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying, “Out of Egypt I called My Son.”
Then Herod, when he saw that he was deceived by the wise men, was exceedingly angry; and he sent forth and put to death all the male children who were in Bethlehem and in all its districts, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had determined from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet, saying:
‘A voice was heard in Ramah,
Lamentation, weeping, and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children,
Refusing to be comforted,
Because they are no more.’
Now when Herod was dead, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, saying, “Arise, take the young Child and His mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the young Child’s life are dead.” Then he arose, took the young Child and His mother, and came into the land of Israel.
But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning over Judea instead of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And being warned by God in a dream, he turned aside into the region of Galilee. And he came and dwelt in a city called Nazareth, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophets, ‘He shall be called a Nazarene.’”
Matthew and Exodus
As is typical with St. Matthew’s Gospel this is a text loaded with Scriptural imagery (and as we have thought about together before; He Took Our Infirmities and Bore Our Diseases – A Theology of Healing). Here the murder of the holy innocents should hearken our minds back to the murder of some other holy innocents. In Exodus we read,
“And Pharaoh charged all his people, saying, Whatever male child shall be born to the Hebrews, cast into the river; and every female, save it alive. And there was a certain man of the tribe of Levi, who took as his wife one of the daughters of Levi. And she conceived, and bore a male child; and having seen that he was beautiful, they hid him three months. And when they could no longer hide him, his mother took for him an ark, and besmeared it with bitumen, and cast the child into it, and put it in the reeds by the river. And his sister was watching from a distance, to learn what would happen to him. And the daughter of Pharaoh came down to the river to bathe; and her maids walked by the river’s side, and having seen the ark in the reeds, she sent her maid, and took it up. And having opened it, she sees the babe weeping in the ark: and the daughter of Pharaoh had compassion on it, and said, This is one of the Hebrew’s children.”
The correspondencs between these texts are stark. In both cases there is a tyrant fearful over his position— Pharaoh and Herod. To ensure their places they both order the killing of all the male children of Israel. In both stories a male child descends into Egypt to preserve his life (the Lord willingly taking on this weakness of ours of course). Finally, both male children will rise out of Egypt to save their people from tyranny. In St. Matthew’s Gospel we have just read this concerning the name of the Lord, Jesus, which literally means “God saves” or “The salvation of God” (See God Saves His People). St. Matthew is intentionally having us put these images together in our mind, he is drawing us into the meaning of this journey of the Lord and what the Church is trying to teach us in commemorating this feast. If we wish to understand more about this we have to know what the biblical Egypt represents.
Egypt: The Land of Slavery and Death
We will remember that Egypt is the land which enslaved the Jews. It is the land where the tyrant, Pharaoh, had removed their freedom and even limited their ability to worship their God. Therefore, in biblical imagery, Egypt is the land of slavery and is a type of our slavery to sin. We see this in the Church fathers when they discuss these passages. St. Cyril of Alexandria describes the human departure from God and choosing of the life of earthly pleasures as this exact Egyptian slavery:
“Therefore, since we had fallen away from everything that was able to maintain us in a state of well-being and of fellowship with God, we no longer deemed him who is both naturally and truly the Master to be our keeper. Rather, having given up the pious life in favour of the earth, as if it were holy, and having sunk down into the most shameful and unseemly life which to all intents and purposes lay in subjection to the devil, we have come like those who went down from Canaan into Egypt and came under the power of Pharaoh and the Egyptians. These latter, being devoted in an extraordinary manner to the worship of demons, and being well suited to every form of vileness, also manifested in themselves, as in an image, Satan himself and those being under him whom they considered gods. So they rejected the noblest sense of judgement and were afflicted by the mist and darkness that come from ignorance.”
St. Cyril of Alexandria, Glaphyra, Volume 2, Part 1.
St. Cyril extends the history back to when the Jews first became enslaved to Egypt. He elaborates that they went there seeking after food and sustenance and in doing so became enslaved to Pharaoh and the Egyptians. We too, thinking there is life to be found in pleasures and the fleeting distractions around us become enslaved to these elements. We read of this in the Wisdom of Solomon:
“Seek not death in the error of your life: and pull not upon yourselves destruction with the works of your hands. For God made not death: neither hath he pleasure in the destruction of the living. For he created all things, that they might have their being: and the generations of the world were healthful; and there is no poison of destruction in them, nor the kingdom of death upon the earth: (For righteousness is immortal). But ungodly men with their works and words called it to them: for when they thought to have it their friend, they consumed to nought, and made a covenant with it, because they are worthy to take part with it.”
