God the Fugitive

Today we celebrate the Feast of Epiphany! Following a star, Magi from the East came to worship the Christ Child. This season in the church year invites us to witness the manifestation of Christ to the world. (Epiphany, by the way, is also a season; it begins today and ends, in some churches, the day before Ash Wednesday.)

Shortly after the Magi visited Jesus, an angel 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.” (Matthew 2:13) Joseph and his family escaped in the night in an event often referred to as the Flight into Egypt.

Giotto, Flight into Egypt, Srovegni Chapel, ca. 1304-1306

During this time of year, differing interpretations of the Flight into Egypt begin “flying” around, many concerning the status of Jesus and his family as refugees. Some say that Jesus was a refugee because he fled government persecution. Others counter he wasn’t a refugee because, technically, he didn’t flee to a foreign country.

I think the terms and technicalities sometimes trip us up. In her book, The God Who Sees, author and immigration activist Karen Gonzalez notes that the ancient world did not have the same concept of and fixation on borders as we do today. So, where Jesus went is perhaps less important than why: Jesus and his parents fled persecution from a ruler, finding refuge in a land not their home. Gonzalez says, “In modern terms, we would say that Jesus and his parents are refugees.”

One of my favorite medieval authors, Jean Gerson, states this in a very striking way. Gerson was a fifteenth-century French scholar and the chancellor of the University of Paris. In ca. 1415, he wrote a narrative poem, the Josephina, celebrating the life and faith of Jesus’ earthly father, St. Joseph. The poem includes all kinds of scenes about the daily life of the holy family. And it begins with the Flight into Egypt. Towards the beginning of the poem, Gerson makes a statement that stopped me cold when I first read it:

“Deus est fugitivus et advena.” Let’s look at the terms in this statement. Fugitivus means fugitive. Advena means foreigner or stranger. Hence we have the striking pronouncement:

God is a fugitive and a foreigner.

I’ve often wondered why Gerson uses the term “fugitive.” We often think of a fugitive as someone who flees “the long arm of the law.” But it can also describe a person who flees to escape danger or persecution. Merriam-Webster suggests “refugee” as a synonym.

I also think it’s important that in the passage, Gerson uses the word “Deus” instead of “Christus” or “Jesus.” Jesus and God are, of course, one and the same, but the name “God” carries huge implications. God, as in – the Lord Almighty. The Creator. The God of the universe. So think about that for a minute: The God of the universe became a fugitive.

And it’s not just God who needs and seeks refuge. After the Holy Family arrives in Egypt, Gerson writes that each one of us is like them—we are strangers and foreigners.

Whoever you are, deeply longing to be citizens of the heavenly country,
act in this way,
thus remembering to contemplate the fact that you are a foreigner.
Let Christ, Joseph, and Mary be an example to you.

As fugitives who had to settle in a land not their own, the Holy Family are to be examples for every Christian. We are all strangers passing through this world.

The Flight into Egypt also shows us that God identifies very strongly with strangers on the margins of the world—with the persecuted, the powerless, the poor, the refugees, and the fugitives. We are to see Jesus in them. Gonzalez says, “Jesus reminds us in Matthew 25 that when we welcome foreigners and others in vulnerable situations, we welcome him.”

Let us remember that during this season. As we reflect on the Flight into Egypt —

May we see our fugitive selves in Jesus.
May we see Jesus in our fugitive neighbors.
May we see God’s heart for all those on the margins of this great big world.

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Note: For Gerson’s poem, see Brian Patrick McGuire’s essay in The Making of Christian Communities in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages (pp. 131-152). I would also like to thank Randy Blacketer for his translation of some of Gerson’s Latin text.