Five Images Reimagining the Flight to Egypt

Everything, from the universe on down, starts with words. That’s embedded in Christian theology, from the opening poetry of Genesis to John’s riff on that poem in his gospel. Words are important. Words can bring things into being. Sometimes these things are dangerous.

Take migration, for instance. The words we use around migrants or refugees have power. If we use words like “Crisis” or “Invasion” or “Hordes”, then that reprograms how we look at our fellow human beings. Language rewrites perceptions, perceptions drive actions. A few years ago, a UK tabloid shockjock wrote of sending in gunboats to deal with Syrian refugees crossing the English Channel; this week the Home Secretary ordered gunboats to deal with Syrian refugees crossing the English Channel. Words create reality and people cheer as other people drown. Words can rob humans of their humanity, words can demonize. But when we demonize, the humanity we reject is our own, and people are not demons.

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The Holy Family weren’t demons, it would be the worst of blasphemies to suggest they were, and yet they fled their homeland to seek refuge elsewhere, they head for the border to escape death squads and politics. Three years ago in Montreal, images appeared on bus shelters that remind us that Jesus was a refugee. The Story of a Refugee Family from the Middle East, by street artist Miss Me, is dynamic, Mary clearly Middle-Eastern and heading towards the viewer. It forces a question: what are you going to do? Mary looks tired and desperate, she’s carrying a new-born, and while you’ve been sold a million different stories about refugees and migrants, here’s a family coming towards you, about to look you in the eye. What are you going to do?

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We need to be confronted by this, need to be reminded of the reality of the situation. Not a Creature was Stirring, by Ben Quilty and Mirra Whale, is a pseudo-Christmas tree displayed in St. Paul’s Melbourne in 2016. From a distance is looks abstract, colourful but blocky. As you get closer, you realise that this tree is made out of lifejackets, left on European beaches by refugees fleeing the civil war in Syria. It’s a vivid reminder that the Christmas narrative ends with a story of escape, and while we remember that Jesus made it to Egypt, we also remember Herod’s slaughter of the innocents. That resonates down through the ages; some of those who used those lifejackets made it. Others didn’t. Very few would take such a risk if they had any other choice.

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This is a story that echoes down through the ages. Jews fled the Nazis. Hutus fled the Tutsis. Huguenots fled Catholics. Humanity’s story is one of migration; the dark secret behind a platitude like that is that often those migrations were forced by others, people with more power, more propaganda, more swords, more guns. The Flight to Egypt, by Father John Battista Giuliani, recasts the Holy Family as Native America. This immediately brings to mind a host of associations; the Trail of Tears, Wounded Knee… Refugee stories are stories from the margins, stories told by the oppressed and vulnerable. Jesus places himself within those stories, not because he makes them worthy of notice but because it draws attention to those who may otherwise have been ignored. Through this, maybe we need to listen out for the words of refugees from across history, from throughout the world; the Flight to Egypt takes the Incarnation and makes it a story of rehumanization.
La Familia Sagrada

Again, that re-humanization shouldn’t be aimed at refugees, it should be aimed at us, the people absorbing the newstype and the political strategies. Refugees: La Sagrada Familia, by Kelly Latimore, reimagines the Holy Family’s Flight to Egypt as a contemporary migration; put aside the halos and this could be a family from South America or Syria. Again, we’re forced to confront our own attitudes and prejudices and apathy. With the Flight to Egypt being part of the wider narrative around Epiphany, maybe the story should serve as a revelation to us; not just of Jesus but our own flaws, our own blindspots, our own ignorance and prejudice. Many things are revealed by the stories we tell ourselves; sometimes they aren’t pretty.

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I’ll close with RefuJesus, by David Hayward, which originally inspired this post. This is a departure from the other images; it presents Jesus as an adult, a post-Easter Jesus who bears the scars of his crucifixion under bandaged hands, surrounded by a halo of barbed wire that merges into his crown of thorns. He’s weeping, either for a friend he’s lost or for the sins of his people. He looks us in the eye, directly – we can’t avoid his gaze, can’t avoid his scars, can’t avoid the pitiful bundle of belongings he carries. This is a Messiah who stands in solidarity with the poor, the marginalised, the dispossessed, and as he stands before us, he demands to know if we will stand with him, or if we will close our gates. His words created reality. Now we see if they recreate us.