Wisdom of Solomon 1.12-16
In this way St. Cyril of Alexandria sees our subjugation to sin and death in the enslavement of Israel by Pharaoh. In one of his festal letters St. Cyril develops this image further,
“Pharaoh was, then, a figure of the devil’s perversity. For he tormented those of the stock of Israel with labor in mud and bricks, and, laying upon them the inescapable yoke of slavery, did not let them sacrifice to the God who is over all. But the inventor of sin, Satan.., placed the yoke of his perversity upon those over the whole earth, and ordered them to worship himself, and bade them become absorbed in unrewarding, unprofitable distractions, a sort of mud and brick-making: the pursuits that have to do with this flesh. For he knew that concern for the things upon earth always ends unfailingly in ruin and destruction. But upon the world shone Christ, through whom and in whom is complete redemption, the true Lamb who takes away the sin of the world. We have accordingly been rescued through his sacrifice from the tyranny of the former prince. But since, as I said, we have all been redeemed in Christ, “we have sown ourselves for justice, we have reaped the fruit of life, as the prophet says; we devote ourselves henceforth to fruitful endeavour.”
St. Cyril of Alexandria, Festal Letter 28, 2
Just as the Israelites are sunk in the slavery of mud and brick-making so too we have become subject to the whims of the particular earth we have as our flesh. It is the work of Christ to save us from this slavery and from the way in which sin has subjugated us through our wayward desires. This ignorance is what the Lord dispels as per the Gospel response of the feast,
“O You who saved His people, in the beginning in the land of Egypt, save us O my Lord Jesus, from our ignorance.”
And so in the Scripture, Egypt serves as the type of sin and slavery under the tyrant. Of course no one can accuse St. Cyril of bias given that he was the patriarch of Alexandria. This biblical imagery is so consistent in the fathers that Evagrius, a desert abba living in the Egyptian desert can simply say,
“Egypt signifies evil”
Abba Evagrius, Kephalaia Gnostica 6.49
Now that of the layers of the biblical imagery are open to us, let us continue to dig deeper into this feast. Let us turn to one of the more seemingly cryptic lines in the Psali for the feast and what this has to do with the Nativity.
He Came To The Cave – The Self Emptying of The Lord
“A mystery full of glory, He who created the heavens, walked like all men, on that day. The King of all ages, took flesh and became man, He came to the cave, which is in Egypt.”
What cave is it that is in Egypt? How are we to understand a cryptic text as this. Of course there are a few legendary stories of the Lord’s time in Egypt and where He physically was. Today there is a convent consecrated to the Mother of God St. Mary south of Assiut which is thought to be physically where the Holy Family took shelter. Notwithstanding this, it seems that we can be drawn in more directions with some of the symbolism in the icon of the Nativity at the top of this post. (SOURCE) Another indicator or roadmap for us that connects the Feast of Nativity with The Feast of The Entry Into Egypt is that this same Gospel reading is the reading assigned for the Sunday after the Feast of Nativity. Perhaps the order of these readings teaches us that there is more of a connection than we realize between the Lord’s self-emptying in the Incarnation and His going into Egypt. Let’s turn to the icon.
In this beautiful icon (by the talented Kirollos Kilada) we notice something interesting about the manger. Where, in popular culture, we tend to think of The Lord as born on a farm of sorts given that He was placed in a manger, the icons depict Him as born in a cave, literally in a tomb. The Lord is depicted as born into our dead life (as St. Gregory of Nyssa explains, “Our very life itself was dying”) that He may raise it to newness of life, His Life. Human nature is completely in need of the Life of God as the Lord tell us, “I have come that they may have life and have it abundantly (John 10.10).” In order to give us of His Life, The Lord is born into our dead state so that He might be completely united to our condition.. He empties Himself to fill us.
