Last year I posted a short piece reflecting on the use of the Bible in the debate concerning the refugee crisis: Migrants, Refugees and the search for a Biblical Perspective. Tragically, fourteen months later, the crisis shows no signs of abating and political solutions remain (largely) incoherent and confused. In the light of this, I have become increasingly aware of the application of a relatively new narrative to the traditional nativity story. This has been particularly pronounced in the use of memes on social networking sites and exemplifies the plasticity of this story and the way that it can be adapted to provide powerful messages that address specific issues and needs.
As part of the CCRS programme I regularly take a couple of sessions where we compare and contrast the canonical birth narratives and students almost overwhelming state that they prefer Luke’s account because they find it more applicable to them and to contemporary society. When asked to explain further, they generally point to the ‘humble setting’ of Jesus’ birth, and the identification with the poor and socially disadvantaged. There appears to be little room for the ‘kings’ (or more accurately, magi) in our modern day nativities!
Luke and the modern nativity
This preference for Luke’s narrative – or those specifically Lukan motifs – within the modern nativity account of deprivation and disadvantage, is reflected in the way that the nativity has been portrayed recently, often promoting a powerful socially-aware message.
Within the UK there has long been an association between Christmas and initiatives to help the homeless (for example, the longstanding BBC’s Christmas Appeal with St Martin in the Fields ). Luke’s emphasis on homelessness, as well as deprivation and marginalisation, has been a rich source for re-imagining the nativity – often with a provocative and subversive subtext that challenges, not just traditional ideas of the nativity, but wider social attitudes and prejudices. It is also important to note that the relative comforts of the ‘inn’ have been eschewed for even more basic settings suggested by Luke’s reference to φάτνη (fatne) – ‘manger’.
Refugees enter Christmas
However, the theme of homelessness has been recently adapted to address the plight of refugees and the debate concerning how Western nations should respond. Across social media, numerous memes have been circulating that create a link between Jesus’ birth and refugee status.
The majority of memes tend present the experiences of Mary and Joseph, and birth of Jesus in the context of displacement (i.e homeless). The majority also emphasise the ethnicity of Mary, Joseph and Jesus. This is illustrated by the example from the Being Liberal Facebook page (2015) that seeks to make a clear link between the Middle Eastern origins of Mary and Joseph and their need for refuge and shelter. Although the meme does not overtly refer to the Syrian refugee crisis, it leaves the reader to make that connection.
The predominant message promoted through these memes is the apparent inconsistency with celebrating the birth of Jesus (and recognising the conditions into which he was born), and holding a view that support/help for those who are displaced should be restricted or in someway controlled.
Many of the memes feature traditional nativity tableaux (like the image below). Although not necessarily reflecting the biblical accounts, the use of this type of image is important in conveying the intended message as it directly appeals to the culturally embedded narrative that informs the modern understanding of the Christmas story. The use of updated (or re-imagined) images (like those featured above) could evoke challenges of political revisionism.
The wording does not provide any form of explanation, rather it challenges the viewer concerning an assumed knowledge. The creator takes the role of expert commenter who knows the ‘true’ story behind the nativity.
Many memes include the use of deliberately ironic language. The choice of image in this very popular meme is, again, instructive and draws heavily on the Lukan version – only the hint of the star (suggested by the vertical beams of light) reflect Matthew’s account. Moreover, the harshness of the setting is accentuated even further; the stable (developed from Luke’s reference to ‘manger’) has now been replaced by the cave of the Protevangelium of James and taken up within the Orthodox tradition.
The image below uses satire to recast the nativity in light of the refugee crisis. There is still the unchallenged claim that Mary and Joseph (and, by association, their baby) were refugees. However, the use of the Daily Mail, a tabloid newspaper in the UK renowned for its highly critical stance on UK/EU immigration policy and the treatment of refugees, provides an effective means to convey its message. The spoof version highlights many of the trigger-points in the debate and are frequently featured in the paper (welfare and benefit cheats, economic migrancy, house-prices, tax payments, morality).
The motif of a cave is also used in another popular meme that is predominantly Lukan in the image it portrays. However, although robustly stated, there is some ambiguity about its message. There is no overt claim that any of the figures in this picture are refugees and it is not clear in what sense the statement ‘you don’t get to celebrate Christmas’ means. It could be an appeal to be hospitable and offer refuge and aid to any in need and that refugees, as some of those who are most in need, should not be denied. Whether the creator means that refusal to offer shelter disqualifies you from properly celebrating Christmas or whether it means that you simply don’t understand what Christmas means (perhaps both) is left for the viewer to judge.
Merging two narratives
Although relating to the ethnicity of those featured in the biblical nativity accounts, the inclusion of ‘refugees’ in the cartoon below is indicative of the way in which the joint narratives (nativity and refugees) have recently merged.
