Joseph carefully lifts the Christ child into a boat as his mother oversees his embarkation. The boatman holds the boat steady against the current while his oar directs our eyes towards the sinister clouds which loom overhead. These clouds support the four cherubs who in turn support the weighty cross, which Jesus alone glimpses—awkwardly craning his neck to see what is above (and before) him. His parents are insouciant; yet the scene, with its clouds casting deep shadows, is full of foreboding. The boatman could be Charon, ferrying souls across the Styx. And the mournful donkey—already loaded for the fateful crossing—is not only marked on his back with a cross which echoes the one in the sky; he also refers us forward to the first donkey actually mentioned in Matthew (21:2)—the one which will carry Jesus into Jerusalem to face his Passion.
It is sometimes suggested that it is the age of the child in the picture which determines that this scene is the return from Egypt and not the more traditional depiction of the flight. But it is surely the picture’s ominous under- and over-tones which really settle the matter. The words of the Prophet Hosea ‘Out of Egypt I called my son’ (Hosea 11:1) are found by Matthew to be fulfilled in Christ’s return to Israel (v.15). Yet, in Hosea this is a joyful exclamatory description of God’s great deeds at the exodus, but for Christ the calling out of Egypt is a call to the cross which looms over him. Israel is called from bondage and suffering in Egypt to the freedom of the promised land; Christ is called from safety in Egypt to bondage and suffering in Israel.
In his dream, Joseph hears an angel declare that ‘those who sought the child’s life are dead’ (v.20). The angel spoke the truth, but not the whole truth. For Christ the fulfilment of the prophecy of his calling out of Egypt is not a joyous, but a solemn moment.
14And he rose and took the child and his mother by night, and departed to Egypt, 15and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfil what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, “Out of Egypt have I called my son.”
19 But when Herod died, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, saying, 20“Rise, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the child’s life are dead.” 21And he rose and took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. 22But when he heard that Archelaʹus reigned over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there, and being warned in a dream he withdrew to the district of Galilee. 23And he went and dwelt in a city called Nazareth, that what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled, “He shall be called a Nazarene.”