The entry of the Lord into Egypt, into the land of slavery and sin is a further manifestation of the Lord’s self-emptying and his complete entry into our condition. Just as He enters into the grave that He might restore us from hades by trampling down death so too the Lord descends into Egypt, formerly the land of captivity, that He might rise from it victorious. He descends where we are that He may be with us and restore us to Himself. This is what St. Paul teaches us when he writes in the famous text,
“Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross.”
We see this pattern play out biblically where the deliverance from Egypt is equated to the deliverance from death and tyranny. Consider these two texts, one about the deliverance from Egypt and one about the salvation of God’s people from death:
“And the Lord said to Joshua the son of Nun, On this day have I removed the reproach of Egypt from you: and he called the name of that place Galgala. And the children of Israel kept the passover on the fourteenth day of the month at evening, to the westward of Jericho on the opposite side of the Jordan in the plain..”
“Death has prevailed and swallowed men up; but again the Lord God has taken away every tear from every face. He has taken away the reproach of his people from all the earth: for the mouth of the Lord has spoken it. And in that day they shall say, behold our God in whom we have trusted, and he shall save us: this is the Lord; we have waited for him, and we have exulted, and will rejoice in our salvation.”
Thus the Lord’s descent into Egypt manifests the same reality as His descent into Hades. He enters into the land of slavery-Egypt-much as He entered the land of the dead-Hades-that He might restore us to Himself from there. He goes into Hades and carries us up with Him as we pray during this festive season in the Fraction to The Son,
“This is He who descended into Hades, abolished the power of death, led captivity captive, and gave honours to men. He lifted His saints up with Him and gave them as a gift to His Father. Through His tasting of death for us, He saved those who are alive and reposed those who have died. And we too, who were sitting in darkness for a season, He granted us the light of His Resurrection through His holy Incarnation.”
The Lord’s return from out of Egypt is also His raising us up from the slavery we had formerly subjects ourselves to. Out of the realm of the dead the Lord shouts “come forth” as He once did with Lazarus, bringing us up with Him. Out of Egypt the Lord bring us also up with Him and hence the co-identification of the people of God with The Lord where it says, “Out of Egypt I have called my Son”. Of course the Jews understood this to be about the nation state of Israel but now in Christ we understand this to be of all people who God has restored to Himself through His Son Jesus Christ. We who were once in ignorance not knowing the true God and sunken down in sin have been restored to God by the One Who descends to find us as a Shepherd gathers the lost sheep. Hades is fallen, death is abolished, the tyranny of Egypt is overthrown.
The Reclaiming of The Egyptian Desert
There is one last beautiful aspect of with this journey of the Lord into Egypt. Historically The Church was persecuted until the 4th century when Emperor Constantine issued the edict of Milan in 313 legalizing (not legislating) Christianity. As time went on some men and women would consecrate themselves to God as monastics outside of the cities. The location of this new consecrated life is none other than the Egyptian desert (and the many other places thereafter).
Where once the deserts of Egypt were the place of slavery and subjugation they soon became fruitful, simply teeming with the fruits of the victory of Christ over the elements of this world. The barren desert is no longer under the purview of the demons but has been completely taken over into the Life in Christ. St. John Chrysostom speaks about this in his commentary on the text of Matthew about the Lord’s departure from Egypt.
“And now, if you go into the desert of Egypt, you will see this desert become better than any paradise, and ten thousand choirs of angels in human forms, and nations of martyrs, and companies of virgins, and all the devil’s tyranny put down, while Christ’s kingdom shines forth in its brightness…Yet further consider, how of old these Egyptians were both avaricious, and gluttonous, together with their other vices. For there were the flesh-pots which the Jews remember; there, the great tyranny of the belly. Nevertheless, having a willing mind, they changed: and having caught fire from Christ, they set off at once on their voyage towards heaven; and though more ardent than the rest of mankind, and more headstrong, both in anger, and in bodily pleasures, they imitate the incorporeal powers in meekness, and in the rest of that freedom from passions which pertains unto self-denial.
Now if any man hath been in the country, he knows what I say. But if he have never entered those tabernacles, let him call to mind him who even until now is in the mouths of all men,—him whom, after the apostles, Egypt brought forth,—the blessed and great Antony; and let him put it to himself, “This man, too, was born in the same country with Pharaoh; nevertheless he was not thereby damaged, but both had a divine vision vouchsafed him, and showed forth such a life as the laws of Christ require.” And this any man shall know perfectly, when he hath read the book that contains the history of that man’s life.”
