Songs about the Flight to Egypt

On the heels of Jesus’s birth came his frantic flight, with parents Mary and Joseph, from the sword of an egomaniacal politician who swore death to all the male children of Bethlehem under the age of two. To secure his own power and advantage, Herod had to squash all potential threats.

Thus the birthday festivities were cut short as the Holy Family packed up what little they had and hit the road running, seeking asylum in another country.

Flight to Egypt by Jean-Francois Millet
Jean-François Millet (French, 1814–1875), The Flight into Egypt, ca. 1864. Conté crayon, pen, ink, and pastel over gray washes on paper, 31.1 × 39.4 cm. Art Institute of Chicago.

Many families are still making this difficult journey today: fleeing home in order to escape persecution and/or death.

Even though the Flight to Egypt is a part of the Christmas story, it’s often omitted from present-day nativity pageants and carol services because we prefer to bask in that which is quaint and cozy and cute and joyful, and we want that happy ending. We don’t want the darkness to rain on all the Christmas light. This is a real shame. By leaving out this event from our retellings of Jesus’s birth narrative, not only do we do a disservice to his memory, we neglect an opportunity to see Christ in our refugee neighbors.

(Related post: “Maria von Trapp, plus seven artists, on Jesus the refugee”)

To help remedy this omission, I’ve compiled a list of songs based on the Flight to Egypt so that churches can consider using them (or be inspired to write their own!) as part of their Christmas observances. I’ve purposely excluded “The Cherry-Tree Carol,” a centuries-old ballad derived from an apocryphal story about the Flight to Egypt from the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew (chapter 20); I did so not only because the anonymous lyricist reset the episode during the Journey to Bethlehem, when Jesus was still in the womb, but because, though charming, there’s nothing historic, spiritually valuable, or socially conscious about it, and it perpetuates a popular stereotype of Joseph as stubborn and unkind that I believe scripture itself does not bear.

Also excluded are the several carols about the Massacre of the Innocents—the episode that prompted the Flight to Egypt. The two episodes are obviously related, but I want to focus here on the Flight.

CONGREGATIONAL HYMNS

I could find only one song on the topic that was written with congregational singing in mind, and that is “Flight into Egypt” by the Rev. Vincent William Uher III (1963–). It’s made up of four verses and the refrain “Kyrie eleison” (Lord, have mercy), a common prayer in Christian liturgies. Because the hymn uses a plainchant tune, it has an irregular meter and may therefore be a little tricky for congregations to pick up right away. But the words are so beautifully crafted and set, and Rev. Uher gives his permission for noncommercial use, as long as credit is given. I put together a printable hymn sheet, reproduced below the lyrics. (Click on the image to open up the sheet as a PDF in a new tab.)

“Flight into Egypt” (1997) – Words: Vincent Uher | Music: Plainchant mode V, 13th century

Lonely travelers from the stable
Out beneath the hard blue sky
Journeying, wandering, hoping, praying
For the safety of their child
While our mother Rachel’s weeping
Fills the streets of Bethlehem.
Kyrie eleison.

Warned by angels moved to save him
Who was born our kind to save
Joseph leads his holy family
Far from Herod and harm’s way
Mary shielding and consoling
Jesus Christ the Son of God.
Kyrie eleison.

Fleeing from the land of promise
They in Egypt find a home
Strange the workings of God’s mercy
House of bondage now God’s throne
But for sons who all were murdered
Sorrow breaks the House of Bread.
Kyrie eleison.

True the tale of flight and exile
Out of Egypt comes God’s Son
Angels tell of Herod’s dying
All is ended, all begun
Jesus will grow up in Nazareth
And the world will all be stunned.
Kyrie eleison.

flight-into-egypt-by-vincent-uher

Because of the scarcity of carols referencing the Flight to Egypt, I took to writing some verses of my own, using already-popular hymn tunes. Each of these verses is intended not as an additional stanza to the carol whose tune it shares (that would render the narrative structure incoherent) but as a standalone reprise of sorts. I envisioned any one of them being sung as part of a Christmas Eve service following the reading, as part of the total Christmas story, of Matthew 2:13–14.  

