‘Rest on the Flight into Egypt’ (1879), by Luc-Olivier Merson
This morning [29 December 2013] is the First Sunday of Christmas. The readings in the Revised Common Lectionary are: Isaiah 63: 7-9; Psalm 148; Hebrews 2: 10-18; Matthew 2: 13-23.
We have yet to read about the Circumcision and Naming of Christ (1 January 2014) and the Epiphany (6 January 2014), so this morning’s Gospel reading, with its story of Saint Joseph’s dream and the Flight into Egypt, may seem out of sequence.
But for my work of Art for Christmas to meditate on this morning I have chosen ‘Rest on the Flight into Egypt’ (1879), by Luc-Olivier Merson (1846–1920), a painting I drew on six years ago to illustrate a sermon in Christ Church Cathedral six years ago [30 December 2007].
This painting in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston is in Oil on Canvas and measures 71.8 cm x 128.3 cm. It was bought in Paris by George Golding Kennedy (1841-1918) of Boston, who bequeathed it to museum in 1918.
The scene Merson depicts is haunting and full of fatigue. An exhausted Saint Joseph is asleep, perhaps suffering from mental and physical exhaustion in his flight from danger with his wife and her baby, stretched out on the desert sands as he tries to doze off.
The Virgin Mary is resting in the arms of the Sphinx, cradling the Christ Child, both unable to sleep because of their plight, because of what they have witnessed.
The Christ Child seems to light up the whole scene but is beginning his life in exile, in homelessness, a refugee, an immigrant, a stranger in a strange land.
The donkey – that little donkey who becomes a domestic pet in children’s carols – is worn out from the journey from Bethlehem, and scavenges in the dark in the desert soil, seeking what few blades of grass he can find to eat.
By the time the 12 days of Christmas have passed, most of us will be tired of the seven swans a-swimming, the six geese a-laying … and only too happy to get back to work, and to begin looking at the summer holiday brochures.
However, this is not what it is like for the Holy Family in the days after their first Christmas. That first Christmas was not one filled with tedium and boredom. Their first Christmas was the very opposite to our comfortable holiday season in Northern Europe.
This painting by Luc-Olivier Merson reminds us of the stark reality of the hardship and deprivation suffered by a family on the run. Who among us would swap the tedium and boredom of the coming week for that time Mary and Joseph had with the Christ Child?
Harried by Herod’s army, they barely escaped a maniacal plot for mass murder, and ended up in exile where their ancestors had once been slaves, seeking succour and refuge with the Jewish diaspora by the Nile and the Pyramids.
The Flight into Egypt was no bargain package holiday. Rather, it was an ordeal that inspired artists throughout the centuries. It has been painted by Fra Angelico, Giotto, Carpaccio, Durer, Claude Lorrain, Tintoretto, Barbieri, Tiepolo … the great Dutch and Italian masters, indeed most of the great Western artists.
Saint Matthew’s unique account of this event in this morning’s Gospel reading had many resonances for his first readers: it is a powerful restructuring of the story of Joseph forced into exile in Egypt because of the evil plots hatched against him. And the exodus from Egypt in later, safer, days, would point anew towards redemption from slavery and sin and offer the hope of imminent salvation.
Later legends surrounding the Flight into Egypt include the family hiding in a cave and being protected by a spider’s web, the beasts of the desert bowing in homage to the Christ Child, an encounter with two thieves who would be crucified beside Christ on the Cross on Calvary, and palm trees bending in reverence as Mary and Joseph passed by with the Child Jesus.
Legend says that when they found shelter on the banks of Nile the Holy Family lived in an area known as Babylon in Egypt, where there was a long, continuous Jewish presence. Although those stories of flight and exile are unique to Saint Matthew’s Gospel in the New Testament, they also appear in the Quran, and are part of the way Muslims come to own the story of Jesus within their own religious traditions.
On various visits to Egypt, I was aware that the stories of the flight into Egypt, the refuge, the welcome and the asylum offered to the Holy Family there, are stories shared and definitive for all Egyptians, including Muslims, the large Christian community, and the dwindling but ancient Jewish community.
Many shrines and churches are claimed as places where the family rested or dwelt, none more so than Abu Sergha or the Church of Saint Sergius and Saint Bacchus, one of the oldest Coptic Churches in Egypt, and the place where many Patriarchs of Alexandria or Coptic Popes were elected.
Every Egyptian today – Jew, Christian and Muslim – identifies with both the Holy Family and those who offered them asylum. But who would we here in Ireland identify with if you and I were hearing this story of mass murder and enforced exile for the first time?
Would I have been among the innkeepers who first refused them a welcome at my inn or hostel in Bethlehem?
Would I have been willing to work with the political apparatus around the Herod of my day, holding onto power and privilege, inspiring fear rather than respect and loyalty, no matter who had to be trampled on, no matter who suffered, no matter how the innocent would be counted among the victims?
Would I have had the courage of the wandering Magi, not only to seek truth, even if it is outside my own area of learning and knowledge, but also willing to take the risks involved in refusing to respect the immoral demands of those holding the reins of power when they are lawful but patently immoral?
When was I last like Joseph, realising that God’s promptings are not idle dreams but that they demand discipleship and action, even if this puts my personal security at risk?
When did I listen to the voice of today’s Rachels, the weeping mothers and widows, whether at a local level it was listening to the grief of someone who has lost a dear family member at Christmas time, or at a global level it was listening to those who are weeping in grief in Syria and the refugee camps in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq?
The story of Herod’s jealous plot, and of a family fleeing in search of refuge continue to have radical relevance today.
We cannot be open to the plight of the fleeing Holy Family unless we are open to the plight and needs of the families who have come to live among us in Ireland in recent years – whatever their political, social or ethnic backgrounds may be.
We cannot understand the plight of families who saw the hope of future generations sacrificed in the interest of political greed unless we too are willing to stand against political and personal greed today.
We cannot praise the disobedience of the Magi unless we are willing to say regularly that morality in politics must overrule the personal interests, gain and profit of those who hold office.
We cannot rejoice in the welcome the Egyptians gave to Mary, Joseph and the Baby Jesus, unless we are also willing to rejoice in every initiative, every stage in the process of dialogue that brings Jews, Christians and Muslims together in our own country.
We cannot pity the plight of that family in exile unless we can acknowledge the needs of the new families living among us today.
Christmas is the story of the true insider who becomes a real outsider in order that we who in our reality are outsiders may truly become insiders.
A year before his death, the great missionary bishop in Zanzibar, Bishop Frank Weston, declared in 1923: “You have begun with the Christ of Bethlehem, you have gone on to know something of the Christ of Calvary – but … it is folly – it is madness – to suppose that you can worship Jesus in the Sacraments and Jesus on the Throne of glory, when you are sweating him in the souls and bodies of his children. It cannot be done.”
To paraphrase Bishop Weston, if we cannot realise the presence of Christ among us in the refugee, the asylum seeker, the immigrant and the person of another faith, that Christ who identifies with those who suffer and are persecuted as brothers and sisters, [Hebrews 2: 10-18], how can we be aware of his presence among us in Word or Sacrament?
who wonderfully created us in your own image
and yet more wonderfully restored us
through your Son Jesus Christ:
Grant that, as he came to share in our humanity,
so we may share the life of his divinity;
who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.
Post Communion Prayer:
you have refreshed us with this heavenly sacrament.
As your Son came to live among us,
grant us grace to live our lives,
united in love and obedience,
as those who long to live with him in heaven;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Tomorrow: ‘The Holy Family with a Shepherd,’ by Titian.