St Stephen’s Lewisham

Christmas Day 2006

Get the Picture?

The word ‘picture’ suggests three things:

  • A photograph (‘that’s a picture of Auntie Ethel when she was a baby’)

  • A film (‘let’s go to the pictures tonight’)

  • A painting (‘that picture’s by Gainsborough’)

  • These three senses of the word ‘picture’ describe three quite different things:

  • A photograph shows us exactly how someone looked at the moment it was taken

  • A film shows us a moving image of what someone did over a period of time

  • A painting shows us how the artist himself saw and interpreted the person he was painting.

  • Now, when it comes to thinking about God we are almost totally dependent upon picture language. The Bible is full of images about God – King, Shepherd, Father, Son, Judge, Saviour are just a few. And because they are images, they will never be anything more than approximations – although very useful approximations – to the truth.

    No doubt some images speak more directly to some people than to others. But trying to understand what we believe to be the truth about God will, in the end, come down to using picture-language. Of course there are phrases like Three in One and One in Three which come closer to the truth than any given image, but they aren’t much of a help, however close to the truth they are, to people like you and me who are only of average intelligence.

    Now just as we have seen that ‘picture’ can apply to three different kinds of image, photo, film and painting, the same is true of the pictures that we are supplied with in learning about God. If we confine ourselves to one kind of picture then we shall almost certainly learn less than if we use all three.

    So let us look at how these three types of picture language work. For example the picture of God as Son:

    At this season of Christmas the picture of God the Son that most people have in their minds will be that of the baby Jesus lying in the manger, or perhaps being cradled in Mary’s arms that we see portrayed in so many Christmas cards.

    That’s what we might call a ‘photograph’ picture. None the worse for that, and it helps us to remember that it is a fact of history that it was at this Season God chose to become Man, being born as an Infant the same way that we were, with a human Mother and into a Family. And the Christmas Crib at the back of the Church is a three-dimensional reminder of this fact.

    But now try and turn that into a ‘moving picture’ – imagine Mary and Joseph arriving at the inn; the innkeeper telling them that there was no room for them; his wife showing them the outhouse where the animals were; Mary laying the new-born child gently in the manger; the cattle making their usual animal noises and smells; the shepherds arriving inconveniently just at the moment when everyone, the Baby included, had at last managed to get to sleep; the song of the angels outside; Joseph looking up into the sky to see the amazing sight.

    Do you see how we have enriched the whole picture by turning it into a movie?

    Then go on to the third stage and imagine that you are a Christian artist trying to convey what you see in your imagination onto canvas.

    It’s not the same thing as a photograph. You are an intelligent human being, not a camera. The camera can only portray what it actually sees without the benefit of any intelligence. This is not in any way to underestimate the value of a good photograph as a record of what took place. The camera might even record things which the artist failed to notice – a mouse on the manger for example.

    But the artist sees his job as being to interpret what he sees, using those skills God has given him, to try and convey as best he can, through paint and canvas, the truth which lies behind the picture he is creating. In other words he is not just saying ‘this is a baby in a manger’ (or in his mother’s arms) but, to quote the Gospel for today ‘The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory, glory as of the only-begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth’.

    In other words, the artist is not only trying to represent a scene, he is actually in the process of RE-presenting it literally, to you and me who see his work hanging on the wall in the National Gallery. He is presenting us again with ‘the Truth sent from above’.

    Of course, our artist’s success or failure in re-presenting the truth to us will depend on you and me co-operating with him in what he is trying to do, not just on his own artistic skills. But. If we can’t, or won’t, ‘switch into’ what we might call Worship-mode’ – the disposition which inspired him to paint the picture in the first place, then there’s nothing he – or God, incidentally – can do about it. What we are seeing in that case will be nothing but ‘just another picture’ – a beautiful one perhaps, a valuable one almost certainly, but a picture whose real value we have completely missed. A value that makes the value of the picture itself in terms of money or even as a serious work of art, pale into insignificance when compared with the eternal Truth which the picture is describing.

    But let’s suppose that we do succeed, however minimally, in switching onto Worship-mode with our body, mind and spirit. What happens in that case is nothing short of a miracle. For in the process we shall find ourselves becoming transformed into His likeness – however imperceptibly.

    You’ve no doubt heard those stories in which pictures ‘come alive’ and human beings find themselves being ‘taken up into them’. Well the Incarnation of God at Bethlehem is just such a wonder-picture. Not only did it really happen but it is also the means which enable us to receive the power to become Sons of God, as we ‘behold His glory, the glory of the only-begotten Son of the Father, full of grace and truth’.

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