Meanings of Christmas: The seasonal silence of a blank greeting

Meanings of Christmas: The modern Church has abandoned the ambiguity of the image and taken refuge in the dull safety of words. It is time to revert to ancient instincts
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The Independent Culture
IT IS Christmas and therefore time for churches to attempt once more to say something meaningful about a season that seems to have lost its way. The difficulty seems to be in finding the right words, as many a church noticeboard will amply testify.

These wayside pulpits have, over the years, made numerous attempts to remind the passing public of "the reason for the season". In recent times they have come up with naff lines like "Give Jesus your Christmas Presence" or dubious attempts to get really modern with the Bad Hair Day line -"You're a virgin, you've just given birth, and now three kings have shown up . . ."

The trouble is that such slogans are more likely to have raised a chuckle among wet and wintry churchgoers than to have appealed to those beyond the frontiers of faith. This time last year the Christian Advertising Network tried to address that fact with a poster which read: "Christmas - copyright: It's not a genuine Christmas without Church". Sympathetic as I am to the organisation and its mission, I beg to differ. Nobody "owns" Christmas. The patent on a "genuine" Christmas is not the property of the Church, and never has been. Christmas belongs to the people; and if the Church owns many interpretations of its meaning, it cannot lay claim to all of them.

Launcelot Andrewes, in his Christmas Day sermon of 1620, describes the incarnation of Christ as "the Word that cannot speak". In using this phrase, he meant to draw his listeners to the powerlessness of Christ. He also points to the heart of the problem for religious advertising.

In contemporary life it is the image which is generally accepted to carry the greatest power. But religion, and particularly Christianity, communicates primarily through words rather than images: it is aural and oral rather than visual; cognitive rather than expressive. Apart from the cross or a crucifix, Christianity has no logo for its Logos; little that appears to communicate effectively in the modern-day public domain.

It could be argued that the most effective forms of Christian advertising are visual. Cathedrals are sermons in stone; paintings homilies on canvas. Yet, whilst there is some truth in the maxim that "the camera is a blunt instrument compared to a pen and the imagination", the relationship between words and images has changed in contemporary culture. Today, once more, much as in the medieval times of mass illiteracy, it is the image that takes us to the text.

More than that the Bible is no longer a principal source of morality, functioning as a rule book; rather it has been transformed into source of spirituality, which acts as a guide. Its stories have superseded its didactic as the wellspring of its power. Thus, the meaning of the Good Samaritan is more important than the Ten Commandments - even assuming that the latter could be remembered in any detail by anyone.

Into this milieu it is the image which speaks with most potency. Secular advertising understands this well. Benetton, the clothes manufacturer, has run ads for many years that use no text to convey the "United Colours of Benetton" global message. Interestingly many of them exploit situations where once religious imagery would have held sway. Recent ads have included a military cemetery of white crosses, with a green grass background. Another centred on a family grieving around an emaciated and dying man. Another on a birth. And Benetton has even exploited overtly religious imagery with a controversial shot of a monk and a nun, both dressed in black and white robes, exchanging a kiss.

The images are striking for their simplicity: they cover themes such as the commonality of humanity, peace, reconciliation, life and death. Without using words, the ads speak through the pictures to the themes implied in the words "united" and "colours". They convey a moral message, arresting the viewer and inviting reflection.

Why can't the churches do the same? One answer to this must lie in with the recurring tradition of iconoclasm which strove to suppress images in places of worship. They did so, in part, because images cannot be controlled in the way words can - people participate in stories and images at their own level: there is an in-built multiplicity of meaning; truth is plural. In their desire to delimit doctrine, reform and rule, Protestant and Catholic churches have frequently fled from the image and sought the sanctuary of words.

Yet Christ is not a text. Christmas is "the word made flesh" - a most striking visual image. And he comes as a child - the Speechless Word who is God. So, here is my suggestion for an advertisement for Christmas. A simple photograph of a mother and child sitting in some hovel. The child sucks greedily at the breast, and, in the background, there is the shape of a figure trying to make a fire to keep them all warm.

This image - of interdependency, warmth, vulnerability, poverty and need - does not require any text. Yet it tells the Christmas story in a simple frame. It might not drive people to church. But it might at least make us stop for a moment and think, as we pass by with the last- minute shopping, hurrying home to our own Christmas.

Martyn Percy is Director of the Lincoln Theological Institute, Sheffield University