In his 1880 painting, Lucy-Olivier Merson portrayed the Holy Family on their Flight into Egypt. Right away we discern a focus on the themes of rest and light. In the darkness of a starry desert night, the holy child rests on Mary’s lap while she reclines in the Sphinx’s embrace. A glowing light from the holy child illuminates her face, and the chest of the Sphinx.
Like many painters, Merson employs artistic license in the service of theology. The great statue at Giza is not the only Sphinx from ancient Egypt. Yet, the artist likely had it in mind. He portrays it as it might have looked at Jesus’ birth, but in a diminished scale. The actual Giza Sphinx faces east, the direction of the rising sun. And so, in Merson’s painting, the monument is aptly illuminated by the light from the long awaited Morningstar ~ the ‘dawn from on high’ that will break upon us in the Christ child.
The ancient Sphinx’s head cloth and beard are shown intact but chipped, a neglected condition consistent with the drifting sand pushed up against the monument. The face of the figure is distinctively turned upward, we might even say inquiringly, toward the stars above. The figure of Joseph is shown asleep. His head is covered and his eyes shielded from the image of the ancient Egyptian divinity. And yet, his heart and mind remain open to angelic messengers. His inner spirit is attuned to the God who called him here, while the embers of the small fire emit a wisp of smoke, moving skyward in the dark night. With both the face of the child, and the depiction of the fire, Merson reminds us of the Light that shines in the darkness. The vocation of this Light is to illumine all people, in clear contrast to the idols of this world.
Merson’s painting can help us perceive how we often rest upon the natural and humanly-made things of this world ~ upon the monuments and achievements of our forebears as well as upon the comfort and beauty of places we love. But we must not cling to them! For we are now a covenant people, called to live in a new and promised land. Not a dwelling place we can see or touch, but one that is nevertheless real. The full dimensions, meaning and purpose of this promised land are not yet apparent, but remain articles of promise and a source of continuing epiphany and disclosure.
Being members of the Body of Christ, and of the renewed Israel, we have been called out. We have been called out of many forms of ‘Egypt,’ to live in a new and promised land. This journey challenges us to grow and change, rather than remain comfortable where we are. Yet, we find lots of ways to rationalize the continuing rule of the Pharaohs of this world. Too easily we make ourselves at home within the sheltering embrace of stone-cold and decaying kingdoms. But the God who calls us to journey through darkness is also the God who speaks to us through angels at night.
The image above is of Luc-Olivier Merson’s, Rest on the Flight into Egypt. This post is based on my homily for the second Sunday after Christmas Day, January 5, 2020, which can be accessed by clicking here. Other homilies of mine may be accessed by clicking here. The Revised Common Lectionary, which provides the readings for Sundays and other Holy Days, can be accessed by clicking here.
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