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God in Nappies: A Post for Christmas

One of the miracles of Christmas is this: God enters this world as part of the world, living and breathing, growing, active. Much as art brings beauty and challenge to the world, all those Nativity scenes fall short of capturing this miracle, because God is life and so can’t be trapped in paint, in ink, in wood or marble or pixels. Instead he is wrapped in DNA and stardust, grows within Mary, emerges into the world and takes his first breath in a cave. Having called oxygen into being he now inhales it, exhales, joining humanity it all its physicality. The Word becomes flesh – not some demigod, not an avatar or reflection, but flesh and blood, genes and joy and heartbreak. Biology and theology intersect, science and the supernatural dance in his mother’s womb as she feels him kick. God becomes helpless, learning to walk and talk and bathe; God becomes vulnerable, subject to illness and accidents, carpenter’s calluses and executioner’s nails.

For all this exalted language, the Incarnation is a very tangible, physical thing. God is present on the earth, in the form of Jesus. The follow-up is that Christ should then be present in his church, and sometimes the less said about that the better. But it would be easy to let this become condemnation of others when, in reality, I need the Immanuel this Christmas, need God to be With Us.

Because I’m aware of my own humanity, my own fragility. I have sleep apnoea, I need glasses, I’m overweight – yeah, yeah, big deal – and my mental health isn’t what it should be, and that leads to anxiety and stress and depression. It hasn’t been too bad lately – medication and therapy and grace for the win – but I can still feel those metaphorical ghosts and demons nipping at the edge of awareness. The truth is, I need the Incarnation, need Christmas, need the belief that God understands what it’s like to walk this world. Maybe that’s why grace is so important; we all fall short of the glory, so better God comes to us rather than us building a futile ladder to heaven. Despite what the song says, God isn’t watching us from a distance, he stepped down into the mud alongside us.

So my Nativity scene is messy – the smell of animals, the sweat of the journey, the cries of childbirth, frankincense and myrrh, sleepless nights. Even the angels get political. Because life is messy. The world is messy. My heart is messy. And a God who stands with us in the mess is worth worshipping for love’s sake rather than fear’s.

The night draws in; so does the cold. As Christmas Eve draws to a close, I remember that God knew both as he walked our streets. The carol singers sing and I pray that I’d remember the God of genes and dust as the silence draws in, as the stars come out.

Yet in thy dark streets shineth,

The ever-lasting light.

The hopes and fears of all the years

Are met in thee tonight.

What To Do With Our Weapons (a post for Advent)

“Peace on Earth, goodwill to all!” sang the angels, but the secret scandal of Christmas is that we don’t really believe them. Little girls in white dresses and tinsel on their heads recite words of prophetic power and all we can say is “Ahh” as the baby is laid in the manger. Maybe we like the Prince of Peace being wrapped in swaddling bands because that means his hands are tied.

The prophet Isaiah spoke of swords being recycled into farming equipment, and when you look at the vast amounts the nations spend on guns and bombs, well, that’s a lot of tractors. But that’s just a symptom. Before anything else we carry our swords in our hearts, and our weapons are our words.

Often those weapons are aimed at those beyond us; take a look at how social media talks about migrants, talks to women, how the first reaction so often seems to be trolling or griefing or whatever cute euphemism we think might blunt our attack. Yet the things we say, the things we type have power. It starts with words, but now it’s 2018 and swastikas are making a comeback.

Sometimes our weapons are focused on ourselves – words of condemnation, words of anger, words of shame. Sometimes we speak those words because we don’t have any other script, sometimes those words have been programmed into us by others, sometimes they’re amplified by the chemistry in our brains, and peace is stolen away leaving a babble of inadequacy and despair in its place.

Today, in some traditions at least, we approach the advent crown and light the candle of peace. In doing so, we’re inviting the Prince of Peace to illuminate us, to show us what to do with our weapons.

And so, as that candle burns, may it light our way, may it ignite a smith’s furnace in which our swords and guns can be turned into spades and wheelchairs.

