Christmas in Egypt

 
On Jesus’ fifth birthday, living in Egypt, his parents announced that they were going on an outing. “We’ve got something to show you,” said Mary to Jesus.

Through the dusty streets of a village along the Nile they walked, Mary, Joseph, and their young son, down alleys reeking of animal dung, past piles of limestone rubble. In the hazy distance, across the river, the crumbling monuments of Egypt’s past glory loomed over the palm-lined horizon.

They stopped at an adobe hut with a thatched roof. There was nothing special about it. Nothing much was inside but an old broken-down bed and a cracked earthen pot.

“This is where Moses was born,” declared Joseph. “He was the savior of our people. He met God, who said his name was ‘I AM’, in a burning bush in the desert. ‘I AM’ told him to lead us out of slavery in Egypt, through the desert for forty years, to the land of Israel.”

Then they walked with Jesus alongside the Nile, near the ruin of a huge mansion. They stood by the reeds at the shore of the river. “Here is where Moses’ mother put him in a basket in the water to save him from Pharaoh’s murder of the Jewish children. Here he was found by the Egyptian princess who adopted him into the royal court. It was like being born a second time,” said Mary to Jesus. “He used his power to protect and rescue his people.”

“When I grow up, I’m going to be like Moses,” said Jesus. His parents laughed with approval.

Not long after this excursion, Joseph and Mary got word that King Herod had died, so it was safe for them to return to their homeland. As Pharaoh had slaughtered the children of the Hebrew slaves in order to decimate their population long ago, so Herod had done to the boy babies of Bethlehem, to prevent a rival from one day challenging his rule. The family lived in Nazareth, and there Jesus sought out the help of the learned men of the town so he could become a scholar of the Law of Moses.

When Jesus was twelve years old, he went with his parents to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover. Walking along the way, he asked them about something that had been bothering him for a while. “When you took me to that house in Egypt, was that really the place where Moses was born? And when you took me to the river, was that really the place where the princess found him in the basket?”

“Well, son,” answered Joseph with reluctance, “to tell you the truth, no. We didn’t know where those things happened, exactly. We picked out an adobe house at random, and we found a spot by the river that seemed like it could have been the place where Moses’ mother put the basket. We made it up because we wanted you to remember the story forever.”

“You were successful. I still want to be like Moses,” said Jesus.

“Are you mad at us for lying to you?” asked Mary.

“I don’t know,” said Jesus. “Maybe if I were a father I would have done the same thing for my children. But I’m not sure. I’m going to go talk to a rabbi about it.”

“Good plan,” said Joseph. Jesus was quiet for the rest of the trip.

In Jerusalem, in a portico of the Temple, Jesus found a group of rabbis engaged in lively discourse. He joined their disputations about interpretation of scripture. “You know the Law better than Moses himself!” one of the rabbis declared after an hour of conversation with the boy. “Rabbi,” asked Jesus, “what do you think? Does the Law allow a person to tell a lie if it is meant to inspire somebody to study and obey the Law?” The rabbi stroked his long beard and pondered the question for a while. “Well, the scripture says that David took the holy bread from the Tabernacle so he’d have food to fulfill his mission. So if an unholy deed is done in the service of the holy, it is no longer unholy.” Another rabbi overheard this and took issue with it. A vigorous debate ensued, with Jesus mediating and posing further questions.

It was there that Jesus’ frightened and exasperated parents found him, days after the Passover celebration was over. “We looked everywhere for you!”

“Well, where else would you find me? You raised me to love and imitate Moses. So here I am, with the people who do it the most!” Jesus sassed back.

Mary took Jesus aside, hugging his shoulders. “I’m sorry, Jesus. I guess we should have known where to look for you. I’m sorry you are mad at us for saying things that weren’t facts. But just because something didn’t really happen doesn’t mean it isn’t true,” she said.

“What do you mean?” he asked, angrily.

“The story of Moses is one that lives so deep in our souls that the facts of the story aren’t what matters about them the most,” she said. “His story is about looking for the ‘I AM’ in the burning bush, who is God inside us all, who gives us courage and compassion and the knowledge of right and wrong. We wanted the story of Moses to get deep inside you. We thought that taking you to those places might help.”

Jesus felt better, but it was still confusing.

Back home, he kept up his Torah studies. But it was one thing to study the Law of Moses, and quite another to follow in Moses’ footsteps, as he had wanted to do since the age of five. So he decided to seek the “I AM” for forty days in the desert wilderness, by fasting and meditating. Some of the days indeed felt like years, as he suffered pangs of hunger and struggled to pay attention. He felt all kinds of temptations that distracted him from seeking the “I AM”. One day, while meditating, Jesus remembered that conversation with his mother. He became mindful that he was still angry at his parents about what they did in Egypt.

From the desert he went to the Jordan River to be baptized by his kinsman, John. As he hiked alongside the flowing water he remembered the walk he took with his parents along the Nile, years before. He was as thrilled with the story of Moses as he had been on his fifth birthday. When John dipped Jesus in the Jordan, and lifted him out again, Jesus felt like he’d had a second birth. He felt ennobled. He felt confident, powerful, ready to lead others. As he had been cleansed of guilt by baptism, so he felt forgiveness for his mother and father. And as he walked back up the mountain toward the west to begin his work as a rabbi, he decided that he would follow his parents’ example and tell parables, fictional stories about true things, in order to teach the people.

When he was alive, Jesus made up stories. After he died, Jesus became the main character in a story that his followers made up, and are still embellishing. A story that began on the banks of the Nile, long, long ago….

JIM BURKLO
Website: JIMBURKLO.COM Weblog: MUSINGS Follow me on twitter: @jtburklo
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Associate Dean of Religious Life, University of Southern California
 

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