I chose the tunes I did because they have an elegiac feel and their Christmas associations are well established. The second tune was originally written by Hans Leo Hassler around 1600 as a secular love song, but in 1656 Johann Crüger rhythmically simplified it and set it to a German hymn text that is known in English as “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded.” Johann Sebastian Bach famously arranged the tune for his St. Matthew Passion of 1727 and loved it so much that he reused it for the first chorale in his 1734 Christmas Oratorio, “Wie soll ich dich empfangen” (How Shall I Fitly Meet Thee?). I discovered this Christmas chorale through Sufjan Stevens’s album Silver & Gold and thought how the music’s sad, slow pace and minor key would be a fitting complement to a meditation on the Flight to Egypt.

I am by no means a skillful lyricist, but I offer these three metered texts to you to reproduce, adapt, and perform however you wish.

Lyrics by Victoria Emily Jones (2016)

TUNE: Cranham (e.g., “In the Bleak Midwinter”) by Gustav Holst

To protect his power, Herod raised his sword,
Slaughtered Rachel’s children, martyrs for the Lord.
That night an awful wailing filled the House of Bread.
Fearful and yet trusting, the Holy Family fled.

TUNE: Passion Chorale (e.g., “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded”) by Hans Leo Hassler

O sacred boy, new born and
Forced in fear to flee
The king, his rage is burning
Death is his decree

O sacred Christ, O stranger
Displaced from your land
Be with those who likewise
Know this pain firsthand

TUNE: Greensleeves (e.g., “What Child Is This”), traditional English

What child is this who fled that night
From Herod’s wrathful order?
As Rachel wept
The family kept
On pressing toward the border.

This, this is Christ our king:
A refugee, a stranger.
Pray, pray for all like him,
The Babe, the son of Mary.

POPULAR MUSIC

The songs in this section are by contemporary Christian artists and are all available as professional recordings. They would work well as special performances by a church music team (you would need to get the permission of the artists).

“Run” by The Brilliance (2015) – Words and music: David Gungor & John Arndt | Album: See the Love

Comprising David Gungor and John Arndt, The Brilliance is among my top three favorite Christian music groups. They have such artistic and pastoral sensitivity, and they speak widely about liturgy, beauty, and social justice. I love how they build the majority of their songs around a string quartet.

The following message accompanied the release of their song “Run”:

“Run” is a Christmas lament.

In the midst of singing about joy and peace on earth, many peoples can feel the weight of hopelessness. While in this song we have hardly begun to nick the surface of the suffering in our world, we wanted to address the pain of refugees, black people living in America who have experienced police brutality, and those (especially our children) affected by gun violence. This is not meant to be a song that is divisive or attacking, it is a lament about the pain of our brothers and sisters who may feel they are lacking in power or voice. There are so many names, faces, shattered lives and heart-wrenching losses that we mourn in these words. We hope you will go with us past agreeing or disagreeing and just sit with the pain and the deep brokenness in our world.

“Run” takes the Holy Family’s Flight to Egypt as a starting point for reflecting on other instances of flight, whether it be “illegal” aliens forcibly leaving a country that had previously welcomed them but is now tightening its immigration policies, black boys running away from police officers to avoid brutality, or schoolchildren fleeing an angry individual who was given access to a gun.

Run, Mary, run
Run, Mary, run
That king wants to kill your baby son

Run, alien, run
Run, alien, run
The days of our open arms are done

Peace on earth, goodwill to men

Run, black child, run
Run, black child, run
That man has a badge and has a gun

Run, schoolyard, run
Run, schoolyard, run
We just gave that angry man a gun

Peace on earth, goodwill to men

“Flight to Egypt” by Ordinary Time (2016) – Words and music: Ben Keyes | Album: Good News

 

This song by acoustic folk trio Ordinary Time was released last month. In addition to the Flight to Egypt, it references the Presentation in the Temple, the Massacre of the Innocents, and the Crucifixion.

Old man waiting in the temple courts
He said it from the start:
The hope of nations and of men
But he’ll do things to pierce your heart
And divide the world

Silent night is passed and gone
And tyrants plan Your fate
But all the while, their response to You
Will determine their own way:
The road to joy or sorrow

A mighty flame flickers to a spark
There are three on the lonely road
With fear of kings back in the dark
The tidings of great joy postponed
For the mothers back in Bethl’em

He’s come to comfort the weeping ones and
Call their dead back to life, to life, and
O the blood that you failed to shed tonight
Will one day flow for such as you
If only you were humbled

Our refugee will hurt more than this
He’ll be made weaker still
But let your strength not make you blind
Run him off or have him killed
His peace will come with power

“Refugee” by Steve Bell (2012) – Words: Malcolm Guite and Steve Bell | Music: Steve Bell | Album: Keening for the Dawn

Published in Sounding the Seasons: Seventy Sonnets for the Christian Year, Malcolm Guite’s poem “Refugee” reflects on how the refugee Christ is with those who have been displaced by modern-day Herods. “We must contemplate the experience of the Christ-child as being exactly that of the disturbed and bewildered children we see being carried by mothers in desperation out of war zones,” Guite writes in the Advent poetry anthology Waiting on the Word.

