History of Hymns: 'Jesus Entered Egypt'
By C. Michael Hawn
“Jesus Entered Egypt”
By Adam M.L. Tice
Jesus entered Egypt
fleeing Herod’s hand,
living as an alien
in a foreign land.
Far from home and country
with his family,
was there room and welcome
for this refugee?*
*©2009 GIA Publications, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
From time to time, the “History of Hymns” column will explore recent hymns that, while not currently in United Methodist publications, are included in recent collections produced by other denominations. Most of these will be from the twenty-first century.
Statistics vary when documenting the number of forcibly displaced people worldwide. The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) has documented 100 million displaced people as of May 2022. This represents a 10.7 million increase over the end of 2021, partially due to the Russian incursion into Ukraine. The largest group consists of 53.2 million internally displaced people, followed by 27.1 million refugees (See USA for UNCHR: https://www.unrefugees.org/refugee-facts/statistics). The motivations for this mass migration include political oppression, violence and war, religious persecution, economic circumstances, climate change, famine, drought, and other reasons.
Interestingly, congregations in North America often omit the slaughter of the innocents (Matt 2:16–18) embedded in the account of the holy family’s flight into Egypt (Matt 2:13–23) from mention in sermons. The nativity narrative usually concludes with the visit of the magi (Matt 2:1–12). This omission is interesting since a prophetic allusion in Jeremiah 31:15 foreshadows the slaughter of the innocents, and an ominous reference to Herod (Matt 2:7–8) appears in the gospel account. The Catholic Church observes the Feast of the Holy Innocents (December 28). Though depicted extensively in Christian art throughout history, the flight into Egypt may be neglected in some Protestant traditions because only one gospel account cites it—thus appearing only every three years in the Revised Common Lectionary (Year A, First Sunday after Christmas Day)—and the relatively low attendance in congregations following Christmas Eve/Christmas Day festivities.
In countries where political oppression and the migration of peoples are endemic, this narrative offers solace and hope. Noting the absence of hymns on this theme, Mennonite minister Adam M.L. Tice (b. 1979) responded to this narrative with the hymn “Jesus Entered Egypt” while a seminary student, and he submitted it in 2007 for a hymn competition sponsored by The Hymn Society in the United States and Canada. Tice notes:
While humans divide the earth according to political ideology, economic expediency, military strength and resource exploitation, God is no respecter of borders. All of the earth belongs to God, and such things as race and nationality should not interfere with our imperative to care for “the least of these” [Matt 25:40] (Tice, 2009, p. 64).
The three stanzas each conclude with a poignant question:
- . . . was there room and welcome / for this refugee?
- Do we hold wealth lightly / so that we can share / shelter with the homeless, / and abundant care?
- Do our words and actions / answer Jesus’ plea: / “Give the lowly welcome, / and you welcome me”?
The result is a hymn not just about the flight into Egypt by the holy family, but one that requires an ethical response by the singer. The poet challenges the singer in the first-person plural—we, our—rather than the “church” as an entity.
Stanza 1 recalls the biblical narrative in Matthew 2. The author adds a note of realism that does not disguise the nature of this journey— “living as an alien / in a foreign land.” Stanza 2 begins, “Jesus was a migrant,” a term that carries descriptive and political weight. The author might have stated accurately that Jesus was seeking political asylum. “Migrant” describes the economic situation of many who enter the United States looking for employment and, at the same time, offer services that sustain our way of life. Biblical cultures were generally hospitable to travelers. Twenty-first-century contexts are more likely to treat the “alien” or “migrant” with suspicion. The final stanza raises the emotional and political temperature by asserting that “Jesus crosses borders / with the wand’ring poor / searching for a refugee, / for an open door.” In this stanza, we move from describing the biblical narrative in modern terms to applying the message of Christ to our circumstances.
The author has chosen to pair this text with the sturdy and stirring tune by English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872–1958), KING’S WESTON. Its solid 3/4 musical meter carries the weight and solemnity of Tice’s text well with its primarily stepwise, minor-mode melody. Vaughan Williams wrote this tune for Songs of Praise (London, 1925) to accompany the well-known hymn, “At the name of Jesus” (1870) by Caroline Noel (1817–1877) (Westermeyer, 2005, pp. 356, 358). Its first appearance in a hymnal was Glory to God (2013), a collection for the Presbyterian Church (USA).
Adam Tice is a graduate of Goshen College (B.A. in music, 2002), and the Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary, Elkhart, Indiana (now Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary, AMBS), with an M.A. in Christian Formation (2006). An active member of The Hymn Society in the United States and Canada, he served as the text editor for Voices Together (2020), the most recent Mennonite hymnal. He now works for GIA Publications, Inc., as the editor for congregational song. He has written more than 250 hymn texts, all of which are available through GIA. He lives in Goshen, Indiana.
Ken Nafziger, “Adam Tice,” The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology. Canterbury Press,
http://www.hymnology.co.uk/a/adam-tice (accessed November 15, 2022).
Adam M.L. Tice, Woven into Harmony: 50 Hymn Texts (Chicago: GIA Publishing Co, Inc., 2009).
Paul Westermeyer, Let the People Sing: Hymn Tunes in Perspective (Chicago: GIA Publishing Co, Inc., 2005).
C. Michael Hawn, D.M.A., F.H.S., is University Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Church Music and Adjunct Professor, and Director, Doctor of Pastoral Music Program at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University.