From the Bishop: Signs, Pictures: What do they mean?

What do you see? An active house of worship or a well-kept historical artefact in an outdoor display of local history?

What do you see? An active house of worship or a well-kept historical artefact in an outdoor display of local history?

Unless we’re intentionally conscious that there is diversity in perception, we assume that everyone else sees what we see when we look at a picture. What pictures will reveal to those who have never “seen” the Saviour, the eternal love for the whole world that his birth represents? It is up to us to work hard at offering signs and pictures to those around us, that easily represent the wonder, awe and hope of Jesus’ birth.

The well-known phrase “A picture’s worth a thousand words”, allegedly from Oriental roots, first came into common use in American Press and advertising early in the 20th century.  In this issue of the Rupert’s Land News, there are several pictures – each capable of telling a story.

The challenge, though, is to discern what story they tell.  Unless we’re intentionally conscious of this diversity in perception, we assume that everyone else sees what we see when we look at a picture.  You are probably familiar with some of the pictures that intentionally depict two quite different images.  One I am familiar with is “Rubin’s vase” which shows an elegantly shaped vase against either a light or a black background.  Against the light background the image looks like the vase, but against the black background the image looks more like the side profile of two adult faces looking at each other.

What do you see when you look at the picture in this paper of the large, white-frame Church of St. John’s in Lac du Bonnet?  Does it look like an active house of worship or a well-kept historical artefact in an outdoor display of local history?  What about the picture of the two deacons being ordained?  If you weren’t familiar with what was happening, or with the ordination liturgy of the Church, would you know what was taking place?  Is it an ordination or did the woman in the front just receive a prize – perhaps the book she is holding in her hand?

Signs can be equally revealing or concealing.

Signs can be equally revealing or concealing.  When I am travelling in Britain, I am conscious of the different “sign language” that is used on roadways to direct traffic.  Some of them look familiar – like Stop signs and Give Way (Yield) signs.  But I was completely puzzled by a black and white sign made up of a single white circle with a thick diagonal black line drawn diametrically (lower left to upper right) through the circle.  There are no other distinguishing marks or words.  Intuitively, I might  assume that the thick black line represents the pavement of the road and that I am either going to encounter a very steep banking of the roadway to the left, or that the road is going to suddenly veer off to the right at a 45 degree angle.  However, neither of these interpretations are even close to the sign’s meaning.  This symbol means that the national speed limit applies to this stretch of roadway.  And even knowing this still requires secondary knowledge to grasp its full meaning.  One needs to know what the national speed limit is on British highways.

Advent and Christmas are times of the year when our lives are full of rich pictures and signs.  Many of the paper and electronic Christmas cards and letters we’ll receive will contain beautiful pictures of people we care about.  If we show them to a stranger they will mean very little – because they don’t know the persons in the picture.  The trees and shrubbery outside our homes will be decorated with beautiful lights, and our front doors with dark green and red wreaths.  But if one has not grown up with these “signs” – they will mean very little.

Luke’s Gospel story of Jesus’ birth records an encounter of some shepherds outside of Bethlehem with angelic beings that appeared to them at night who give them a sign.  These angels acclaim the birth of a Saviour in Bethlehem and instruct the shepherds, “This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” (Lk. 2:12)  Looking back into the Hebrew Scriptures, the early Christian Church searched for texts (signs) that seemed to foreshadow the coming of God’s Messiah.  One such text appears in Isaiah where the prophet is speaking to King Ahaz about the future of his kingdom: “Therefore, the Lord himself will give you a sign, ‘Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel’.” (meaning “God with us.”) (Isaiah 7:14)  This is a relatively obscure verse buried in the middle of a prophetic account of a dark and rebellious time in the history of God’s people over 700 years earlier.  It can be a contemporary, comprehensible sign only for those who have experienced and believed in the birth of Jesus the Messiah from Mary, a young woman who conceived this child prior to being married.

There isn’t space in this article to explore what all of the various non-religious signs reveal to us about our contemporary celebrations in the month of December.  But with the challenge that Nadia Bolz-Weber gave us about making our churches and worship relevant and intelligible to others, as well described in Allison Chubb’s article in this paper, we need to be asking ourselves, “What signs in our contemporary society will effectively announce the significance of the birth of Jesus over 2,000 years ago?  What pictures will reveal to those who have never “seen” the Saviour, the eternal love for the whole world that his birth represents?”  It is up to us, as disciples of the one born in Bethlehem, to work hard at offering signs and pictures, to those around us, that easily represent the wonder, awe and hope of Jesus’ birth.  It is up to us to share what God has done in such a way that Jesus’ birth becomes the life-giving and life-changing gift of God, not just in the 1st century world, but in the 21st century world in which we live.