“…no crib for a bed, the little Lord Jesus lay down his sweet head…”
Did you know that according to the Bible, Jesus was effectively homeless three times in his life? The first time was when he was born, the second time was shortly after his birth when his family had to flee for his safety, and the third time was when he was an adult travelling from village to village with no fixed abode.
Refugees have been in the news a great deal over the last few years. Each of us will have seen pictures in the news of mothers, fathers and children forced from their homes and risking their lives to get to safety. Mary, Joseph and Jesus were in a very similar situation to the refugees we see in the news.
The weeks leading up to Christmas, and Christmas itself, can feel like a very cosy and ‘enchanting’ time of year. The story of God coming to earth in Jesus is very beautiful but it is also full of a lot of suffering and danger. After the three wise men visited King Herod on their way to baby Jesus, King Herod had all the boys under two years old in the area killed! Angels appeared to the shepherds announcing the news of the special birth of Jesus, but a few months later an angel appeared to Joseph with less joyful news. The angel told him to flee to another country immediately to avoid the young Jesus being murdered!
When they [the Magi] had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him. So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod. Matthew 2:13-15
The ‘flight into Egypt’ is the theme of this set of pictures. But there is a twist. The Bible tells us that the Holy Family sought asylum in Egypt but in these pictures I imagine them crossing the Mediterranean and seeking asylum in Leicester. Each of these pictures of the Holy Family uses a photograph from Syria or the Mediterranean Sea or Leicester in the background. By doing this, I have allowed the story of Mary, Joseph and Jesus as refugees to overlap in picture form with the realities of present day refugees fleeing to this country for safety. With this exhibition my hope is to bring to life the fact that Jesus and his parents were refugees themselves, and to emphasise that what they went through had similarities to what thousands around the world, and many in our own city, are going through this very day.
1 It’s Time to Run
Joseph was warned by an angel to flee immediately. In this picture I imagine Mary and Joseph the morning after their initial overnight escape. Mary is trying to hide Jesus as they begin their long refugee journey to safety. I imagine them reading the news in a neighbouring town. (The news stand in the photograph is a news stand in Syria.) They read that, just as the angel had warned, hundreds of young boys had been murdered in the place they had been happily living in a few hours previously. Most refugees don’t get pre-warned of danger by an angel. They find out about their need to flee when bombs and missiles start to hit nearby homes and hospitals, when there is no longer food available in the local shops, when colleagues, friends and family members have already been killed.
Question: How would you feel if the place you called home, the place that you loved and in which you had so many family members and friends, was suddenly no longer safe to live in?
2 Leaving With Barely Anything
In this picture I superimposed figures of the Holy Family onto a photograph of the war-ravaged city of Homs in Syria. You can tell from the photograph that the city has been evacuated.
Every refugee will remember that day when they said goodbye to their home town, village or city, unsure if they would ever see it again. They would only have been able to take with them the few things they could carry.
Question: If you suddenly had to evacuate your home town on foot this very night and if you could only take with you what you could carry, what would you pack?
3 Rough Sleeping while Caring for a Baby
It would have taken Mary and Joseph many days to get to Egypt. Did they have enough money to buy food and stay at inns en route? Or did they go hungry for much of the journey and end up having to sleep outdoors several times?
We are used to seeing depictions of Mary holding baby Jesus in a safe and beautiful environment. I created this picture of a homeless Mary sat in a doorway with a sleeping bag as a contrast. It’s likely that there was more than one night in their lives when she and Joseph ended up rough sleeping with baby Jesus. This picture reminds us that Mary can identify with a lot of the hardship and suffering that thousands of mothers around the world are going through. As Jesus’ mother there were times when she knew poverty, homelessness, and a mother’s anxious concern for the welfare and survival of her child. Eventually she also endured the horror of the death of her son.
Question: What would be your main concerns and priorities if you were a refugee having to flee to safety with your own baby or young child?
4 Open the Border
The journey from Palestine down to the North East of Egypt is around 340 miles. That’s the same distance as travelling from the south of Scotland to London. It could take about 3 weeks of walking on uneven terrain. Many refugees travel far greater distances than that.
Mary, Joseph and Jesus were allowed into Egypt, but the refugee crisis of the last few years has provoked many discussions and concerns about border control.
Question: How would you feel as a refugee if after such as long, difficult and dangerous journey, you finally reached a safer country but you were turned away at the border?
5 The Wilderness and ‘The Jungle’
If you are fleeing for safety but you are not let in through a country’s border, you might be forced into the nearby countryside or wilderness, or you might find yourself camping near the border hoping for an opportunity to cross. It’s one thing being homeless in a city. It’s another thing being homeless in the middle of nowhere or in a refugee camp.
