I bought the UNICEF Christmas card with Grillo’s painting more than thirty years ago, and it continues to be one of my most cherished depictions of Jesus. As a work of art, it is striking in its composition, color, and emotional impact. As a theological statement, it surpasses most sermons and carols of the season.
By depicting the holy family as African, Grillo expresses the principle of incarnation. In Jesus, God comes to each of us in a humanity that is exactly like our own—Nigerian, Chinese, American, Albanian, Korean.
By putting Jesus and his parents on a bicycle—all three of them on one bike intended for one rider—the artist conveys their poverty in a way that people of many cultures understand. When all of a family’s possessions can be contained in a box hanging from the saddle, life is being lived on the edge.
The bicycle overcomes the time barrier. Of course, Joseph didn’t have a bike (or that kind of hand saw, either). It doesn’t matter. The holy family of Bethlehem comes to life anew in every time and place, in modes that are characteristic of life right now.
Even if we did not know the story that the painting depicts, the portrait is eloquent in its implications. The biblical narrative, told in Matthew 2:13-23, conveys the terror that forced Joseph to hurry southward into hiding in Egypt rather than returning to his Nazareth home in the north. For the first two years of his life, Jesus lived as a refugee far from home.
It could be said that he is always a refugee. “This world is not my home,” the Spiritual tells us. It wasn’t Jesus’ home, either. Yet, he came to live among us, “full of grace and truth,” experiencing the fullness of life, its high moments and its times of despair. No matter where we are going, irrespective of our mode of travel, the Incarnate One, whose first trip was on a bicycle, travels with us.
Thank you, Yusuf Grillo, for helping us to draw closer to Jesus, the babe of Bethlehem, and Egypt, and everywhere.