General John Gowans
BY GENERAL JOHN GOWANS –
FOR two thousand years people have been trying to imagine what the Christmas stable looked like. The world’s most skillful artists have done their best to present their own ideas about it. They have painted in the ox and the donkey. They have added the angels. It’s all very beautiful, but it’s only their own idea. Does it bear any resemblance to the real thing? Cameras had not been invented of course and it’s such a pity.
The sculptors and carvers in their turn have tried to reproduce the Bethlehem scene and for the main part they have done a good job. But the cleverest work is still lifeless and somehow unsatisfying.
Each Christmas we bring out our miniature crèche and put in place the tiny models of the people of the well-loved story. Here is Mary and Joseph, and the diminutive child in the diminutive manger. It’s all well intended, but hopelessly inadequate. Bethlehem is more than cardboard shepherds and paper mâché sheep.
The film-makers, in their turn, have tried their best to reproduce a scene that is beyond reproduction. They use the considerable tricks of their trade in straining after reality or at least virtual reality, but without success. Their budgets are enormous. The stars persuaded to play the significant roles of the story are carefully chosen. The donkey is a real donkey. The baby a real, if too perfect, baby. Yet somehow it doesn’t work. The film lacks something. It’s unreal. Why do we leave the cinema with a wistful and dissatisfied feeling?
Is it simply because Bethlehem is not just a place, it is a happening; not just a film set but an experience? It is hard to model a happening or to paint an experience, especially when that experience is of world-shattering importance.
Unique in fact.
At Bethlehem the infinite maker of the universe was joining himself to the human race. That’s why The Child was named ‘Emmanuel’, which means ‘God with us’. How can you paint a picture of the moment when God penetrated his creation in such a visible, such a tangible, such a vulnerable way? The holy happening is altogether too wonderful and every attempt to model it is bound to fail. Nothing can do it justice. God gives himself to his world at Bethlehem. His giving is a perpetual giving. His gift an everlasting gift! It beggars description.
The best we can do is to fall upon our knees and express our gratitude for the breathtaking event that Bethlehem is. We could do worse than borrow the words of St. Paul when he writes to the church at Corinth: ‘Thanks be to God for his gift beyond words.’