Many refugees have known long periods of trying to survive with little food or means of cooking, little water, little shelter from the elements, and little heating. This may well have been the experience of Mary, Joseph and Jesus as they traveled to Egypt.
Question: Refugees often leave one set of dangers for another. What dangers do you think refugees face even in refugee camps?
6 A Life Threatening Sea Crossing
When I created these pictures, stories of desperate refugees dying in the Mediterranean and Aegean seas were frequently making news headlines. It is the child refugees who are the least likely to survive these perilous journeys. The photographs of the three year old Syrian boy, Alan Kurdi, washed up on the beach had a huge impact on people around the world.
I made this picture to highlight the connections between young Jesus and young Alan Kurdi. When Jesus’ family fled with him to Egypt, he wouldn’t have been much younger than Alan. In fact the young Jesus would have looked similar to Alan, being from a country not far from present day Syria. In many ways Mary, Joseph and Jesus were from a similar culture to Alan and his parents, and many others who risk their lives attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea.
Question: What effect does it have on you when you acknowledge that Mary, Joseph and Jesus were from the Middle East and that their actual names were Miriam, Yosef and Yeshua?
7 Making an Asylum Application in a Foreign Country
In this picture I imagine Joseph at the Asylum Intake Unit in Croydon, waiting to register his asylum application. He is worn out from hunger, physical exertion, sleepless nights and concern for his family. In this picture I portray him praying to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob for help and encouragement.
I imagine it was really difficult for Joseph. He used to be an accomplished craftsman and businessman, well known in his community. Now he is suddenly in a foreign country, not able to speak the language, not able to work in the area of his expertise at the moment, and not able to be the bread winner for his family. He has suddenly gone from being an accomplished carpenter to being homeless and dependent. He was well thought of back home but he isn’t here. He could articulate himself very well back home but here the non-Jewish locals think he is simple and look down on him because he can only speak a few words in their language.
Question: If you were in a similar situation to the one described above, how would it affect your confidence and self esteem?
8 Refugees Welcome
In this picture I imagine Mary, Joseph and Jesus finally arriving in this city after their long journey. In our present context, organisations and charities such as The British Red Cross, City of Sanctuary and The Welcome Project are very attuned to the kinds of support that asylum seekers need. Mary, Joseph and Jesus wouldn’t have had that kind of support.
Arriving in Egypt must have had many difficulties for Mary and Joseph. They may have struggled to make themselves understood. It may have been difficult for Joseph to set up a carpentry business in a foreign country. It may have been very hard for Mary to find other women to befriend and to talk with about all that she had been through. It may have also been painful to seek asylum in the very country that had oppressed their ancestors and that their ancestors had been rescued from.
Question: Can you recall a time when you were in a very different culture from your own, or when you couldn’t find a single person you could relate to or talk to? How did it feel?
9 Keeping Your Identity in a Foreign Land
In this picture I portray Joseph holding Jesus tight as he collects some donations of bedding for Mary and himself, and bigger toddler clothes for Jesus.
I imagine that as a devout Jew, Joseph had been looking forward to bringing up Jesus in the Jewish culture, prayers, and religious observances. I imagine he had been looking forward to frequently taking Jesus to the temple in Jerusalem. As well as being away from home and away from his own culture, Joseph was suddenly away from his spiritual home and cut off from his religious community. There were a few Jews and synagogues in Egypt but with Egyptian culture and Egyptian gods predominant, he and Mary would have had to make an extra effort to help their young son grow up with a strong Jewish and Judean identity.
Question: When the Holy Family had to flee to Egypt, Jesus was around one year old. He may have been as old as ten or eleven when it was finally safe for his family to return to their native country, where they settled in Nazareth. How do you think that growing up as a child refugee affected Jesus’ identity and values as an adult?
10 Seeing Mary, Joseph and Jesus in Present Day Refugees
Have you been struck by the connections between the Holy Family fleeing to safety two thousand years ago, and the many refugees fleeing to safety in our present day? Not all refugees are from the Middle East. We know that Syria and Calais are often in the news but thousands of refugees are forced to flee from many other parts of the world. Their lives might be at risk because of war, or because of their religion, their sexual orientation, their political views or their desire to speak out against corruption.
There is a long Christian tradition of seeing others and helping others as if they were Jesus himself. Jesus once said that when we give someone food or clothing or help them in any other way, we do it for him.
“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ Matthew 25:37-40
When we welcome and support refugees and asylum seekers, we can help them as if we were helping Jesus himself. But what is more – Jesus and his parents actually were refugees themselves, empathising with many of the difficult experiences that refugees have to go through.
Question: Has this exhibition changed your thoughts or feelings about asylum seekers and refugees? Has it changed your thoughts or feelings about Mary, Joseph and Jesus?