Charles de Foucauld wrote lovingly of Jesus’ hometown, and thought that, as he put it, “Nazareth…the place of the hidden life, of family life, of ordinary life (is) where most people lead their lives.” So this item caught my eye: a description of a pilgrimage to Egypt, visiting a place where many believe the Holy Family stayed after fleeing Herod. It was their other Nazareth.

Western Christianity is mostly silent about the time Jesus, Mary and Joseph spent outside Israel, but it’s a different story with eastern Christians and Muslims:

Hundreds of thousands of poor Coptic pilgrims and a handful of Muslims converged on the southern Egyptian village of Dronka on Wednesday where they believe the Holy Family stayed 2,000 years ago.

“May God have mercy on us, He knows what we are enduring,” cried Father Jacob, a monk, as a steady stream of pilgrims shuffled past to the cave overlooking the Nile where they believe Jesus, Mary and Joseph once sheltered.

The Bible gives only a few verses about the flight to Egypt, on orders from the Archangel Gabriel after King Herod decided to kill all male newborns under his jurisdiction, but eastern Christians believe plenty more happened in exile.

Coptic texts, rejected as apocryphal by the Catholic Church, speak of a lengthy three-year odyssey by the Holy Family through Egypt, punctuated by miracles and other divine events.

Sister Agapi, a nun at Dronka’s convent, told how people living in the cave “offered their hands to the Holy Family to give them hospitality in the cave,” at the southernmost point on a 2,000-kilometre (1,240-mile) zig-zag.

The 400 kilometres (250 miles) along the Nile from Cairo to Dronka is peppered with chapels and other holy sites, but this is where the most important annual pilgrimage takes place at the height of summer and under tight security.

The pilgrims want “to return to the time of Christ, as if it were yesterday, on the same ground He trod on with the Virgin,” said Father Abanob from the nearby city of Asyut.

Some priests also said in hushed tones that they want to counterbalance a rise in Islamism in this part of Egypt, home to large numbers of Copts and also to violent sectarian clashes in the 1990s.

“Not one single church has been allowed to be built in Asyut for the last half-century,” said Abanob, whose community accounts for between six and 10 percent of Egypt’s population of 76 million.

Processions, baptisms and other ceremonies take place round the clock and around the holy cavern, surrounded by huge and unattractive parochial buildings perched on the ochre mountainside.

Babies, at a rate of 600 a day, are taken by the meaty hands of bearded priests and immersed in water three times in stone fonts under gold-painted icons of the Holy Family.

Fascinating stuff. Read the link for more.

Photo: Egyptian cave where some believe the Holy Family stayed, by Reuters/AFP

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