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Good Letters

It has to be one of the most extraordinary Christmas trees ever imagined. Twelve feet high, glowing in brilliant oranges, this “tree” was created by artist Ben Quilty out of the lifejackets of Syrian refugee children who had safely reached the island of Lesbos on boats. For the current Christmas season, this sculpture has been installed inside the entrance of St. Paul’s Cathedral in Melbourne, Australia, because—as the Dean of Melbourne says—it is “a reminder that Jesus and his family became refugees almost immediately after his birth. It is an invitation to us to open our hearts to help people displaced by war and conflict.”

“Jesus and his family became refugees”; indeed they did. Matthew 2:13-15 makes this clear. “An angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.’ Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod.”

Images of the Holy Family in flight have been a favorite among painters for hundreds of years, and still are. What’s new about these images in the past few years, though, is their visual conflation with today’s millions of refugees across the globe.

Artists have found various creative ways to portray this conflation. One is to depict a contemporary family—father with mother holding baby—wearing jeans, T-shirts, and often backpacks, but clearly representing the Holy Family. How is this representation, this conflation, achieved? 

Artist Kelly Latimore, in his painting La Sagrada Familia, does it simply by putting halos around the heads of the three figures. (Of course his title, too, announces the conflation.) A drawing reproduced in Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post in 2016 shows a contemporary father in jeans and sandals with mother holding baby, both running with grim faces past a line of people with backs turned to them, the people’s bodies sketched as a brick wall. The drawing accompanies an article chastising Hong Kong’s government for, yes, turning its back on South Asian refugees trying to find safety in Hong Kong.

Another way that artists have recently been representing the Holy Family as refugees is to start with a biblical-looking Holy Family, often on a donkey. Then they cast this family in a variety of contemporary situations. Barbed wire fencing is sometimes featured. I’ve seen drawings of the biblical Holy Family walking toward a high chain-link fence topped by barbed wire; also the Family standing helplessly behind a similar fence. Other drawings depict the Holy Family running for their lives. A Christmas card produced by Franciscans International in 2011 features the biblical Holy Family on a donkey in the foreground, with a line of clearly contemporary refugees walking across the background. The card’s text reads, “Times have changed… But the fate of refugees remains the same.”

A uniquely compelling representation of the Holy Family as refugees is the current installation outside of Christ Church Cathedral in Indianapolis. This past summer, life-sized statues of Joseph, Mary, and baby Jesus—deliberately in conventional portrayal—were placed on the grass; what isn’t conventional, what immediately shocks, is that they’re surrounded by a real chain-link fence topped by barbed wire. As the Indianapolis Star reported it, the Episcopal church’s rector “said the caged Holy Family is a protest to President Trump’s zero-tolerance policy that is holding families in detention centers at the U.S.-Mexico border.” The Bible tells us “to love our neighbors as ourselves,” the rector added. The priest who originally came up with the idea for this installation, the Rev. Lee Curtis, told the Star, “This family is every family, and every family is holy.” And he quoted Matthew 2:13-14.

Looking at all these installations, paintings, and drawings online, I’m feeling immense gratitude to the religious leaders who commissioned or publicized and distributed them—and of course to the artists who created them. It’s heartening, too, to see (literally) what a powerful role art can play in awakening us afresh to a horrific world-wide political situation, and moving us to act to repair it. 

I try to imagine my own family as the Holy Family. The manger scene I can picture us in; it’s cozy. But the harrowing flight to Egypt? No.

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The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Written by: Peggy Rosenthal

Peggy Rosenthal writes widely on poetry as a spiritual resource. Her books include Praying through Poetry: Hope for Violent Times (Franciscan Media), and The Poets’ Jesus (Oxford). See her Amazon Author Page for a full list. She also teaches an online course, “Poetry as a Spiritual Practice,” through Image’s Glen Online program.

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