A similar meme, paralleling the Daily Mail spoof front page image, but this time with the addition of ‘unwed mothers’. What is interesting about both pictures is that they are designed to be instantly identitiable as the ‘nativity scene’ and yet, apart from the manger and star, none of the details derive from the biblical narratives. This ability to be developed and adapted is one reason why texts like this have remained so useful and powerful in presenting different messages.
The images above indicate that it is the themes from Luke’s account, relating to the unfavourable conditions in which Jesus was born, are used to force a link between apparent homelessness and nationally displaced refugees. However, there is another strand that employs another Lukan theme (also not found in Matthew) concerning the journey of Mary and Joseph from Nazareth to Bethlehem (Lk 2:4). This group tends to use the traditional image of Joseph leading the donkey on which a heavily pregnant Mary is riding (although Luke makes no mention of a donkey) and re-imagine it by setting it within contemporary geo-political landscapes in order to highlight the relationship between them and the plight of refugees.
From a textual perspective, using Luke in this way creates problems. There is absolutely no suggestion in Luke that either Mary and Joseph were refugees or even internally displaced. In fact, Luke specifically mentions that the reason for Mary and Joseph’s journey was that they were obeying a civic edict – in other words, they were complying with the political and civil authorities that would maintain their rights to be citizens. One could also challenge the claim of homelessness, but examining Luke’s use of κατάλυμα (kataluma) and the problems of translating it as ‘inn’ rather than ‘guest room’ or ‘lodging’, as well as the placing of the baby in the manger – there are no indications it was being used at the time!
Whilst it is fair to say that Luke appears to make a deliberate emphasis upon the humble circumstances of Jesus’ birth and that he uses it to inform his presentation of Jesus’ ministry and the Kingdom of God, his version is not particularly suited to depicting Jesus and/or his family as refugees. We have to wait until 9:58 (//Matt 8:20) before Jesus is described as actually being homeless. Therefore, although the emphases and setting would seem to be ideally suited to support the refugee narrative, there is nothing in Luke to suggest that Jesus (or his family) was ever a refugee.
Matthew comes to the rescue
This is not to say that those using the nativity story are necessarily wrong or that this is a misuse of scripture. In fact, a much stronger case can be made from Matthew’s account. Perhaps, not surprisingly, the best use of the biblical nativity account has been made by the Salvation Army as part of their 2015 campaign.
This poster draws attention to the flight of Mary, Joseph and Jesus to Egypt, in order to avoid Herod’s intention to kill Jesus, in Matthew 2:13 (not mentioned in Luke’s account). Although this occurs sometime after the birth of Jesus and is generally not included as part of the ‘traditional’ nativity story retold in school and church plays, it has an important in role in Matthew’s overall narrative.
The Salvation Army are not the only ones to link the refugee crisis more intelligently to the biblical text. Although the image is strikingly familiar, in this picture, Mary is no longer pregnant, but cradling her child. The text then makes a direct reference to their escape from the ‘evil regime’ of Herod the Great.
Another, quite sophisticated, use of Matthew 2:13 is an image produced by ChurchAds (see top image of bus shelter) that is a take on their ‘Christmas starts with Christ‘ campaign. Although there are no overt references to the biblical nativity and the picture not necessarily familiar to everyone, the use of Matthew’s Luc Olivier Merson’s ‘Rest on Flight into Egypt‘ (1879) firmly links the message to Matthew and the nativity.
The final meme that clearly uses the Flight into Egypt motif with the experience of being a refugee is this early example (July 2014) and image and Kangas’ blog Remember that Jesus was an Undocumented Child Refugee uses Matthew’s account as its basis.
The popularity of Luke’s nativity
Noting that the use of nativity-refugee memes drawing upon the Lukan themes of the journey to Bethlehem and ‘homelessness’ have received a fair amount of criticism, it is therefore surprising that they still appear to be much more popular and prevalent (circulating social media sites) than those featuring the Flight into Egypt.
One answer might point to the way in which our modern harmonised story of Jesus’ birth is predominated by Luke’s version; it presents some compellingly vivid, visual and easily recognisable motifs. These motifs have become embedded in the cultural consciousness of the Western notion of the Christmas story. The question remains as to why Matthew’s version tends not to impact our cultural sensibilities so much, and why the elements of his narrative are not so deeply embedded in our retellings of the story.
Therefore, perhaps, one reason why images of Matthew’s Flight into Egypt are not so frequently incorporated into refugee-nativity memes is because they are not so recognisably part of the ‘Christmas story’ (or perhaps not so recognisable, full stop!).
When Jesus is a refugee is there any room left for all those ‘kings’…?