Rest on the Flight to Egypt

The Advent Season begins today.

In my blog header you'll see that I'm using Luc Olivier Merson's Rest on the Flight into Egypt (1879) as my Advent banner.

This is one of my favorite Advent paintings.

I love Rest on the Flight into Egypt for a couple of reasons. First, the scene is haunting and full of fatigue. Joseph is asleep on the desert floor. One imagines his mental and physical exhaustion fleeing danger and trying to take his wife and baby across deserts to a foreign land.

And what awaits them at journey's end? Will they find friends in Egypt? Work? And when will it be safe to go back home?

Sitting on the Sphinx, in a striking juxtaposition and lending an exotic touch to the scene, is Mary and the baby.

The baby. The only source of light in the painting.

What I like about Rest on the Flight into Egypt is how it depicts, from the very beginning of his life, the homelessness of the Messiah. God is a refugee, an immigrant, a stranger in a strange land, a person of exile.

Rest on the Flight into Egypt is a model for the life of the church. We are people of exile. Strangers among the nations. All we carry across the wastelands of this earth is the Christ Child. We have nothing else to offer.

This note is echoed in John Howard Yoder's book The Jewish-Christian Schism Revisited where he suggests that the church should model its existence after the Jewish diaspora. The church is to embrace a "cosmopolitan homelessness" and accept "dispersion" among the nations as a part of its "mission." The church is to embrace "galut as calling." Galut is a Hebrew word for the situation of living in a state of exile or homelessness. I think Rest on the Flight into Egypt vividly captures the experience of galut.

Yoder uses the phrase "galut as calling" to describe the landless missionary existence of Christians. The biblical models for this existence in the Old Testament are Joseph, Daniel and Esther. Joseph, Daniel and Esther each lived as exiles, as resident aliens. Each labored alongside the people of a nation to which they did not belong, each working elbow to elbow "seeking the welfare of the city" (Jer. 29.7).

We can add Mary and Joseph to this list while they lived and worked in Egypt with the baby Jesus.

That is my wish for the church this Advent season, that "non-Christians" find us, in every place, working side-by-side with them, as partners, seeking the welfare of the city. The church isn't a fortress or a gated community or a community of snobbish like-mindedness and self-righteousness. The church is a mission as we live in exile among the nations. Purposely scattered, in jobs and neighborhoods across the world, to work alongside our neighbors to bring peace on earth and good will to all.

Wishing you a blessed start to the Advent season.

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6 thoughts on “Rest on the Flight to Egypt”

  1. Beautiful - I love the Jewishness you brought out of this. There is a common understanding among the Jews that the Messiah is identified with the nation of Israel, similar to how Adam is identified with humanity. You make this connection well.

  2. I also like the way the Sphinx seems to be submissively obeying God in sheltering the Chosen One, just as it nurtured infant Israel in the day of Jacob's family. It illustrates that Israel's God is Lord of all, not just a provincial deity.

  3. It's not Advent, but we're fast approaching it for 2012.
    I stumbled upon your blog searching for this painting that my wife loves. We first saw it at a Jesuit retreat center in Sedalia Colorado. 
    Your notion of "galut as calling" puts words to a sentiment that is building within me.  I enjoy travelling, and feel the most free and the most "me" when I'm not at home, even if I'm walking to the grocery store. Some nights I sleep on the sofa to deny the fact that I'm a domestic creature, and try to recapture some of the impetuousness visiting distant friends when I was in graduate school.  Yesterday, in fact, the sentence "Foxes have dens to live in, and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place even to lay his head," seemed to resonate with me. So finding your blog today seemed to affirm this... "calling?"
    I'll have to bookmark this site and may post again if inspired.

  4. As a Jewish convert to Christianity (loooong story :-), I wholeheartedly agree with Russ's comments below regarding your bringing the "Jewishness" out of this painting in your discussion above. When I first learned of the story of the flight into Egypt, I, having hardly any previous knowledge of the New Testament, was very surprised by the irony of going back to Egypt it since the Exodus is all about getting OUT of Egypt...and here we have a reversal. I am so very moved by this painting and your spiritual analysis of it adds deeply to my appreciation of it.  I "discovered" this painting two days ago when my spiritual director described it to me in response to my having shown her two pieces of art that I've done of them is a Sphinx and the other one is a repurposing of the Vatican Pieta, focusing on Mary's mourning. This painting ties together for me the two other pieces that I had been working on in a very beautiful, moving and personal way. And your commentary on the painting...for me, this is just priceless. Thank you, and Happy Advent 2012!

  5. Thank you! It is one of my all-time favorite paintings, too!  I quoted you in a blog I wrote today, because I am facing some of the same things in moving, and leaving what is familiar, and the ending of the Christmas season, etc.  I loved, and deeply related to, what you had to say about this painting, so thank you so much! May God continue to bless your journey.

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