Josefina de Vasconcellos, the sculptor, was commissioned on a number of occasions to carve large statues of the Holy Family. What never fails to strike me is that always Joseph is central to the scene. He does not lurk in the background or act like some passive kind of bystander. Josefina shows him as a strong fatherly figure who is a protector of both Mary and Jesus. It is clear that Josefina had a soft spot for the shadowy figure from the Christmas story and was determined to give him the prominence he deserves. Perhaps it was because she was graced with the female form of his name.
One particular statue of the Holy Family, which I’ve featured on this blog before, is one that was graphically very different. It can be seen in Cartmel Priory in the Lake District. It is called They fled by night and it was inspired by the flight into Egypt taken by the Holy Family to escape the threat of King Herod.
It is a very powerfully real statue. Mary is shown to be exhausted with her head leaning backwards as she rests in Joseph’s arms. Joseph is holding her and looking down with loving compassion. Despite being exhausted himself he was concerned only about her. Meanwhile in the foreground of the composition, Jesus is leaping forward as he embraces the future.
What I like about Josefina’s portrayal of Joseph is that he is not the shadow figure that we find in the Gospel. Apart from Matthew’s ‘dream’ sequence when an angel tells Joseph it is God’s will to take Mary as his wife, and an incident when Jesus was 12, Joseph plays no further part in the Gospel story. There is a reference to him when Jesus is called the carpenter’s son but we are left wondering – what happened to Joseph?
We can invent our own story but I like to think that Joseph was content with his role in making the Incarnation possible. In a world like ours which celebrates status and fame it isn’t a bad thing to be background people. Those with a quiet but firm faith are the bedrock of the Church. They seek nothing more than to proclaim Jesus, not necessarily in words or spectacular deeds but with a fidelity towards Him which simply shouts faith in all they do and are. In Josefina’s statues Joseph comes across as a dependable, caring and protective parent. If I could choose a guardian angel, it would be like him.
It is good to think of him as the dependable one who may be in the background but whose care of Jesus and Mary is truly godly. Joseph, who can be relied upon and sought nothing for himself. Does that describe you?
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.
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.
Cartmel Priory | They Fled by Night – Josefina de Vasconcellos photo – Mr G.
photo: Mary with Jesus, dove and cat! bas-relief statue by Josefina de Vasconcellos commissioned for the Lady Chapel of St. John the Baptist Parish Church, Epping
A sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent, preached by my friend, The Revd Beth Joss-Pothen in St. Mary-at-Latton, Harlow.
May God be in all our heads, in all our minds, in all our hearts, and in all our understanding. Amen
I’m going to start, much as we often start proceedings as a church, with a confession. I wrote a lot of notes for this sermon. Notes about hope, and resilience, about the bravery of Mary and the dawn of Christmas that we are just beginning to see peeping through the darkness and anticipation of Advent. I even had an admittedly tenuous Taylor Swift reference lined up and ready to go.
However, then 4pm yesterday rolled around. We were all introduced to the brave new world of Tier 4, scuppered Christmas plans, I suspect many tears and fresh, acute, crushing disappointment, at the end of a year that has dealt a so many people so many blows in such quick succession. Reminiscient of the first lockdown back in March, there is fear and uncertainty about what lies ahead of us, frustration, despair, worry and anger. It felt and still feels difficult to offer the hope of Advent, and of Christmas, into this. Optimism, hope, a light at the end of a tunnel have to be searched for that bit harder.
So here I am to offer you my own version of that search, that dig into ourselves we all must do sometimes to find the will to go on, and forage for the light with uncertain prospects. And who better to help us with that than Mary? She is arguably our resident expert in how to make the best of a new, terrifying, confusing situation. And she is not alone, everything about the Gospel story of the Annunciation has shared properties with the prophetic calls of the Old Testament. In this, Mary joins the illustrious company of Abraham, Moses, Isaiah, Jael, Miriam and others, being moved to say and do what the Lord commands. The words ‘The Lord is with you’ has echoes of these very same people, prophets and warriors and visionaries, being told to do various things, go and liberate, go and preach, go and strike through the head with a tent peg. Maybe not that last one!
And yet Mary’s call as described to us here is distinct. We hear how Gabriel offers no qualification for Mary’s favour, only that she has it, that it is of God. She already has everything that God requires, all that is needed is her acceptance, her choice, to become the God-bearer. We hear how Gabriel painstakingly lays out what her acceptance would mean for her people. We hear how, for all the shock and confusion, there is also gentleness and patience, as Mary is told of another, her cousin, who may be able to shed light into her situation and offer her love and solace in the magnitude of what has taken place.
