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.


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?


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.


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.


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.

Epiphany and the Illusion of Power (Matthew 2:1-18)

The Magi went to the palace first.

Eventually they would kneel before Jesus, but first they’d be distracted by earthly power, a magnificent palace, a king who whispered in the ear of emperors. It’s a distraction that’s understandable, but still it leads to an atrocity. The pursuit of power so often does.

Then, when the Magi arrive in Bethlehem they find God, toddling and crying, graze-kneed and circumcised. Godhead made uncoordinated and babbling, death squads just days away and the Omnipotent forced to run.

It’s a strange sort of power that’s revealed at the Epiphany, certainly not the power we see worshipped today, not the power we seek for ourselves in a twisted attempt to build the Kingdom of God with the bricks of Empire. Epiphany reveals God in vulnerability and in nappies, the Word of God without words. This isn’t where we look for power, we don’t look among the poor, the marginalised, the oppressed. We look to the rich, the connected, we turn on the vulnerable out of a never-ending fear, we want to drive away the homeless to make way for a royal wedding. Two thousand years after the Magi blundered into Herod’s palace and we still make the same mistake.

There’s an ongoing temptation to look for God in all the wrong places. That’s when we need to remember that God stands with the weak, the oppressed, the persecuted, the poor; we need to remember that God works not in our arrogance, our pride, our confidence but in our weakness, our vulnerability, our brokenness. Maybe this Epiphany it’s not about asking why we can’t see God; maybe it’s about confronting whether we’re looking for Him in the right place; if we’re truly looking for God or just the trappings of power.

Epiphany: Looking for God in all the wrong places

Yesterday I wrote about Twelfth Night, about how the Wise Men were nearly at the door of the stable, eager to see what lay on the other side. Well, today is Epiphany; the door is opened and we walk on up to the manger.

This moment has been a long time coming. Maybe things wouldn’t have taken quite so long if we hadn’t ignored the star and found ourselves wandering unaware down some dark deadends. There’s a whole star to follow, but we get seduced by our own assumptions, our own expectations.

I wrote at the beginning of Advent how I wanted to find Jesus again this Christmas. And I meant that, but so much was happening, so much to think and worry about, so much to pull me off course. And so I’m not sure I found Jesus again so much as gaining the knowledge that I still look for him in all the wrong places. It’s possible to miss the power and the glory of the Incarnation because we want Jesus to grow up and become a carpenter, just so we can ask him to fix our shelves.

Just a few miles from Bethlehem, the Wise Men stopped following the star and followed their own assumptions instead, ending up in Herod’s palace rather than God’s stable. And that mistaken conviction, that kings must be born in palaces, draws the attention of a paranoid despot and comes pretty close to wrecking everything. Because God’s not one for palaces, he’s more likely to be found in stables or tents in the desert. We should start looking for an Epiphany in places where Christ is, rather than where we think he should be. Look in the manger, not in the palace.

Of course, what we see – or rather, who we encounter – in that manger demands a response. We can’t see the vulnerability of God and the divine glory of a dozing infant without being changed. We came here as the result of one journey, but we, like the Magi, need to go home by another route.

Changing direction, getting on the right path, reorientating ourselves to a brighter star… These aren’t unusual metaphors for a faith journey. They’re the literal meaning behind the word ‘repent’, after all, the DNA in our pilgrimage. If we encounter Jesus in the manger we need to let the power of that encounter transform us and send us away from Bethlehem on a different path.

Here’s my confession: after all these years on the journey, I still look for Jesus in the wrong places, still expect him to meet my assumptions than transform them. I still need an epiphany, every day, an epiphany of the reality of Christ, not of who I’d like him to be. I need to be transformed by the arrival of Jesus in this world, and I need to allow some of the stuff I know about God to make its way into my heart.

Today is Epiphany, the stable door creads open and light leaks through the cracks into the cold and dark of a winter’s morning; the door creaks open, beckoning us forward. May each of us be transformed by what’s on the other side.


Twelfth Night: Nearing Journey’s End

It’s Twelfth Night, and the Wise Men are almost at the stable.

 Almost, but not quite. The journey isn’t quite over. There’s a sense that they’re nearing their destination, the star looms large over Bethlehem. They’ve taken wrong turns, failing to find a new king in a palace, finding the old king’s paranoia instead. Their expectations are being re-written on the fly, and you can almost sense their anticipation as they move closer, closer to the City of David, manoeuvring their way through dark narrow streets illuminated by star light.

We tend to focus on their arrived, on them kneeling before the manger and presenting the baby with gold and frankincense and myrrh. It’s a scene heavy with symbolism, and we may see new meaning birthed from it if we keep our eyes open.

But that’s for tomorrow. That’s for Epiphany. Tonight is Twelfth Night, and the journey isn’t quite over.

Instead, let’s think about what it means to near the end of a journey, a season, a quest. Today’s the day the lights come down and we pack away the baubles. Christmas is over; the wrapping paper is getting recycled, we’re back at work as if we’d never been away. A season ends today, but the stable door hasn’t yet been opened. We stand at a threshold, hand raise to knock at the door but paused by apprehension: what happens next? what will the next moments bring, how will things be transformed as the door creaks slowly open?

