What is the abiding image of 2015? One picture turned the political tide in Europe. In early September the body of a drowned toddler washed up on a Turkish beach. The shocking photograph of Aylan Kudi’s little body, face-down in the sand, came to symbolize the desperate plight of refugees. Within 12 hours the image was seen by an estimated 20 million people and shamed European governments into taking action. It was no longer acceptable to speak about those fleeing war as a ‘swarm’ or ‘flood’. Humanity broke through in the image. It was deeply moving. It was a picture that changed everything.
One church, San Anton in downtown Madrid incorporated this image in their adaptation of a Nativity Crib. The figure of Aylan takes the place of the baby Jesus while his grief-stricken parents replace Mary and Joseph. Instead of a stable, the trio are sheltered by a refugee tent with reproductions of drawings by refugee children of their journeys. They stand on a map of the perilous journeys those feeling war take today.
Is this what you expect of the church at Christmas? Doesn’t it ruin the festive atmosphere?
The answer depends on whether your version of Christmas comes from a ‘disneyfied’ school nativity play or from the real Bible story. Matthew’s gospel follows the story of the mysterious Magi (decorative and exotic on a Christmas cards near you) with a much darker story – a power-crazy despot, the slaughter of innocent children and a family forced to flee by crossing dangerous international borders. In the middle of this story of politics and massacre are a little refugee family – Joseph, Mary and their toddler, Jesus.
It’s not the most popular scene for a card and not many Primary School drama teachers dress their little charges as child-killing soldiers to run amok in the school hall. But it is authentically Christmas. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=matthew+2%3A13-21&version=NLT
I think the church in Madrid got it right. The Christmas story is far from child’s play. It forces us to address all manner of prejudices. The angelic invitation of filthy shepherds asks us to consider whether we are really qualified to say who God calls dirty? The inclusion of the Magi disturbs our ideas of insiders and outsiders, and whether revelation adheres to tidy religious boundaries. The Escape to Egypt surely also asks us to look again at Jesus and see a refugee child. And to look at the refugee and see Jesus. How can we not show compassion and confer a proper sense of dignity to today’s refugees, children like Aylan, when their experience is part of our Holy Family’s?