And finally, we hear her yes. ‘Here I am, a servant of the Lord. Let it be with me according to your word.’ Her response rings with the response of Isaiah 6, of Moses at the Burning Bush, and yet it is different through its unconditionality. Her response is radical not just because she agrees, but because she agrees after hearing what will happen, rather than before. She hears Gabriel out, realises the task is vast, almost beyond comprehension and will cost her greatly, but accepts nonetheless. She does not object or change her mind, as Isaiah and Moses both did at various points, she continues, steadfast and dignified. Gabriel leaves, our reading ends. But for Mary, all at once, everything is different. The world is a changed place. In a very real sense, that moment marked the beginning of her own unique solitude. Forever afterwards, she bore a son only she and God would fully understand. Only she knew what it was to carry Him, nourish and love him.
I often wonder what she did in the liminal, fragile space immediately afterwards. Did she run outside? Feign going to the well so she could be alone with her thoughts? Did she long for a friend? Did she run to the Temple and pray? We will never know, we can only imagine, but the image remains. What do we do in the aftermath of such news? What did Mary do in what could only be considered her own personal Advent? One thing is for certain, life was never the same, and the biggest step had already been taken. In a very real sense, Mary’s yes was the ultimate experiment in not fully reading the terms and conditions, the biggest gamble in all of human history. A yes, offered with thought, but with no other foundation other than faith in God to see her through.
Perhaps we read this and think we could never do such a thing, that we aren’t brave enough, but I’ll warrant in some way we have all had those moments of pure courage, stalwarted by faith in God. Marriage and partnership or indeed leaving a marriage or partnership, becoming a parent or guardian, moving home or job. These are all gambles that we sometimes hold together and follow through on with little else other than our faith to anchor us. We cling on as best we can, and say to God in our own way; Here I am, let it be with me according to your word.’
Mary was no different. Much of Western art and indeed a lot of Western theology around Mary centres around her perfection, her purity, her unblemished-ness. She is rarefied, held aloft as an example of perfect womanhood, perfect motherhood. Some writers have even proclaimed that angels helped her with housework and chores, such was the level to which she was no longer preoccupied with the human things of life after birthing Christ! But I think this is erroneous. After all, just as those prophets and visionaries before her, Mary, remained an ordinary human woman, called to a life she didn’t fully understand, and like the rest of us, feeling our way through with faith. Only her son, Emmanuel, God with us, Jesus Christ, fully knew the depth of what it was to be both human and divine.
I started off today by saying that all my notes about hope and resilience and the dawn of Christmas felt harder to deliver than ever. And I promised to offer up the results of my own digging, my own confusion and searching. So here goes:
I have concluded that getting a blessing is not the same as getting a present. God’s favour doesn’t always feel good, and whilst following our callings in life will change our circumstances and who we are surrounded by, faith will not protect us altogether. For this, Mary is our example. Whilst her faith and her favour led her to bravery, and the world to salvation, I imagine she may not have felt all that blessed when Joseph planned to leave her, when she laboured on a stable floor, or when she watched Jesus die.
Our own struggles of hope and optimism does not mean that hope or optimism cease to exist. If anything, what Advent and Christmas ought to teach us is that God is constantly present. Remaking, renewing, rebirthing. What we celebrate every year is this reappearance into the world, and the reminder that no matter what, the dawn is coming. In many ways this whole year has felt like an Advent . We are waiting, in the wilderness, in the darkest part of the night. Anticipating a dawn that we are getting glimmers of but cannot yet see our way with. We know it’s there, but there is still a road to go, and it’s rocky and bleak. More and more is being asked of us emotionally, physically, at work or at home, and perhaps we are increasingly running on less and less. Where usually the harder days of life are buoyed and padded by moments of joy and connection, special occasions and days together, this year has meant a lot less is keeping us emotionally afloat. And the background to this toil are tales of unprecedented hardship, woe, and devastation.
And still into all this, our yesses to God, to renewal, to carrying on, to life itself, to the miracle of the incarnation must still resound. May it resound for all of us here today, with those we love and who we cannot be with, and especially today as we prepare to admit our own wonderful Cliff and Ruth to baptism. What joy and what happiness this is, that we are still permitted. What an admission of hope and life in Christ, foretold by John, brought to birth by Mary and baptised with water and the Spirit.
May you know the truth, that as Gregory of Nyssa wrote ‘ What was achieved in the body of Mary, will happen in the souls of all who receive the Word.’
Josefina on the meaning of her statue St. Michael (1991)
“Soul is form and doth the body make.”
My friends ask me the meaning of some of my works. Take St. Michael – He is battling his way through the abstract jaws of the Dragon (beautiful “Lucifer son of the morning made hideous by hate and pride”) and shows that what is seen of evil is not the worst. St. Michael is battling his way through the unseen thoughts, feelings, vibes, powers. He’s a sort of “God’s Ariel” and I hope you’ll find the laughter hidden in him? I often see courage and laughter marching together – and the beauty in it reminiscent of some words in a prayer, “high hearted happiness”.
Josephina de Vasconcellos FRBS. AWG. IPI. Hon Ditt.