Moved by the poem, singer-songwriter Steve Bell tweaked it and added a third verse, then set it to music. The result is embedded in the player below.

We think of him as safe beneath the steeple
Or cozy in a crib beside the font
But he is with a million displaced people
On the long road of weariness and want
For even as we sing our final carol
The hounded child is up and on that road
Fleeing from the wrath of someone else’s quarrel
Glancing behind and shouldering their load

While Herod rages still from his dark tower
Christ clings to Mary, fingers tightly curled
The lambs are slaughtered by the men of power
And death squads spread their curse across the world
How terrible, how just, and how ironic
That every Herod dies and comes alone
Defenseless as the naked embryonic
To stand before the Lamb upon the throne

I can’t resist the burning urge for turning
This song into a cautionary tale
The Savior whom this song has been discerning
Once occupied, the belly of a whale
To reach as deep as love could ever fathom
To rescue from the tentacles of hell
The wretched, the beleaguered and forgotten
Surprisingly, their enemies as well

In his blog post that introduces the song, Bell cites the story of the Syrophoenician woman in Mark 7:24–29. She asks Jesus for help, to which he responds in much the same way today’s political institutions respond to outsiders: “Let the children be fed first, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” Undeterred, she persists in her request for healing, and Jesus honors her faith, granting her request. Why did Jesus speak so harshly to this woman? Most commentators, like Kenneth E. Bailey, believe he was exposing the ungracious attitudes of the disciples. Perhaps he spoke in a sarcastic tone while glancing sideways at the Twelve.

May we, like Jesus, show mercy to all, especially those who ask us for it.

ART MUSIC

I use the term “art music” in its technical sense to refer to classical pieces written in a formal style, inviting detailed deconstruction and criticism, and demanding focused attention from the listener. Most churches will not have the native talent and resources to pull off a performance of one of these pieces for a standard service, but perhaps they could be considered for a Christmas concert. This list includes only those compositions with a vocal component—that is, no instrumentals.

“The Shepherds’ Farewell” from L’enfance du Christ by Hector Berlioz (1850–54)

L’enfance du Christ (The Childhood of Christ) is an oratorio in three parts: (1) Herod’s Dream, (2) The Flight to Egypt, and (3) The Arrival at Sais. Part 2, which Berlioz originally composed in 1850 as a standalone work, consists of an overture and two songs: the shepherds’ farewell to the Holy Family upon their departure for Egypt, and the Holy Family’s repose along the way. This three-movement Flight to Egypt was so well received that Berlioz expanded it into the much larger L’enfance du Christ in 1853 and 1854.

The “Shepherds’ Farewell” excerpt—the most popular movement from the oratorio—is too gentle and bright for my liking; it doesn’t have the sense of urgency that I imagine such a flight would have occasioned. But it at least extends the Christmas story into Egypt, and fits well into the whole, as those faithful attendants at the nativity give their blessings for the Savior’s sendoff into the unknown. Read the English translation of the libretto here, and hear it performed by the Royal Choral Society below.

The Flight into Egypt by John Harbison (1986)

Commissioned by the Cantata Singers and Ensemble of Boston, John Harbison’s The Flight into Egypt is a one-movement work for solo soprano and baritone, chorus, and chamber orchestra, lasting fourteen minutes. It won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize for Music. Harbison composed the work following a discussion he had with his wife and with conductor Craig Smith about how isolation and anxiety increase during the Christmas season. “We agreed that the darker side of Christmas needs representation, especially in a time of increasing distance between the privileged and less fortunate,” he said.