St. John Chrysostom, Homily 8 on Matthew, Tract 5-7.
Just as The Lord has come and reclaimed us and adopted us back into the fold so too the Egyptian desert has been reclaimed. The victory of Christ is complete and total. He does not go down into Egypt and retreat but comes out completely victorious. He descends into death and destroys it, death is dead. The Lord sojourns into Egypt, the land of sin and slavery and comes out of it victorious and the proof is that Egypt becomes a main hub of Christianity and that even the desert is reclaimed to the service of Christ. St. Athanasius goes so far as to say that the desert became a veritable city. About those following St. Antony’s example he states,
“He persuaded many to take up the solitary life. And so, from then on, there were monasteries in the mountains and the desert was made a city by the monks, who left their own people and registered themselves for the citizenship in the heavens.” St. Athanasius, The Life of Antony 14.
St. Athanasius, The Life of Antony, 14.
We have gleaned some of the profound insights in the Scripture as brought together by The Church in these texts here. Far from being an icon of nationalistic pride, the entry of the Lord into Egypt is a beacon of Salvation to all mankind. St. Matthew’s retelling calls us to consider the Exodus where a baby is also sent to Egypt only to rise from there in victory. Our Lord’s entry to the extremity of the human condition involves His entry into all that it is to be human and this we see in His descending into what was once the land of tyranny and slavery just as had been enslaved in sin. He, coming to our condition, heals it by His entry therein. The Liturgical celebration of The Coptic Church for this day alerts us to the depth of this reality through some of the imagery in the icons (the cave) and the hymnography of the day. This little known feast is a beacon of the saving work of our Lord. St. Severus says this about The Logos’ coming into our condition as light obliterates darkness,
“For in that he took upon Him the seed of Abraham He is consequently said to have become those things which our nature was subject. Nor yet was he subject to these things for a moment of time, but rather after they had been vainly applied to him He destroyed them. Just as the sun, when it shines a gloomy and dark house, as soon as it puts forth its ray, dispels the darkness, since it itself is not affected by darkness, in the way also the Only God the Word, the Sun of righteousness, as soon as He approached our nature, also dispelled the curse.”
St. Severus of Antioch, Letter to Eupraxius the Chamberlain.
Of course the last depth, the last arid desert, the last extremity which Christ deigns to descend into is the Egypt that is the human heart. Though we have alienated ourselves from Him and though we seek and worship anything but Him, He yearns to enter into the terrain of my heart and He will be victorious over it. Let us seek to allow Him to come and to reign in that once barren heart of mine. St. Macarius says about Christ descending into the depths after Adam (and this is about all of us):
“Man has been plunged into the abyss of darkness and the depths of death. He is suffocating and has lost God’s life within himself, surrounded by ferocious beasts. Who is able to penetrate into those depths of hell and death except that very Workman himself, who fashioned the human body? He himself penetrates into two parts, namely, the depths of hell and the deepest region of the human heart where the soul with all its thoughts is held captive by death. And he leads out of the dark depths the dead Adam. Even death itself through training is a help to man, like water to the swimmer. But what is so difficult for God to enter into death and into the depths of the human heart and there call the dead Adam forth to life? In our present world around us there are houses and mansions where human beings dwell. There are also places where wild animals, lions, dragons, and other poisonous beasts dwell. If, then, the sun, which is a mere creature, can equally enter through windows or doors into the dens of lions as well as the pits of reptiles and yet it comes out without being harmed, how much more God, the Lord of all, can enter into holes and dwelling-places where death is found and can enter also into human souls and there snatch Adam without receiving any injury. The rain also falls from the heavens and penetrates all the parts of the earth where it moistens and renews the dried roots and gives them new life.”
St. Macarius the Great, Homily 5, Chapters 12-13.
May we take this feast to allow the Lord into the barren land of our hearts so that they might become His once more.
Many thanks to Kirollos Kilada for permission to use his lovely icon in this post. Check out his excellent work here: https://www.kkilada.com/