May it light tables and desks as we take posts and headlines and emails and origami them into swans and boats and planes, sew our flags into blankets, remix our marching songs into dance tracks.

May it become a light at the end of the tunnel as it leads us to medication or therapy or whatever else will calm the volley of arrows we shoot at ourselves.

May it burn away our anger, our fear, our prejudice, may it unclench our fists and cause us to drop our weapons and let us see the Other in all their humanity.

May it light our vigils, may it burn hope in the dark, may it spark into life a fire of justice.

And may it guide us to the manger, the cross and the throne as we untie the hands of the Prince of Peace in our lives.

Amen.

Seven Alternative Works of Christmas Art

Sometimes Christmas can become too familiar. That’s when it helps to see the season through different eyes and so, as we race towards the end of Advent, here are seven works of art that put a different slant on the Christmas story…

 

Jose y Maria

Jose y Maria, by artist Everett Patterson is a comic book icon, stylised but reverent and full of Easter Eggs, some more subtle than others. Like many of the pieces in this post, it places the Nativity in a modern context, but the element that jumps out at me as I write this is the weather – this isn’t a Middle Eastern wilderness or an ahistorical snowscape, but it’s raining. Jose standing there in the rain, making countless calls on a payphone just to get a roof over their heads, tells us that there really is no room at the inn… But look at the ground. A green shoot is breaking through the pavement. In the midst of the worry and the despair, hope grows in the cracks. The next call Jose makes will lead them to their modern day manger.

 

Refugees: La Sagrada Familia

Migration and the refugee crisis is one of the most pressing issues of our time, compounded by the sheer level of prejudice, racism and demonization faced by refugees and asylum seekers. This piece by Kelly Latimore reimagines the Holy Family’s Flight to Egypt as a contemporary migration, reminding us that the Christmas story ends with a mad dash for the border and an escape from death squads and a homicidal ruler. Put aside the halos and this could be a family from South America or Syria. But then, those halos are also important – God incarnates not into a palace, but as a victim of empire. The ultimate question is whether or not we would provide sanctuary to Jesus, Mary and Joseph and, if the answer is yes, how then should that affect our approach to, and perception of, modern refugees?

 

The Stepfather

Joseph doesn’t get a lot of airtime throughout the Christmas story. He’s there in the background, solid and dependable, but we don’t get a lot of insight into his character and by the time Jesus is an adult, Joseph appears to have died. But as a stepfather I find this image (artist unknown) incredibly moving. It seems to be a moment of quiet, maybe at night, and while Mary sleeps, Joseph bonds with the infant Jesus. Ultimately we know they won’t have enough time together – there’s never enough time – and I’m sure Joseph struggled with the weight of destiny that lay upon his family. But in the quiet there’s love and peace and protection. It’s only fair that the forgotten hero of the Nativity gets a moment in the spotlight.

 

Cast Down the Mighty

The Magnificat is a subversive song of praise, but its power often gets forgotten among the traditions and the carols. This icon by Ben Wildflower rediscovers Mary’s radical streak, a young woman of faith and strength. It’s an image that reminds us that Mary was no pushover but also that there’s a thread of anti-imperialism running through the veins of the Christmas story – the angels ascribe to Jesus titles that would have been reserved for Caesar, and Herod slaughters innocents to maintain his grip on power. The Magi may have been reinvented as kings somewhere along the way, but Mary’s protest song reminds us that, more often than not, Christmas punches upwards.

 

Mary Consoles Eve

Eve gets a bad press, cast as the original temptress responsible for the Fall. If you believe the hype, Adam was just a helpless victim of a weak woman. It’s a misogynist reading of the text, but this piece by Sr. Grace Remington offers a redemptive reading. It plays with some provocative images – the snake wrapped round Eve’s leg, her red dress contrasting with Mary’s white – but the innocence on their faces is heartbreaking and Eve’s hand on Mary’s baby bump is a simple but powerful gesture of hope and redemption. And look at Mary’s feet in the light of Genesis 3:15

 

Ave Maria

Ave Maria by Darrell Berubé relocates the Nativity to a run-down, graffiti covered side street in an anonymous city. A homeless Mary lays the Son of God in an old suitcase, the star illuminates them both but it’s not giving out much warmth. Mary wears the traditional blue and white, although they’re reimagined as a hoodie and jeans. That’s a departure from the norm; some may be shocked that Jesus and Mary are both brown skinned, but that’s historically accurate; we’re so used to seeing a white Holy Family in a comfortable looking stable that this feels like a radical reinvention, but really it’s a reminder of the poverty and desperation that must have been part of that original Christmas which we forget at our peril. And where’s Joseph?

