They fled by night. Sculpture by Josefina de Vasconcellous, Carmel Priory, Lake District. Photo by Mr. G
Yesterday I shared worship with the folk at St Mary, Little Hallingbury, on the edge of Hatfield Forest.There I met three newcomers in the congregation. They are young men who are refugees from Iran.
They are Christian converts and hope to be baptized in the New Year.
Yesterday’s Gospel was the Annunciation to Joseph.
It is that part of St Matthew which comes after the genealogy – that strange but amazing introduction to Matthew’s version of the Gospel, which takes us through the family tree of God’s people, stretching back to Abraham, the Father of the Nations. Abraham, links the three religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. He also provides a link to King David and then to Joseph.
Joseph is vital to God’s plan for the salvation of the world and so it was important that his doubts about marrying Mary, who was by then with child, were addressed.
Matthew therefore reported on the visit by an Angel, probably Gabriel. (Matthew 1: 18 – 25)
The significance of Joseph and his link with the three Iranian men I met yesterday, comes a little later in the Christmas narrative.
After the birth of Jesus we are presented with the suffering of the Holy Innocents and the death edict pronounced by King Herod the puppet king, collaborator to the Roman Occupiers. In Matthew Chapter 2 we are told of the visit of the Magi, the Wise men. Searching, they said for the one who had been born ‘king of the Jews’ they met Herod who fearfully jealous ordered the death of all children under the age of 2.
Once again, an angel came to Joseph and this led to him taking an action which places him central to Jesus’s story. Often destined to be regarded as the ‘man in the background’, Joseph had a vital part to play in the mission of God to bring salvation to the world. He was there to protect, overshadow and care for God’s Holy Jesus.
He was to take him with Mary to safety in Egypt.
One of my favourite artists is Josefina de Vasconcellos, who was a sculptor. Her Christian name is the feminine form of Joseph.
She carved a number of Crib seasons in which Joseph is enfolding Mary and the babe, in a posture of loving protection.
But there is another of her statues that speaks to me of the depth of Joseph’s care. It is called, They fled by night, and you can see it in Cartmel Priory in the Lake District. It is of the flight by the Holy Family into Egypt
In Josephina’s sculpture, The Holy Family are in mid-journey and it is night. Mary is exhausted and lies back drained of all energy. Joseph supports her, cradling her in his arms. He is protecting her with love and care. Meanwhile, the child is spread over her legs, his face forward, full of energy which comes from the security of being in the care of loving parents. He seems eager to go on and embrace his future and all that it will bring.
But for a moment, poised in space and time, Joseph holds his beloved ones in rest and care as he takes them away from danger and ministers to their needs.
As I think about this sculpture and the Gospel it portrays I think particularly of one startling truth which has a deeply contemporary meaning.The moment that Josefina captures in They fled by night’ is of Jesus as a ‘Refugee’. He is fleeing the danger and the tyranny being wrought in his homeland. It is the first time that Jesus was cast in the role of an outcast. Of all the people of history and in our modern times, he knew totally what it meant to be travelling away from danger, homeless and with no certainty of what life had in store for him at that moment.
For Josefina, her statue was more than capturing a moment of Gospel story. It was of seeing that as representing the plight of all refugees.
Yesterday we considered what that meant in a week where yet more of God’s children drowned in the English Channel being duped by traffickers who promised them safety. Just a few minutes ago it was ruled by Judges that His Majesty’s Government can ship unwanted refugees to Rwanda passing the ‘problem’ to others.
This context, part of a huge migration of people across the earth, brings home to us a truth that millions are living in uncertainty, fear and despair.
For every one of them and for those of us responsible for their care, we need to hold on to this truth – Jesus was a Refugee.!
That raises a huge question. As I talked with the three men from Iran yesterday, who were being watched over and loved by local Christians, what is my responsibility and yours. Joseph willingly accepted his. If we don’t do the same then what are we saying to God? What are we saying about God.
Because rejecting refugees means we are in danger of turning our backs on one who in Josefina’s Sculptured words, fled by night.
Prayer for Migrants, Refugees and Asylum Seekers
God, no one is stranger to you,
and no one is ever far from your loving care.
In your kindness watch over migrants, refugees and asylum seekers,
those separated from their loved ones, those who are lost,
and those who have been exiled from their homes by violence and war.
Bring them safely to the place where they long to be,
and help us always to show your kindness to strangers and those in need.
We ask this through Christ our Lord, who was also a refugee and migrant
and who travelled to another land searching for a home and safety.