They Fled by Night

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Cartmel Priory | They Fled by Night – Josefina de Vasconcellos
photo – Mr G.

The account of the birth and infancy of Jesus have many highlights which build up the Christmas Story. First, the Annunciation to Mary and later, to Joseph, the visit of the Shepherds and then of the Magi, known more popularly as the 3 Kings. The Christmas season ends with the blessing of Jesus by Simeon and Anna in the Temple. The Christmas story is timeless and forever fresh.

In the midst of the joy and expectant promise that a (the) Saviour has been born for us, there is, however, one moment of darkness and deep sadness. We remember it as the killing of the Holy Innocents by Herod who felt threatened by the prospect of a King born into Judaism or, as the Magi put it, the child who has been born king of the Jews? They went on to tell King Herod, for we have observed his star at its rising and have come to pay him homage. These words put fear into Herod and he felt a threat to his own reign.
Threatened people behave irrationally and often cruelly and this was true of Herod. The result was the massacre of the innocent children 2 years of age or under in and around Bethlehem.
We remember this dreadful thing in our prayers and liturgy on December 28th.

But we almost lose sight of something which the New Testament covers in 3 scant verses. In Matthew’s Gospel (2: 13-15) we read that, after the Magi returned home, by another way, an angel appeared to Joseph in a dream to warn him. Herod was searching for Jesus to destroy him and then instructed Joseph, Get up, take the child and his mother and flee to Egypt.  The Holy Family were to stay there until they are told it is safe to return home. So Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt.

Joseph, Mary and Jesus literally fled from danger – the tyranny of one man who, without the angel’s message could have resulted in the death of God’s plan to save the World through Jesus. Jesus thus began his early life as a Refugee and that has immense significance today for us.

Before the Coronavirus took hold of our world, the plight of the refugee was perhaps the most heartbreaking and divisive thing which the human race and its leaders had to face. Through no fault of their own countless numbers of refugees have been displaced from their homes and have desperately wandered around the Earth looking for safety, shelter love and care. In the process of this they faced immense danger,and used by unscrupulous people who used their plight for their own ends. If the history of this time ever comes to be written, the way refugees have been treated will be to humanity’s shame and condemnation. Even now, as I write this, our own Government is failing people both from the present time and the 1960’s and this is repeated globally. Yet very few of us who live in our country today can claim that our roots are anything but as immigrants. Even the nearest we come to native is Celt, Irish, Scots and Romano-British who began their long journey as part of Indo-European migration from the East in the dim and distant past.

From a religious point of view, of course, we need to remember what the Psalmist wrote in Psalm 24:

The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it,
   the world, and those who live in it;

We are merely stewards of the earth but with a big responsibility. We have a real care and sense of justice, both from the well-being of humanity but equally, for the care and stewardship of the animals, fish and birds; who tenant the earth. Also, of course for Nature, climate and the planet itself.
We have been given great and wonderful gifts but they are not given for us to exploit . Yet, few Governments take their responsibilities seriously. Self-centred interest always seems to take precedence. Very few who supposedly serve their country or the earth are capabable of seeing and responding to a bigger picture, a greater responsibility. They’re just not up to the job with which we entrust them.

It is good, therefore, that Jesus understood and experienced the plight of the poor and the life of a refugee.

Of course, as quite often, whenever something unpalatable is shown to us, we anesthetize it. It came as no surprise, therefore, that this Christmas I received a card entitled, Rest on the flight into Egypt. It is by the Dutch/Flemish painter Gerard David and it was painted about 1510. It is a very beautiful card of a painting which shows Mary and Jesus resting while Joseph is knocking walnuts off a tree with a stick. The contented donkey is enjoying a little feed! The baby, dandled on his mother’s knee, wearing an androgynous dress, is cheerfully picking at a bunch of grapes. Our Lady is in a sumptuous two tone blue dress with a red lining. It is all beautifully arranged with not a fold or a hair is out of place! The surrounding countryside is wonderfully manicured. And, lovely though it is, it is completely false.

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Rest on the Flight into Egypt | Gerard David

There are plenty of others similar to it. But the sculpture which heads this article is very different. It was sculpted by Josefina de Vasconcellos and it is called They Fled by Night. It is of the Holy Family, also resting on their journey but what a contrast!

Mary and Joseph are totally exhausted both from the journey and from what they are fleeing from. Theirs is a journey away from death. Mary is slumped against Joseph, who worn out himself is holding her head, gently and supportively. Mary is stretched out asleep. Jesus, on the other hand, has woken up and is leaping forward. (Josefina often shows Jesus full of life and, as it were, raring to go! Her statue of mother and child in Blackburn Cathedral captures the same vibrancy).

There is a sense that whilst behind them there is darkness and fear and uncertainty, in front of them is a new life and a new way of being. Josefina has captured not just the refugees running from danger but rather towards a hope, a new joy and an understanding of what it means to live within the love of God.

Josefina carved the statue for exhibiting at St. Martin-in-the-Field in London. It was on display initially during World Refugee Year in 1959-60, as part of developing awareness and support of refugees across the globe. At the suggestion of Josefina it was later presented to Cartmel Priory. It can be found to the left of the entrance, made of resin bronze. It is utterly breathtaking and conveys an immediate message of the anxiety and hazards of the plight of the refugee. Something that Jesus understood more than most and for whom they have a special place in God’s heart.

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Cartmel Priory | They Fled by Night – Josefina de Vasconcellos
photo – Mr G.

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