Maybe we celebrate our New Year five days too early. After all, we’re not formed by fireworks; we’re formed by the beginning and the ending of seasons, and how we hunt for the divine in the midst of them.

We stand at the threshold and we have two choices, almost: to return to our routines, to breathe a sigh of relief as our lives get back on track, or to  embrace the next steps, to see what’s over the next hill, through the next doorway. The Wise Men could have partied at the palace, but they had a star to follow and a baby to meet. Comfort vs Change. You stand at the threshold, but it’s not too late to turn back, right?

And hey, it’s okay to mourn the end of a journey; it’s okay to regret the mistakes and the wrong turns, it’s okay to be angry at those who sent you down dangerous paths, who tried to derail your quest with words and swords. Change is a passing of sorts, and we need to lean into that, but we can’t live there forever, A destination, be it joyous or sad, always leads to a new journey eventually.

So be prepared; for change, for opportunity, for revelation. Grieve the season that’s ending, steel yourself for the season that is to come. Keep your eyes and ears open, because the descendants of Herod will try to trick you; be brave and speak out your dreams, because they might just save someone’s life, even if right now they’re just muddled visions in the dark of the night. Rest as one quest nears its end; pause, and then start planning the quests to come. Approach the stable, gifts in hand, knock on the door and wait for it to open. What lies beyond it may be familiar, but it may also be strange and new, an epiphany. We don’t know yet.

Because tonight is Twelfth Night, and the journey isn’t quite over.

Six Miles: Epiphany 2015 (Matthew 2:1-12)

Bray,_Jan_de_-_The_Adoration_of_the_Magi_-_1674Six miles.

Six miles isn’t very far. If you’re fit, you could probably walk it in a couple of hours. Not a big deal.

Six miles.

That’s how far it is from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. The wise men were just two hours from Jesus before everything started going wrong. They were so close, but they made a wrong turn and tragedy ensued.

I suppose it’s understandable why they went to Herod. They were looking for a new born king, and I guess the palace would be the obvious place to go. But there was no baby prince at the palace, and when the Magi heard panicked whispers around the palace and in the streets outside, maybe that’s when they realised their mistake.

Today is Epiphany, the day on which we celebrate the Magi finding Jesus. It’s a time when we think of them receiving a vision of glory, pagan dignitaries bowing before the infant Messiah. It’s a powerful image, and yet one we don’t always make the most of. That’s a shame, because as we stand at the start of a new year, maybe it’s a good time to seek a fresh vision.

Because it’s easy to take Jesus for granted. We know the hymns, we can quote the Bible, but are we really seeking him? Or do we assume that because we found him once long ago, he’s safely on the shelf, treasured but undisturbed? That’s easy to do, especially if we’ve been in the church for a long time. We’ve been there, done that, bought the t-shirt. And that’s dangerous.

Because look at what’s going on around the wise men. They ask Herod where the new king is, which gets Herod disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. Don’t let that verse pass you by – when a bunch of strangers from another ask where the Messiah is prophesied to be born, the answer is right there in the scriptures, in the book of Micah. The Messiah will be born in Bethlehem, six miles down the road.

And yet no-one else goes, except Herod’s death squad. Everyone seems more happy with maintaining the status quo, with staying at home with their feet up, or with not venturing out because they’re scared of the consequences. There’s a chance to see what God is doing in the world, and it’s handed to them on a plate, and yet no-one wants to take it. Pagan astrologers are more interested in what God’s doing than the religious elite. Worse than that – thirty years later, the successors of Herod and the priests would be instrumental in getting Jesus crucified.

And that’s a challenge for us, because sometimes it’s so easy to be in the church, to enjoy the rockin’ worship and the friendship groups, that it gets in the way of us finding Jesus; ditto for Herod’s religious think tank a couple of thousand years ago. and that was a huge mistake, because Jesus wasn’t there in the Temple or Herod’s palace; the work of God was happening beyond those walls. The apathy of the priests and scribes is a warning to us all.

But thankfully the wise men were more open to an encounter with Jesus – the whole purpose of their journey was to offer him worship. They’re best known for bringing gold, frankincense and myrrh, but maybe the most important thing they brought was themselves.

And then comes the dream: take another route home because to go back the way you came would be disastrous. If ever there was a metaphor for encountering Jesus, there it is, but there’s something in this moment that’s left hanging. We don’t know what happened to the Magi after they left, we don’t know if the experience changed them, or if they just considered it the fulfilment of their diplomatic duty. Their journey ends as mysteriously as it started.

And maybe that’s okay, because Matthew doesn’t just tell their story in the interests of reportage, he’s also using them to represent us – the outsiders, the ones who were once far from God who nevertheless find themselves kneeling before the Messiah. Their journey is our journey, following as best we can as God manifests and challenge and welcomes. He draws us to him, and despite the bumps in the road, he invites us to respond – with our gifts, with our worship, but most of all with ourselves.

So maybe this Christmastide, we need to find ourselves in Bethlehem’s stable, not Herod’s palace. At the start of 2015, maybe it’s time to rededicate ourselves to finding Jesus anew, to seek his face and to point others in his direction. Let’s rediscover Epiphany and see where the journey takes us.