ROME — The Vatican lit up the figures of Mary, Joseph, and Jesus in a sculpture of migrants and refugees Friday to highlight their status as immigrants.
On Friday afternoon, the Vatican unveiled its Nativity scene and the Christmas tree set up in St. Peter’s Square. During the same event, the figure of the Holy Family represented in the massive Angels Unawares migrant sculpture was illuminated.
The bronze sculpture, which depicts a boat with a group of migrants and refugees from different cultural and racial backgrounds and from various historical periods, received “a particular lighting aimed at the three figures that reproduce the Holy Family of Nazareth,” the Vatican’s office for Migrants and Refugees announced.
It is “a sign to highlight the profound meaning of Christmas and to remember that Jesus too, with Mary [and] Joseph, was a migrant, fleeing to save his life,” it declared in a statement.
In September 2019, Pope Francis unveiled the massive bronze sculpture depicting 140 migrants in Saint Peter’s Square in the Vatican, the first sculpture to be installed in the piazza in more than 400 years.
The Vatican’s Office for Migrants and Refugees commissioned the 20-foot tall, 3.5-ton bronze sculpture from Canadian artist Timothy Schmalz.
The migrant sculpture bears the title “Angels Unaware” in reference to the biblical passage from the Epistle to the Hebrews: “Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.”
The artist said the figures in the sculpture represent “a tapestry of people from all historical periods of time. From ancient migrant people to indigenous migrant people to contemporary Syrians and Africans.” He chose the number of 140 figures to create a symmetry with the 140 columns along Bernini’s colonnade.
Pope Francis told pilgrims gathered in Saint Peter’s Square this past September that he had dedicated his Message for the commemoration of the World Day of Migrants and Refugees “to the internally displaced, who are forced to flee, as also happened to Jesus and his family. ‘Like Jesus, forced to flee,’ likewise the displaced, migrants.”
Pope Francis has often compared migrants to Jesus Christ, suggesting the cold welcome Christ received upon entering the world is similar to the reception many migrants experience.
“Jesus knows well the pain of not being welcomed,” the pope said in a 2018 tweet for International Migrants’ Day. “May our hearts not be closed as were the houses in Bethlehem.”
During the flight into Egypt, “the child Jesus experienced with his parents the tragic fate of the displaced and refugees,” Francis said earlier this year, “which is marked by fear, uncertainty and unease.”
“Unfortunately, in our own times, millions of families can identify with this sad reality,” Francis said. “Almost every day the television and papers carry news of refugees fleeing from hunger, war and other grave dangers, in search of security and a dignified life for themselves and for their families.”
“In each of these people, forced to flee to safety, Jesus is present as he was at the time of Herod,” he continued. “In the faces of the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the sick, strangers and prisoners, we are called to see the face of Christ who pleads with us to help.”
“If we can recognize him in those faces, we will be the ones to thank him for having been able to meet, love and serve him in them,” he said.
When Pope Francis compared the Holy Family’s trip to Bethlehem to international migrants, a number of attentive social media users pointed out that Joseph and Mary were not immigrants in Bethlehem, but were, in fact, returning to Joseph’s hometown of Bethlehem to be counted and taxed as Roman subjects.
Others noted the houses in Bethlehem were not “closed,” but were full because of the large number of citizens returning to their ancestral home for the imperial census.
Pope Francis has made immigration a central plank of his papal platform, encouraging nations to be more inviting to migrants, while asserting that a failure to welcome migrants is rooted in selfishness and fueled by “populist rhetoric.”