God the Fugitive

On Monday, we celebrated 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 whole world. And, as this post explores, to see his heart for those on the margins of the world.

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.

How are we to think of this event in Jesus’ life? Differing interpretations have been flying around the web, many of them concerning the question of whether, in fleeing to Egypt, Jesus was or was not a refugee. Jesus was a refugee because he fled government persecution. Or. He wasn’t a refugee because, technically, he didn’t flee to a foreign country.

I’m going to call on one of my favorite authors from the Middle Ages to weigh in here: Jean Gerson, a fifteenth-century French scholar and the chancellor of the University of Paris. In ca. 1415, Gerson 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” here. We often think of a fugitive as someone involved in a criminal case and who flees “the long arm of the law” (thank you, Harrison Ford). But it can also describe a person who flees to escape danger or persecution. Merriam-Webster suggests “refugee” as a synonym.

Was Jesus a refugee? Was he, to use a slightly different term, a fugitive? Gerson believes that he was.

Flight into Egypt, Giotto
The Flight into Egypt by Giotto di Bondone (1304–1306, Scrovegni Chapel, Padua)

Perhaps it’s the terms and technicalities that sometimes trip us up. Does it matter whether or not Jesus fled to another country or did/did not cross a particular border? He fled persecution from a ruler and escaped, quietly, hurriedly, in the night, finding refuge in a land not his home. That makes him a fugitive in my (and Gerson’s) book.

I also think it’s important that in the phrase quoted above, 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, foreigners, immigrants.

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 in this world, strangers who walk toward and await their true home.

Yet Gerson also helps us to see that in the Flight, God aligns himself specifically with those on the margins of the world–with the persecuted, the powerless, the poor, the refugees, and, yes, the fugitives.

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.

***

Note: I am no Gerson scholar, and for this post I relied on the work of 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.

 

 

When Jesus Did the Dishes

Last week I wrote about dishwashing as a spiritual discipline. By channeling the wisdom of a Buddhist monk and a medieval master, we can “wash each dish as if it were the baby Jesus.” We introduce tenderness into a chore that usually invites frustration.

Did you know that Jesus himself was said to have done the dishes?

We can thank the Middle Ages for this insight into the Savior’s life. In the fifteenth century, Jean Gerson, chancellor of the University of Paris, wrote a narrative poem called the Josephina. This poem celebrates the life and faith of Jesus’ earthly father, St. Joseph. In the poem, we find all kinds of scenes about the daily life of the holy family, including the boyhood of Jesus. And this brings us to the dishes. Gerson writes:

Thus Christ was subject, as he was to you, Mary and Joseph,
What kind of subjection did he wish for himself?
Was he not showing obedience in your midst, as one who rightly serves?
Carefully and often he lights the fire and prepares the food;
He does the dishes and fetches water from a nearby fountain.
Now he sweeps the house, gives straw and water to the donkey.*

This tidbit about Jesus is, as you’ve doubtlessly realized, extra-Biblical. Gerson uses his imagination to bring to life the Bible’s brief statement that the boy Jesus was obedient to his parents (this was after Jesus was “lost” for three days in Jerusalem–see Luke 2:51).

Gerson’s poem represents the medieval imagination at its finest. Like Ludolph of Saxony’s Life of Christ (discussed in my previous post), it paints a picture of Jesus meant to delight us and to invite us into his daily life.

There’s some good theology behind this and related scenes. Jean Gerson says that there is no better way to soften hard hearts than to see God acting as a child. He wanted to help Christians delight in the boy Jesus and to affirm that God became human—a small human with parents, chores, and child-like faith. Gerson’s imagination is in service of the incarnation.

I think we could use a little more imagination in our faith today. We are so good at studying the Bible. We parse its meaning verse by verse and even word by word. We defend our beliefs with arguments and analysis. We listen to three-point sermons that tell us how to live.

But sometimes, this approach leaves me exhausted. I feel like I’m drowning in interpretation. I recently turned down an invitation to join a Bible study because, frankly, it seemed too labor intensive. It involved too much homework, too many workbooks, and too many lectures. I love God’s word, but sometimes, instead of study guides, I need to be guided to some lighter moments. I need to enjoy my faith and to delight in who Jesus was and is. “God laughs into our soul and our soul laughs back into God,” writes Richard Foster about experiencing delight in our Lord.

Gerson’s poem opens the door to a moment of delight, one I can experience even at the kitchen sink. Thanks to this medieval chancellor, I can no longer do the dishes without imagining the boy Jesus scrubbing away at the nearby fountain. I think of the incarnation, which is good. I remember that Jesus participated fully in the messiness of life.

But more than all that, I smile. I like thinking that God did the washing up, in more ways than one.

***

*Source: Brian Patrick McGuire, “When Jesus Did the Dishes: The Transformation of Late Medieval Spirituality” in The Making of Christian Communities in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages, ed. Mark Williams (London: Anthem Press, 2005), pp. 131-152.