“An Teítheadh go hEÍgípt” (The Flight to Egypt)

I’ve come across several songs under this Gaelic title, and while the origin of some is cited as traditional Irish, others have different words and tunes and named composers. Recordings can be found on Finola Ó Siochrú’s Light of Lights: Solas na Soilse (composer: Seán Óg Ó Tuama); Anonymous 4’s Wolcum Yule: Celtic and British Songs and Carols; Carols from the Old and New Worlds, Vol. III by the Chamber Choir Ireland under the direction of Paul Hillier (composer: Eamonn O’Gallagher); The Darkest Midnight by Nóirín Ní Riain and the Monks of Glenstal Abbey; and Ireland: Five Centuries of Song by Cantairi Oga Atha Cliath Choir.

Here are the lyrics to the version of “An Teítheadh go hEÍgípt” recorded by Finola Ó Siochrú, followed by an English translation by Máire Úna Ní Bheaglaoích.

Tráth ’chuala Herod bhí laige’s gruaim air
Gur rugadh an Rí a bhéarfadh bua air
in onóir, in uaisleacht, i gcumhacht, ’s i méadacht,
Do líon lán-channcar fuatha ’s éad é
’S nach trua sin!

Ba ghearr go dtáinig an t-aingeal ’na dhéidh sin,
Agus labhair go modhail leis Fhaoilinn déadghil;
’O, caithfidh sibh teitheadh le chéile go hÉigipt,
Nó is gairid go gciuinidh sibh feall is éigeart,
’S nach trua sin!

D’imigh an Triúr ar shiúl na hoiche,
An Naomh, an Mhaighdean agus Rí na Ríthe,
Gan charaid, gan stór, gan ór, gan eadáil
Ach Rí na bhFIaÍthsas, an leanbhán gléigeal,
’S nach trua sin!

Once Herod heard that a King was born
To surpass him in honour, nobility, power and stature,
He was weak and gloomy.
He became filled with temper, hatred and envy,
What a pity!

Not long after that, the angel came
And spoke graciously to the bright-toothed beauty;
O, you must escape to Egypt together,
Or else you will soon hear of treachery and injustice,
What a pity!

The three went to walk by night,
The saint, the Virgin and the King of Kings,
Without friend or store, gold or riches,
Except the King of Heaven, the bright baby,
What a pity!

+++

If you know of any other songs that address the Flight to Egypt, please share them in the comment field below.

2 thoughts on “Songs about the Flight to Egypt

  1. Victoria,
    I happened upon this commentary while looking for music that will go with the Christmas cards we are now crafting which depict Mary and Joseph quickly gathering their belongings before flee the approaching danger of Herod’s soldiers. I work with an indigenous people of the southern Philippines called the Subanens. Like Mary and Joseph they too have had to flee armed men who have sought to take their ancestral land and its resources. (Note: Even now 30 Subanens are being held captive in the besieged City of Marawi. They are hostages of the Maute gang whose misunderstanding of Islam has led them to affiliate themselves with ISIS. They (mis)understand Islam the way the Ku Klux Klan (mis)understands Christianity.)
    Your insightful commentary noted that our usual Christmas carols and noels prefer that which is “quaint and cozy and cute and joyful”. It is ironic that St Francis who is credited with popularizing the now “cute and cozy” manger scene did so with the intention of achieving anything but those sentiments. In an article about the deeper meaning of the creche I wrote:
    “St. Francis is credited with instituting the Christmas custom of setting up manger scenes in our homes and churches. The story goes that shortly before Christmas in 1223 Francis encouraged the people of the town of Greccio to reconstruct a manger scene in a cave near their town. He explained to the people: “If you want to celebrate the Feast of the Lord at Greccio, hurry and diligently prepare what I tell you. For I wish to recall to memory the little child who was born in Bethlehem. I want to set before our bodily eyes the hardships of his infant needs”. The manger scene touched the hearts of the people of Greccio and it continues to touch our hearts today. Francis’ words made it clear that he did not intend the manger scene to be a cute and cozy recollection of Christmas. Instead, he wanted to stress the “hardships” facing Jesus.”
    I have been working with art, theology and the story of Creation for 40 years and am doing so within communities that honor the Earth as a sacred gift. One of the creations we do is called the Creation Mandala which tells the story of Creation through 9 transformative events or “Births” that begin with the “Birth” of the Universe and end with the “Birth” of You. I will continue to read your posts.
    Blessed Be, Laudato Si,
    Vincent Busch

    Like

    1. Vincent,
      Thank you for sharing a story of present-day flight that’s far less publicized than others; I will keep the Subanens in prayer. Thanks too for the St. Francis quote–what a good point: Francis’s message (both lived and preached), in imitation of Christ, was anything but cozy! Blessings to you in your work.

      Like

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