 

Our Lady Who Brings Down Walls

This final piece isn’t overtly about Christmas – except its location makes the link inevitable. Our Lady Who Brings Down Walls is a graffiti’ed icon on the Separation Wall in Bethlehem, not far from the Emmanuel Monastery. The apocalyptic version of the Nativity in Revelation 12 inspired Ian Knowles to paint this icon in 2012; in 2014, a serpent was added to a neighbouring wall to emphasise the point. The image is political, subversive, angry, heartbroken and prophetic and reminds us that, for many people around the world, Christmas will be anything but easy. And yet at the heart of the story is hope – the dragon never reaches the child. The Messiah is born and Christmas explodes into reality. And may these pieces of art (and more) help us to recognise the reality among the tinsel.

A Crown of Thorns is Still a Crown: The Feast of Christ the King

Just six miles south of here lie the ancient kings of Mercia. Aethalbard and Wiglaf, now no more than bones, are interred at Repton, capital of a kingdom that no longer exists, a kingdom that’s little more than archeology and dust.

Mercia may have long since been submerged beneath the waves of British history, but new kingdoms have risen in its place. Some of these are geographical, all flags and squiggles on maps, but many exist in less concrete spaces, spaces of business and media and ideology. Zuckerberg’s kingdom is bigger than Mercia ever was, its population larger than that of the Roman Empire at its height.

Different kingdoms still woo us, influence us, own us. Sometimes those kingdoms are even mythical, dreams of a golden age used to turn modern atrocities into acceptable expediencies, political fairytales no more real than Atlantis.

The Feast of Christ the King was introduced in 1925 by Pope Pius XI. World War I had ended only a few years earlier, but the War To End All Wars hadn’t left nationalism and division buried beneath the poppy fields. Just eight years later Hitler became Chancellor of Germany; five years after that would come Kristallacht. Empires rise and fall, and too many of us are eager to dance to their marching songs. To often we embrace empires because we like control, like power and security. Celebrating Christ as King was meant to be an inoculation against that, a liturgical reminder of where a Christian’s true loyalties should lie. Maybe it’s even subversive; after all, the Church has far too often sanctified slavery and antisemitism,

In thinking about empires, Pastor Brian Zahnd has noted that “There’s always some guy on a horse”. Problem is, the guy on a horse is far too often carrying a cross. When Jesus was tested in the wilderness, Satan showed him all the kingdoms of the world in an instant. I wonder if that was literally all of them; Rome, Greece, Byzantium, London, Washington, Facebook… I wonder if the greatest temptation of all these was Christendom. As I type this, a line from the song ‘Hurt’ is buzzing through my head: “You can have it all, my empire of dirt”. As the world stumbles into dark places, that line feels strangely prophetic.

For all the times we’ve turned the Kingdom of God into an Empire of fear and hate, Lord we repent. I repent.

Because the Kingdom of Christ is built on different foundations. It doesn’t come at the point of a sword, although some wish it would; it doesn’t get legislated, although many have tried. It can emerge from cathedrals and megachurches (although sometimes it’s paved over by those very structures), but it just as often appears in soup kitchens and refugee camps and women’s refuges and prisons, in online spaces that stand against the memes and the trolls. It was born at a cross and is represented by a lamb. Christ is King, but his hands are nail-scarred and he knows the streets and doorways as intimately as he knows cathedrals and palaces, and when we praise the beauty of barbed wire, beware, because Jesus is likely on the other side of it, his Kingdom unseen but still a beacon of hope and love and light; a crown of thorns is still a crown.

 

Last year’s post for Christ the King can be read here.